Multicultural issues in reference service

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Harrod’s Librarians’ Glossary and Reference Book defines “multicultural librarianship” as “the provision of library and information services to all ethnic communities in a public library area. Provision may be needed in several languages, and user encouragement and education are key components” (Prytherch, 2000, 492).


In fact, multicultural issues in reference services reach into all kinds of libraries and include diverse communities such as people of color, immigrants, international students, and people with disabilities.


Areas of Concern

Those who have studied the issue of multicultural issues in reference have found that there are a variety of areas in which these issues must be addressed. Some of them include the reference interview, collection development, staff training, and bibliographic instruction.


Addressing the Issues

One of the barriers that multicultural communities may encounter within reference is that of language. Much confusion arises on both the part of the reference librarian and the questioner due to language misunderstandings; this is a particular problem during the reference interview. Research suggests that reference librarians should be trained to better understand the speech patterns of people for whom English is not a first language. The reference librarian should also attempt to speak clearly and avoid using slang (Sarkodie-Mensah, 1994).


Another important area for all multicultural communities is collection development. Libraries should seek to find materials that meet the needs of all of their users. This includes information on diverse communities within and outside of the United States that may not have been represented in older library collections.


Researchers point out that both librarians and other library staff members should be trained to be culturally sensitive. They should avoid making assumptions about other cultures or countries. These assumptions may be offensive and will likely decrease the questioner’s trust in the librarian.


One of the main issues behind difficulties that multicultural communities experience in the library may lie in their country of origin. Libraries in other parts of the world do not usually function as American libraries do. Questioners may be unfamiliar with the open access of American libraries and the ways in which information can be found. They may view the librarian with suspicion due to his or her position as an authority figure. Librarians should be trained to understand, recognize, and address such discomfort. Special bibliographic instruction sessions, as well as generalized library instruction, can serve to alleviate this discomfort.


People with disabilities also face barriers within reference service. Two of the primary barriers include the ability to use library technology and the ability to successfully navigate the library’s physical building. The reference desk should be accessible to people with disabilities, as should the whole library building. Librarians may need to help people with disabilities access books, and libraries should attempt to provide a way for people with disabilities to effectively communicate with reference librarians (Jacobson & Sutton, 2001).


Reference services should be accessible and helpful to all library users. Librarians have begun to realize that they may need to change their assumptions and practices when working with today’s multicultural communities. This change is necessary to provide effective reference service.




See Also:


Behavioral Guidelines

Information Seeking Behavior

Interpersonal Communication

Library Anxiety

Reference Collection (size)



Hill, K. H. (Ed.) (1994). Diversity and multiculturalism in libraries. Greenwich: Jai Press, Inc.


Jacobson, F. F. & Sutton, E. D. Reference services for specific populations. (2001) In R.E. Bopp & L.C. Smith (Eds.), Reference and information services: an introduction. (3rd ed., pp. 279-306). Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.


Paris, L.H. (1997). Responses to diversity: a comparison of the libraries at Stanford and UCLA. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 23(2), 91-99.


Prytherch, R. (Ed.). (2000). Harrod’s librarians’ glossary and reference book. (9th ed.). Brookfield, VT: Gower.


Sarkodie-Mensah, K. (1994). Dealing with international students in a multicultural era. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 18(4), 214-216.


Katherine T. Adams