Reference Librarian Job Description and Duties

In general, library jobs are split into two categories: public services and technical services. Public service librarians, of which reference librarians are the most common type, work on the “front lines” and interact most with visitors to the library. Their main objective is to assist patrons with their information needs, whatever they may be. They work in diverse settings, including public libraries, academic libraries, law libraries, government libraries, and corporate libraries.

In order to be qualified, you will need a Master’s in library information science, a graduate program that typically takes two years to complete.

Job Duties – In-Person Reference

Most times, a library has a public reference desk where patrons can get walk-up assistance from a reference librarian. Often, someone is available 9am-5pm and sometimes in the evenings depending on how large the staff is.

The types of questions that reference librarians answer vary greatly. In a public library setting it can be anything from helping find a good book (which is called reader’s advisory) to assisting with internet searching or filling out a job application. Academic reference librarians mainly help students, faculty, and staff at the institution with their research needs. This could include choosing the right discipline-specific databases, using effective search terms and filtering techniques, and using citation management software to keep track of sources. Of course, there is some overlap and librarians in more specialized library settings (government, corporate, etc.) will have their own unique types of questions to answer.

Virtual Reference

Today many libraries are branching out from solely providing a physical reference presence and are answering questions virtually as well. The most common format for this is through a chat service, where library users online can send in questions to be answered promptly by a librarian on staff. In addition, reference librarians regularly give research assistance via email, phone and even text message in some pilot programs.


In addition to the one-on-one instruction of in-person and virtual reference assistance, reference librarians also usually teach instructional sessions of many types. In an academic library setting, this will most often be to an undergraduate class and designed to help them do better research for their assignments. For public libraries, it might be computer training for the community, including searching the internet, using library databases, or using specialized software such as Photoshop.

Ongoing and Special Projects

A typical day for a reference librarian might include a couple of hours on the reference desk and a one-hour instructional session for the public. In addition, they always have a wide variety of other tasks to complete. Reference librarians select and order new items; supervise assistants and volunteers; perform weeding of collection; create web-based and print tutorials; collect statistics on library use and create reports; and build relationships with stakeholders and community members.

Pro Tip – Check Online Job Listings

One of the best ways to get a feel for the duties of reference librarians is to look at online job listings. A great resource to get you started is the ALA JobList, by the American Library Association, which lists a wide variety of librarian jobs. A common criticism is that they sometimes don’t have a large number of entry-level positions. For this reason, we recommend supplementing the ALA list with some free job search sites, such as On these sites you can enter any keywords, such as “reference librarian” and see a wide variety of positions in different areas.