The Many Sides of Reference: Special Collections versus Academic Libraries

by Courtney Butler, Head Editor, INALJ Idaho

The Many Sides of Reference: Special Collections versus Academic Libraries

CourtneyButlerI recently accepted two different part-time positions that both require that I man the reference desk for a significant portion of each shift I work. One position is in a special collections department within a public library and the other is in a small, private university library. Honestly, there are days when having these two jobs make me feel a bit like I have a split personality. Obviously the core principles of conducting reference interviews are pretty much the same in both places, but I am also finding there are a lot of differences between the two. Here are the ones I’ve noticed most:


Patron Flow

When a patron walks in the door of special collections, there is a 97% chance they are going to need my help. There are a few who just want to use the room to study or only want to use the materials in the reference room and know exactly what they’re looking for. The vast majority, however, will at the very least need my help pulling materials from closed stacks, if not help finding materials to pull in the first place.

At the university library it’s a little different. Some libraries are busier than others, but in the one I’m at I’ve found there’s closer to a 10% chance that any given patron walking into the building will need/want my help, and that’s probably being generous. Libraries are community gathering areas, and it has been a bit of an adjustment getting used to the fact that most of the people who walk in the door don’t need my help. They just want a place to study or do a project. Then again, a lot more people walk through the door at the library than at special collections, so I’m probably glad they don’t all need assistance or I’d have a line a mile long.

Information Literacy

Due to the nature of the materials and resources, it has been my experience that there is less instruction given on how to find information in archives and special collections. Don’t get me wrong, there definitely is some. More and more finding aids, indexes, and even collections go online all the time, and most patrons need instruction in accessing and using these resources. However, a significant number of patrons simply call, email, or walk in and say “I want information on X. What do you have?” and just expect you to produce some relevant materials. When you think about it, it kind of makes sense for a number of reasons. For one, every archives and special collections department is different. Each uses a different system and has vastly different holdings than other institutions. Even as a staff member it takes time to adjust to the collections at each new place. Also, a lot of researchers only come in a handful of times at most. They want information on one specific topic that your institution just happens to have materials on and then they may never come back again. Why spend the time learning each institution’s system?

On the flip side, the training at my library job has had a strong focus on using reference interactions as an opportunity to teach patrons the skills necessary to locate and use resources on their own. In contrast to special collections patrons, my university patrons (students) are (hopefully) going to make use of the library regularly for several years. It makes sense for them to learn the university’s individual system. Plus, Boolean logic and other skills such as broadening and narrowing topics, picking efficient keywords, and locating relevant and suitable resources are all skills that can be applied in just about any library anywhere.


Another possible reason for the university library placing a greater emphasis on teaching information literacy (and the patron independence that goes along with it) is that they don’t have to deal with the same types of security issues that the special collections department does. The vast majority, if not all, of a library’s collection is generally out in the open available to the public. It is a very self-service sort of setup, which is not the case in special collections. In special collections, the vast majority of materials are kept in closed stacks to protect against damage, loss and theft. Patrons cannot peruse materials. Even if they can find the location for an item, they can’t go get it. In most places, patrons can’t even bring in bags or coats and have to fill out paperwork just to use the room. It makes sense for special collections staff to be more involved in patron use of materials so that they can monitor the safety of the materials.

Before I go on to recommend special collections reference at the end of the article, I would be remiss in my obligations if I didn’t mention that it’s not always fun or easy to enforce the necessary security. If anything goes missing or gets damaged in a library, it just gets replaced. That’s not the case in special collections, and it’s really important to protect the materials. That being said, there are always patrons who feel the need to give significant sass about having to take off their coats and store their bags. But libraries see their fair share of belligerent patrons as well, so it’s not the end of the world.

Collection Scope

To put it simply, in special collections if someone asks me “Do you have information on X?” then I can say with some confidence whether or not we do. In the library, however, my answer is usually closer to “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh why don’t I show you how to find out?” Archives and special collections departments generally collect materials based around certain subjects. Whether it’s a famous person or specific institution or geographical area, there is usually some central theme to most of the holdings. There are always a few extraneous items, but most of it will have to do with one general area. That is not the case in academic libraries. Holdings, both physical and electronic, have to span every academic subject taught at the academic institution and then some. A student might come in and say “I’m in a Russian class. What do you have on Russia and World War II?” and all I can say is “Let me show you our card catalog/appropriate database/some cool searching techniques.”


Finally, I don’t mean to create or enforce any stereotypes, but the truth is that at the university library I deal primarily with young patrons while the special collections department gets a lot of traffic from the elderly. As with all of these, there are always exceptions. Generally speaking, however, in the library I get a lot of 20-something students (if not teenagers) coming to the reference desk while the special collections room tends to attract an older patron base. I kind of like having the mix of the two, personally.

So there you have it. While it can be a little jarring occasionally (and especially at first), I’m really enjoying seeing these different sides of reference. I think the experience has ended up teaching me how to do both a little better. I would encourage any librarians/archivists who have never considered crossing over to give it some thought. If nothing else, it’s one more experience/new skill set to add to the resume.

So what do you think guys? Did I miss anything crucial? Am I way off the mark? What have your experiences been like?