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Readers' Advisory and Reference Services: Reference

What is Reference?

A reference question is any informational transaction between a librarian and a patron or student. This might be recommending books, referring to library databases and holdings to help answer a question, or directing someone to the nearest restroom. One of the most common reference questions is "can you help me find more information about [topic]?". However, questions can range from asking about transportation and accessing city, state, and federal assistance to requesting InterLibrary Loan services for deeper research and looking for consumer reports.

You do not need to be an expert to be able to answer these questions. You only need to put forth a good faith effort. You will be surprised by what you know/can find! Every experience you have is the answer to a reference question, and each reference interaction between a librarian and patron is an opportunity for mutual learning within a shared space.


The Reference Interview

Unfortunately, patrons seldom ask for exactly what they need. They ask for information about space, but they really need information about the Oort Cloud. They might be able to find the information by browsing in the space section, but they will be spared some frustration if staff asks further questions to specify their request (Is this for a school project? Are you looking for information about the planets? Regions of space? Star formation?). Keep asking until you are fairly sure you know what the patron needs, and then look for the information.

Does this sound like a time consuming process? It can be, but don't let this deter you. Patrons who feel taken care of will be more confident in communicating with you in the future, and they will continue to use the library to find good information. Like with most skills, conducting reference interviews gets easier the more you do it! Do you want more information? Check out the links below!


Below is a list of websites to help answer some of the most common reference questions for ND libraries. NDSL librarians are also able to assist with more advanced reference requests. Contact us at 701-328-4622 or

The North Dakota Legislature meets every other year on the "odd" years to debate bills and determine the budget for the biennium. The websites below will help the curious find more information about session bills, ND Century Code (State Law), and how the state runs.

These links highlight several government-run community assistance programs:

Many reference questions will take the form of needing statistics at a local, state, regional, or national level. The sources below are some of the many that compile and assess public data.

Librarians need to be careful to not give legal advice or guidance to patrons. This can be harmful to the patron if they receive incorrect guidance, and it can be harmful to the librarian from a liability perspective. While librarians can't interpret law, they can direct patrons with legal questions to resources compiled by lawyers and  be able to direct people to local attorneys that can assist them.

Not all reference questions are statistics, law, and resource-related. Some of them are educational inquiries or unique ponderings. Below are a collection of helpful sites for these types of queries.

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Many of these resources and programs are funded under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.