Reference Policy

This document sets forth a policy for the provision of reference services to the people of Lancaster County. The guidelines herein serve as a useful tool and are intended to help library staff provide consistent and quality reference service. While this policy attempts to cover most aspects of reference work it does not claim to be an exhaustive treatment and given the rapidly changing nature of reference work should be viewed as a flexible document.

Mission and Philosophy

The Lancaster Public Library inspires, empowers, and strengthens our community by connecting people with information, ideas, and enriching experiences. Providing professional reference help is vital to achieve that mission. Simply defined, reference service is the assistance given to someone seeking information. The library reference staff strive to meet the informational, educational, and recreational needs of all individuals and organizations seeking their help. They do so in a professional and impartial manner, regardless of the age, gender, race, need or background of those served.

General Guidelines

Service to the public receives the highest priority over all other duties, particularly while staffing the Reference Desk and other service points. A reference librarian, holding a professional library degree, is to be available all hours the library is open. Librarians will seek to provide the best service possible, under the circumstances, by conducting a reference interview, consulting accurate and current sources, and completely fulfilling the patron’s request. Furthermore, the confidentiality of each user is always respected. Given the complexity of reference work no definitive time limits per question can be set rather the amount of time per query is best left to the judgment of the librarian.

The Lancaster Public Library regards its fellow member libraries as valued customers and as a District Center will make every effort to fulfill their requests in a timely and professional manner. Likewise, in a spirit of cooperation we will actively work to help other nonpublic libraries and professional organizations as their needs arise.

General Practices

Priority of service is given to patrons on site, and on a first come first served basis; at busy times it may be necessary to give some basic help to the patron and get back to them for more assistance. Instructing patrons in the use of reference resources is an ever important role for the reference librarian considering the rapid advancement of information technology. Therefore,
whenever feasible promoting information literacy and showing users how to search for information on their own is encouraged. The reference staff seek to be proactive by anticipating patron needs and accompanying them to the shelves to find materials if desired. Non-mediated reference or self-directional services such as web pages, finding aids, bibliographies, instructional brochures and signage will be made available to the public to help them.

Research computers which offer two hours of uninterrupted computer use time are available to the public who are job seekers, students, or individuals doing serious research. (See Computer Use Policy.)

Questions received via telephone, email or other electronic means, or surface mail will be answered in a timely manner. Phone questions generally should be kept to a maximum of fifteen minutes, if more time is needed a call back may be necessary or the caller can be encouraged to visit the library. Most questions asked of the reference staff are of a ready reference nature, but occasionally more complex and time intensive requests are made. These extended research questions should be handled on an individual basis, the librarian or a supervisor will determine if the question/search can be undertaken. A research fee will be assessed for such research if it exceeds one hour. This research fee will be accrued for every additional half hour of research beyond the first hour.

When a query is beyond the scope or expertise of the reference department referrals to other libraries, organizations, or authoritative sources maybe necessary and it is incumbent upon the librarian to give the patron another option to find their information. Interlibrary Loan (ILL) is a District service provided to all residents and libraries in the county (see ILL policy). The reference department will help individuals with their requests as needed.

The Lancaster Public Library operates the Reference & Business Center (RBC). Our Reference Librarians can help patrons navigate our licensed databases, specialized websites, and authoritative reference books and periodicals to and business questions and conduct related research.

Reader’s advisory services, literacy programs, and other cultural and educational programs, which help to promote reading and information literacy are an increasingly significant part of reference work with more emphasis being placed on these roles in the future.

Specific Practices

What follows is a list of common categories of reference questions and how they should be handled. These questions are often problematic for reference librarians and deserve special mention.

Technology Help

Librarians will, to the best of their ability and while taking staff time into account, help patrons use our technology and digital resources. However, staff are unable to type or enter information for patrons or offer extended one on one technology assistance. Those patrons who need more in-depth instruction are encouraged to attend the appropriate training class offered by the library or to consult instructional materials owned by the library. Staff are unable to provide assistance with patrons’ personal devices beyond assisting access to our resources. Staff will not provide assistance with any activities that they know to be or may be illegal (e.g., downloading music, burning DVDs, etc.).

Medical, Legal, Tax, Consumer and Personal Finance Librarians and staff may only guide patrons to the available sources on these topics. Staff will not evaluate or interpret the information provided or offer opinions on the best course of action, nor will they offer investment advice, answer tax questions or act as a surrogate for a professional in the above mentioned fields.

Staff should feel free to mention to the patron that they do not have the qualifications or specialized knowledge to give authoritative or absolute answers and the patron should consult a professional.


Homework assignments are obviously made for the purpose of teaching the students the process of finding and evaluating information, therefore the reference staff sees instruction in the use of library tools, and methods as its primary role, rather than just giving an answer. Complicated or lengthy assignments may necessitate that the student  either come to the library for assistance or use the online homework help sites through the library’s website.

Genealogy/Microfilm Research

The library provides a limited amount of searching for persons seeking family and local history information. Obituary and article searches are done as time permits and a fee of $5.00 per name/article searched is required for out-of-county residents. The information provided by the requestor must include at least a complete name, month, and year of death or month and year of article. Referrals to the Lancaster County Historical Society, Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society, Pennsylvania State Archives, or other relevant organizations for help are encouraged.

Statistical/Mathematical Calculations

Statistical facts such as the consumer price index and population statistics will be provided, but figures requiring compilations or calculations will not be attempted. Mathematical formulas or measurements equivalents will be provided, but calculations based on these formulae will not be performed.


The reference staff does not translate full-text documents, but will provide translations for specific words or phrases as found in foreign language dictionaries.

Financial Appraisals of Art and Collectibles

The reference staff may direct patrons to published and online price guides or refer them to the appropriate professional service.

Data Collection and Evaluation

Statistics that gather information on the number of reference questions and overall reference transactions are kept on an ongoing basis. The statistics are compiled monthly and at the end of the year for state reports. Periodic evaluations of the reference staff and collections (print and electronic) will be done to determine the effectiveness and usefulness of the services offered.


Approved: March 2017