Researcher’s Corner: Entry-Level Reference Skills in Academic Libraries: Ad-ing Them Up

In this installment, the Researchers occupying the corner are Robert Detmering and Claudene Sproles, both from the University of Louisville.  We’ve had some good discussion of skills for entry level librarians, encompassing both  academic in general and special collections.  In this very recent research, Detmering and Sproles focus on Reference librarians, revealing that skills and competencies required of reference librarians are expanding, and making some recommendations in areas of focus for new grads.  A more formal, in-depth account of their findings is at the following citation.

Detmering, R. & Sproles, C. (2012) Forget the desk job: Current roles and responsibilities in entry-level reference job advertisements.  College & Research Libraries 73(6), p. 534-555.

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What are potential employers actually looking for? This incredibly common but frustratingly enigmatic question is at the heart of a study we recently conducted, the results of which appear in the November 2012 issue of College & Research Libraries. Given the complexity of the job market, with so many different types of libraries and librarian positions, our study only looked at jobs in one specific area: entry-level academic reference librarianship. We focused on this type of job not only because we work as reference librarians in an academic setting; we also have a strong interest in helping entry-level candidates succeed. While these candidates often bring the kind of energetic and innovative approaches that hiring institutions desire, they also may struggle with developing the relevant skills and pre-professional experience needed to land a first job. We hope that our study, which involved collecting and analyzing nearly 200 entry-level reference job advertisements over a one-year period, will promote greater awareness of the skills and experience that employers say they want, so that entry-level candidates interested in academic reference can engage in a more informed job search.


Our study focused on advertisements posted on the American Library Association’s JobLIST website (, as well as, with some additional ads obtained from popular listservs. We looked exclusively at ads posted in 2010 for entry-level jobs located in the United States, and we did not include part-time, temporary, or community college positions. About 50% of the total entry-level ads we collected (192 individual ads) sought reference librarians. In the published study, we discuss the major responsibilities associated with these positions, as defined in the ads, and how these responsibilities reflect various trends in reference librarianship.


That said, one of our central objectives was simply to determine the kinds of skills that entry-level reference candidates would likely need to succeed in a challenging job market. What we ultimately discovered may be disheartening or encouraging, depending on one’s point of view. In addition to traditional reference service skills, entry-level reference jobs often require a vast range of skills across many specialty areas: teaching, technology, marketing, collection development, project management, academic publishing, and so on. We found that approximately 70% of the ads would require skills in six or more distinct areas. New job seekers may feel intimidated by the sheer number of diverse responsibilities listed by hiring institutions, especially because it can be difficult to learn so many different skills in a non-professional position such as an internship. On the other hand, the clear interest among hiring institutions in a variety of skill areas may present more opportunities for prospective job candidates, particularly if they are able to think creatively about what they can bring to a job.

To be more specific, we found that entry-level candidates can expect a wide variety of responsibilities in their first professional positions.

  • The “traditional” duties of reference, information literacy, collection development, and liaison work are still in high demand.
  • In addition, “emerging” duties in technology, promotion and marketing, planning and implementation, assessment, and scholarly communication now appear in job descriptions, indicating that the nature of reference work is branching out into these areas.

Based on recent job ads, then, the expectations for what entry-level candidates should know or be able to do seem to be quite high.

Implications for Job Hunting Grads

So, what does this mean for the new LIS graduate? Most significantly, it is essential to gain some kind of practical teaching and reference experience before obtaining the degree. For example, according to our findings, teaching is as intrinsic a skill as providing references services. The ability to teach an information literacy session as well as work a shift at the reference desk will be expected from day one on the job. LIS students should explore opportunities to gain experience, especially teaching experience, even if it is on a volunteer or temporary basis.

The other “traditional” duties of liaison work and collection development are intertwined. Both duties require interaction with faculty and knowledge of their research projects and classes taught. Our research also found that 43% of ads listed promotion/marketing/outreach as a duty. How do you plan to reach out to faculty? How about other campus groups? What about non-campus groups in the community at large? What ideas do you have to promote the library’s services? It’s important to have strong answers to such questions.

Our study also uncovered other “emerging” duties not traditionally associated with reference. How does one gain experience with assessment, scholarly communication, or shared governance?  The answer is that you probably cannot, but graduates should be able to talk intelligently about these topics during their interviews. So, in addition to gaining experience in the field, graduates need to keep abreast of current trends. Be prepared to talk about the role of assessment in evaluating library services; be able to articulate the role of scholarly communication in academia. You don’t need to be an expert in everything, but you need to show that you’re familiar with the current professional landscape and that you’re ready to learn new things.


Successful job candidates do their homework about the institution and the position, and they are able to talk knowledgably about trends in librarianship and at the hiring institution. They also specifically address how they will fulfill the duties and the requirements of the job ad. It is a competitive field, but candidates who are prepared will have the advantage in the hiring process and be better prepared for the first day on the job. Ultimately, there are many ways to get your foot in the door, particularly if you can balance traditional reference skills with some kind of specialized knowledge or experience that will set you apart from other candidates. Good luck!

Robert Detmering is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Information Literacy Services at Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville. His research interests include information literacy pedagogy, popular culture in libraries, and professional issues in academic librarianship. He has authored or co-authored publications in a number of academic journals, including College & Research Librariesportal: Libraries and the Academy, and Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship.

Claudene Sproles is Associate Professor and Government Documents Librarian at Ekstrom Library, University of Louisville. She has published articles in College & Research LibrariesJournal of Education for Library and Information Science, Choice, and other journals. Her research focuses on government documents, as well as entry-level librarianship and associated professional issues.

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