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With help from a reference librarian, students from vocational schools find books they like in the public library, June 1938. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Beginning in the early 1900s, public libraries began transitioning from closed to open stacks. Under the pioneering example of Denver Public Library director John Cotton Dana in the 1890s, libraries shifted their physical design from housing materials in spaces accessible to only librarians, to giving patrons direct access to collections. Public libraries nationwide adopted this new approach to open stacks more quickly than their academic library contemporaries. As a result of this transition, the role of the reference librarian changed from gatekeeper of materials to research supporter and facilitator. Reference librarians spent less time traveling to and from the stacks.

A reference librarian's work with patrons includes helping answer research questions and finding materials that match their interests. Moreover, reference librarians can help patrons connect with a variety of resources in the collection beyond just books and periodicals, like scholarly journals and special collections material. They are also valuable to the research process as it progresses, helping patrons narrow or specify their topics and creating proper citations.

Reference librarians are also responsible for creating pathfinders, or research guides, to help get a search started on commonly sought-for topics. Rather than a deeper search that librarians can help patrons with one-on-one, these guides give an overview of helpful sources that can be the jumping-off point for a user’s independent research.

Libraries often have reference desks that patrons can contact in person, over the phone, or, today, online or via text message. As such, reference librarians are often the most direct point of access for patrons looking to make the best use of the public library.