Reference Policy - SUNY Cortland

Reference Policy


The purpose of the Reference Service Policy Statement is to provide general guidelines for the provision of reference services of the highest possible quality and to provide a basis for its implementation.


Library Mission Statement

The library collects, organizes, disseminates, and facilitates access to information related to the intellectual and academic needs of the College community. The Library's services and educational programs promote information literacy and develop research skills. The Library's primary goal is to meet the curricular needs of undergraduate and graduate students. The Library uses both traditional means and new technologies to implement its programs and services, and to access and deliver information from all available sources.

Goals of Reference Service

Reference librarians will provide direct and personal reference service in support of the academic programs offered by the College, and will assure that users are directed to materials and resources that meet their information needs. Reference service includes helping individuals to do the following: clarify their information needs; identify sources where appropriate information can be found; and acquire information needed. Information may be located in the library or elsewhere; the ability to provide good reference service therefore requires knowledge not only of Memorial Library's resources and how to access them, but also of outside sources and how to access them.

Reference Staff

The Reference Staff includes Reference Librarians and Library Reference Assistants. Reference librarians are generally full-time members of the Library Faculty, but when funding allows, additional adjunct reference librarians are sometimes hired on a temporary and/or part-time basis. Reference librarians are trained professionals who hold master's degrees in library science or equivalent from an ALA-accredited graduate school. This document generally outlines the responsibilities of Reference Librarians.

Library Reference Assistants are part-time student assistants who provide a support role through provision of assistance to librarians on duty at the reference desk.

The Reference Collection

General Statement

The library will maintain an up-to-date, relevant, and accessible collection of reference materials, including both traditional print materials and electronic resources. The in-house Reference Collection includes resources such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, handbooks, statistical sources, periodical abstracts and indexes, and other primary sources and finding tools commonly regarded as "reference tools". These reference tools are increasingly available in electronic formats, which will be made available whenever ease of use, cost, and accessibility permit.

The in-house Reference Collection is supplemented by external resources such as electronic databases available from commercial vendors and library agencies, online catalogs of other libraries, resources available through interlibrary loan, and other sources available through the Internet and other networks. Judgments about whether to purchase materials for in-house use or to rely on remote access are based on such factors as available resources, purchase cost, anticipated use, currency, and ease of use.  Refer to the Collection Development Policy for further explanation.  Reference bibliographers are responsible for evaluating reference materials and resources, and for recommending which should be acquired and which should be made accessible through external sources. The Librarian(s) in charge of Reference works with the bibliographers to evaluate and select materials and resources.

Ready Reference

The Ready Reference Collection, located at the reference desk, consists of materials that need to be consulted on a frequent and regular basis. The Librarian(s) in charge of Reference, in consultation with the reference bibliographers, selects materials for placement in the Ready Reference Collection.

Reference Reserve

Reference materials in high demand for a specific class or classes may be temporarily transferred to special reserve at the reference desk, or may be placed on regular reserve, when such a transfer will not negatively affect general use of the reference collection. Approval of the Librarian(s) in charge of Reference and the appropriate subject bibliographer(s) is necessary for the transfer.

Circulation of Reference Materials

Reference materials are generally non-circulating. Exceptions may be made depending on the nature of the materials, the projected need, and the prospective period of circulation. The Librarian(s) in charge of Reference or the reference librarian on duty may give permission for reference materials to circulate.

Reference Services

General Statement

Reference librarians will provide general information concerning the library's resources, collections, and services, as well as specific aid in clarifying queries and locating information.  They assist users in finding information and in learning how to locate information on their own.  Reference librarians do not actually conduct personal research for users.

Types of Queries

  1. General Reference Queries -- Informational queries, or requests for general or specific information which, in order to be answered, require one or more of the following: personal knowledge (other than directional information); knowledge of library techniques, organization, and procedures; knowledge of library holdings; knowledge of bibliographic tools; knowledge of networked information.
    • Extended reference queries are those that require in-depth response (for example, queries which require more than fifteen minutes for response). For such queries, it may be appropriate to schedule appointments or refer users to subject bibliographers.
    • Instructional queries are those for which the appropriate response includes advice and instruction on how to approach research, how to find information in a specific subject area or about a specific topic, or how to use specific library resources.
  2. Directional Queries -- Requests for information about the location of library materials, resources, or services.

Query Method

  1. In-Person Queries -- Queries from users in the reference area. The librarian on duty at the reference desk will give priority to such queries.
  2. Telephone Queries -- Telephone calls requesting general or directional reference service.
  3. >
  4. E-Mail and Instant Messenger Queries -- Electronic requests for reference or directional assistance. The  Librarian(s) in charge of Reference is responsible for responding to e-mail queries.
  5. Mail Queries -- Requests received in the campus or U.S. mail. Librarian(s) in charge of Reference is responsible for responding to mail queries.


The reference librarian may find it necessary or advisable to refer users to other collections, services, or sources of information within or external to the library.

  1. Referrals to Other Library Faculty
    A referral to another member of the library faculty may be necessary when the librarian on duty does not possess the in-depth expertise or knowledge needed to answer a detailed reference query.   When making a referral to another librarian, the librarian on duty should notify the colleague of the referral and outline the sources already checked.
  2. Referrals to Other Libraries, Institutions, Departments, Faculty, or Other Services
    Referrals to outside sources may be made based on the librarian's knowledge of resources, services, or information available from other libraries, institutions, or departments. It is appropriate to confirm in advance the availability of the needed information, service, or material from the institution or individual recommended. Availability of needed materials may be confirmed in various ways, such as searching other online library catalogs. It may also be appropriate for the librarian or user to phone ahead to verify availability of services and materials.
  3. Referrals to Interlibrary Loan
    Referrals to Interlibrary Loan (ILL) should only be made after determining that the requested item(s) are not owned by the library and are not available online. The reference librarian should make sure that the user has a complete bibliographic citation, and should assist the user, if necessary, in properly filling out the Interlibrary Loan Request Form. When a user is in urgent need of an item not owned by the library, fax service, Ariel or alternate document delivery service may be recommended by the Librarian on the ILL form.

Level and Quality of Reference Service

Full Reference Service

Reference librarians will aim to provide "full" reference service to library users. Full service includes the following:

  1. assessing the nature of the information query;
  2. providing an answer to the query


    providing the means or method to obtain the information;
  3. assisting users in evaluating the quality of information sources or distinguishing between various sources;
  4. following up to assure that needed information has been obtained or that the means or method has been satisfactorily applied;
  5. evaluating the success of the reference encounter. (


    : Most encounters will be appraised in a general way.)

The Reference Librarian will not conclude the reference encounter without providing either some information relevant to the query OR the guidance necessary for the user's continued pursuit of information (including, if appropriate, instruction in the use of library resources).

Since librarians on reference duty must balance the needs of all users seeking assistance, they must exercise judgment in fulfilling the aim of full reference services in specific circumstances, taking into account such factors as the user's needs, the number of other users simultaneously seeking assistance, the availability of reference assistants, time constraints, and the librarian's own level of expertise. In all cases, a reasonable effort will be made to respond in a way satisfactory to the user. When time constraints intervene, the librarian may arrange to meet with the user outside the reference desk schedule or agree to find the information at a more convenient time and report back to the user. When a query requires in-depth assistance beyond the librarian's level of expertise, the user may be referred to another librarian more knowledgeable in the specific subject area.

Reference librarians are not obligated to interpret the intellectual content of the information found in library resources.

Ethics of Reference Service

All reference queries of any kind are considered confidential, and the privacy rights of the user will be respected. Except in a professional context, there will be no discussion of user's needs with others. All library users will be treated equally in this regard.

Service Priorities

General Statement

While on duty at the reference desk, librarians will give priority to activities involving direct service to individual users, as outlined below. The librarian on reference duty at night or on weekends may also be in charge of overall building operations; thus, building emergencies or other urgent situations may of necessity occasionally take priority over reference service. The librarian on duty is also responsible for monitoring and directing the activities of any reference assistants on duty.

Users in the Reference Area

  1. Service to library users in the reference area takes priority over any other activity. Reference librarians, assigned to specifically scheduled hours, are expected to arrive and be ready to offer service at their scheduled times. Scheduled reference hours take priority over other work obligations.
  2. Librarians on duty must balance the needs of all users in the area and must use judgment in determining how best to serve the users simultaneously needing assistance. Generally, extended reference queries are not answered when other users are waiting.

Telephone Queries

Responding to telephone calls receives a lower priority than responding to users in the reference area. Generally, the reference librarian will provide only brief responses on the telephone, and usually will give no more than three serial or catalog verifications for an individual telephone user. When the reference area is busy, the librarian answering a telephone query should do one or more of the following as appropriate to the circumstances:

  1. Put the caller temporarily on hold;
  2. Take the caller's name and telephone number and call him/her back;
  3. Encourage the caller to come to the library for reference assistance.

E-mail Reference

E-mail is an encouraged means of answering faculty and student information needs.   Many statistical and bibliographic questions, search strategies for on-line searching, etc can be answered quickly and efficiently by computer. Personal on-site interaction between librarian and users – allowing for dialogue between user and materials – remains, however, the preferred mode for answering most reference questions.


Using professional judgment, it may be appropriate to:

  • Request the user to come to the library to discuss or jointly search various databases.
  • Refer the user to another library or teaching faculty member.
  • Arrange with the user to work on an answer and report back on a mutually agreed upon date.

The Librarian(s) in charge of Reference will regularly check mail.  Questions will be answered by the Librarian(s) in charge of Reference or the appropriate subject bibliographer.


SUNY Cortland faculty and students, other SUNY units, Cortland city residents, and residents of Cortland, Tompkins, Onondaga, Madison, Chenango, Broome, Tioga, and Cayuga Counties who are at least 16 years old are invited to use this service.

Address and Assessment is the appropriate address for E-mail questions.  The Librarian(s) in charge of Reference will establish a system to record the following information regarding this address:

  • Date and time received
  • Bibliographer contacted to respond to question
  • Date questions are distributed
  • Date and time reply sent to requestor


The Librarian(s) in charge of Reference will periodically evaluate the service, including user satisfaction.  E-mail users will be requested to indicate satisfaction with content, helpfulness, response time, etc.

Service to Non-SUNY Cortland Users

Although  SUNY Cortland faculty, students, and staff are the library's primary user group, Cortland community and other non-SUNY Cortland users may use the library's collections and services, as stated in general library policy. In the case of unusually time-consuming inquiries, or at times when the reference area is busy, the librarian may ask the user's affiliation, and may give priority to SUNY Cortland users. Generally, however, no distinction should be made, especially when the library has unique resources in staff and material which meet the information needs of the user. The library's agreement with the Federal Library Depository Program requires that reference service be provided to all library users seeking information about or assistance in using government documents.

General Responsibilities of Reference Librarians

Communication and Professional Development

  1. The Librarian(s) in charge of Reference, in cooperation with reference librarians, is responsible for communicating in timely fashion appropriate information directly related to the reference function. Such communication includes the sharing of information and/or special short-term instructions that may be needed by the librarian on duty.
  2. Reference librarians are responsible for maintaining ongoing awareness of new developments within the library, which, in any way, affect reference services. All reference librarians are expected to regularly attend library faculty meetings, etc., and to read all relevant library and college communications.
  3. Reference librarians are expected to maintain ongoing awareness of trends and developments related to reference librarianship. The reading of relevant professional literature and the continuous review of new reference titles are essential to the provision of quality service. Reference librarians should be able to use computers for information retrieval. They should strive to attain a high level of competency in using the library's online catalog and databases, and a basic level of competency in utilizing other services to which the library subscribes or which the library utilizes, including government documents, online catalogs of other libraries, document delivery services, electronic mail, and other Internet resources.

Approachability and Attitude

  1. Assistance to the individual library user is the chief responsibility of the librarian on duty at the reference desk. In order to encourage users to seek assistance, reference librarians must be approachable. Librarians may do other work at the reference desk (e.g., electronic mail, collection development activities, cataloging, etc.). Reference librarians, however, should not become so engrossed in other work that they fail to respond to users needing assistance.
  2. Problem users will be dealt with in a polite but firm manner. If a user becomes abusive, appropriate action should be taken by calling University Police at 2111.
  3. Reference staff members will exercise judgment when questions are asked at the reference desk at closing time. The user may be asked to return the next day if it appears that the question will require lengthy research.
  4. The primary purpose of reference telephone lines is for reference service to off-site users. All other calls should be kept to a minimum.

Evaluation of Reference Service

All librarians will be involved periodically in the collection of statistics and records of reference inquiries. Statistics and record keeping are essential in providing a factual base for review of reference service, staffing levels, and/or government-required statistical counts.

Periodic evaluation of reference services will be conducted under direction of the Librarian(s) in charge of Reference. Evaluations will measure and examine the quality of reference service, success of users in finding needed information, and/or user satisfaction. Data gathered through the evaluation process may also be used to analyze staffing levels and determine where improvements can be made.

Approved and accepted by Library Faculty, Memorial Library
February 19, 2002