Model 3: Barriers

Recommended reference behaviors may not be enough

Patron Preconceptions

Patrons may have preconceived ideas of what services libraries may offer and what librarians are like. These preconceptions may keep some patrons from coming to the library when they have an information need.

Communication Barriers in Reference Services

Once the patron is in the library, it may still be difficult for them to tell you their need. The patron could have trouble speaking English, may be afraid to ask a “dumb” question, and may not be familiar with how libraries work, or how to express an information need.

Try to be alert to barriers in communication, such as:

  • The patron’s clear discomfort or unfamiliarity with libraries
  • Language, cultural, or educational differences
  • Physical, emotional, or socio-economic issues that patrons may have

Physical Barriers in Reference Services

Barriers can be more than just communication or behavioral; they can be physical too!

A barrier that needs to be breached is the physical space of the building. Don’t just point. Go with the patron, if possible. It is much easier to show a patron where something is and also puts them more at ease in knowing that they will be ushered to the exact place they need to go.

If you cannot leave the area you are in, gesture in a friendly way, make sure you give clear directions and details as necessary, say you will be over to check on the patron’s progress as soon as possible, and then do so.

Barriers in Virtual Reference

Section 508 of the Americans with Disabilities Act gives requirements for equal access to the internet for all. Recommendations include:

  • Provide text equivalents (written descriptions) for all images and multimedia such as animations, audio, and video.
  • Ensure that all information conveyed by color is also available without it
  • Provide summaries of graphs and charts
  • Organize content logically and clearly, such as with headings, list elements, meaningful links, and navigation bars

You can “go with the patron” virtually too! Use appropriate technology (such as co-browsing, scanning, faxing, etc.) to help guide patrons through library resources, when possible.

Major Point: Communication and physical barriers, misconceptions about libraries, and confusing library or website designs can create obstacles to successful reference service.


  1. Bring a friend into your library to look around with a new perspective. Ask for reactions on the general atmosphere, signs, lights, arrangement, and ease of finding things.
  2. Think of a store or business you’ve recently visited that was new to you. How easy was it for you to find things and understand the arrangement of the facility? Your library’s arrangement can be difficult to understand for anyone unfamiliar with it.