John Lester Nolan, 71, retired director of the Library of Congress reference department and former professor who also had worked for the old U.S. Information Agency, died Friday at his home in Kensington. He had cancer.

Mr. Nolan was reference department director for 15 years before retiring in 1969. He then spent a year as a professor at the graduate school of library studies at the University of Hawaii before returning to Washington as a library science consultant.

At the time of his death he was an honorary consultant in reference and bibliography at the Library of Congress.

He was a member of the American Library Association, the Harvard Club of Washington, and the Cosmos Club.

Mr. Nolan had been director of library services for the USIA in the United Kingdom from 1952 until becoming reference department director for the Library of Congress in 1954.

He was chief of the catalog preperation and maintenance division for three years before becoming chief of the exchange and gift division of the library in 1943. From 1944 to 1951, he was editor of the library's "Quarterly Jounal of "Current Acquisitiions." He joined USIA a year later.

Mr. Nolan's survivors include his wife, the former Dallas Fraser of Kensington; a son, David Fraser Nolan of Denver; a daughter, Barbara Dallas Nolan of Front Royal, Va.; a brother, Edmund Jr., of Rotonde West, Fla., and two grandchildren.