Reference Interview 101


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Presented at Kaukauna Public Library staff training day on June 27, 2011

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  • There are many definitions of the reference interview, but they all boil down to the same thing. How do you, the reference provider, work together with a patron to figure out what it is they need to know and how to help them find it? As we can see from the video, it’s rarely as simple as it seems. We’re going to review and practice some key components of a successful reference transaction.
  • The first question a person asks probably does not accurately reflect their information need. The question may be incomplete, vague, tentative, unclear… or maybe it seems straightforward at first, but it’s not. Why is this?Maybe the patron is just warming up, getting your attention. Maybe it’s a sensitive/private topic. Maybe the patron thinks he should know the answer.The patron might be at the very beginning of their research process, not yet sure what their question is.Maybe they find the library, or the librarian, SCARY.Some think library is like supermarket, supposed to navigate themselves.They don’t want to bother you.They don’t know how the library works or have a sense of what is available.They ask about broad subjects because they “know” that libraries are organized that way.Other reasons you can think of?So, what can we do about “bad” questions?
  • RUSA is the Reference & User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association. RUSA has published a set of guidelines for reference providers. The first half of today’s presentation is based on these guidelines.
  • In all reference interactions, success requires more than just providing information. Success depends on how the patron experiences the interaction. Your courtesy, interest, and helpfulness might make a bigger impression on the patron than the answer you provide.
  • Greet promptly; let them know questions are welcome. How can I help you?Make eye contact and smile; friendly body languageStop other activities; focus on the patronAcknowledge others waiting for service; triage if necessaryGet out from behind the desk when feasible; get them started on their searchLook for patrons who need help; don’t wait for patrons to come to you “Are you finding what you need?” “Can I help you with anything?” “How is your search going?”Avoid the appearance of “policing” the area
  • Face the patron when speaking and listening; focus on themMaintain or re-establish eye-contact throughout transactionSignal understanding through verbal or non-verbal confirmation; nodding; brief comments or questions
  • Be receptive, cordial, encouraging; be aware of your tone of voiceAllow patron to finish their question before respondingRephrase and repeat the question or request; ask for confirmation to be sure you understandBe objective; don’t judge.
  • What did this librarian do wrong? Approachability? Interest? Listening? All of the above!She also skipped a very important step…. Inquiring.
  • Remember the “Librarian stereotype” guy from the first video? He went straight from question to search, without listening or inquiring. Beware of starting to type your search terms immediately following the initial query. When you are pretty sure you understand what the patron wants or needs:Find out what the patron has already tried; encourage them to contribute ideasExplain your search strategy and sources to the patron; use InfoSoup so they can duplicate it laterIf too much or too little information is found, continue negotiating the query with patronWhen appropriate, refer the patron to a more appropriate guide, database, library, librarian, or other resourceShare the process and resources with the patron so that they can learn to answer similar questions on their own.
  • Ask the patron if his question has been fully answered. Encourage them to return if they need more help.Go check on them if you can get away from the deskTell patrons about other services; email, AskAway, database access from homeMake arrangements to do further research later and share info via telephone or email.Refer patrons to other sources or institutions if you can’t answer their question; call ahead; provide directions and instructions; share the process so far with the next librarianDon’t end the reference interview before the patron is satisfied
  • I want to know about whales.
  • Can you think of an open-ended question that might help here?
  • What is the thinking behind her original question? Libraries have books, books contain photos, botany books might contain photos of orchids, botany is a science
  • It’s an assignment for AP American history. Take a specific historical eventin American history and examine its political, social, economic, cultural impact on the period during which it occurred. I need a minimum of THREE primary source TEXT documents, and I need images, because the report is in PowerPoint format.
  • Reference Interview 101

    1. 1. Reference Interview 101<br />Kaukauna Public Library Staff Training Day<br />June 27, 2011<br />
    2. 2. What is a reference interview?<br /><br />
    3. 3. Why do patrons ask “BAD” questions?<br />
    4. 4. RUSA guidelines for behavioral performance of reference and information service providers<br /><br />
    5. 5. Who provides reference services?<br />“The term librarian in this document applies to all who provide reference and informational services directly to any library users.”<br />THAT MEANS YOU!<br />
    6. 6. Approachability<br />“The librarian’s role in the communications process is to make the patrons feel comfortable in a situation that may be perceived as intimidating, risky, confusing, and overwhelming.”<br />
    7. 7. Interest<br />“Librarians who demonstrate a high level of interest in the inquiries of their patrons will generate a higher level of satisfaction among users.”<br />
    8. 8. Listening<br />“The reference interview is the heart of the reference transaction and is crucial to the success of the process.”<br />
    9. 9. What went wrong?<br /><br />
    10. 10. Inquiring<br />Use open-ended questions to elicit more information.<br />Use clarifying questions to refine or narrow the question.<br />
    11. 11. Open-ended questions<br />Please tell me more about your topic.<br />What additional information can you give me?<br />How much information do you need?<br />We have a lot of books and other information on X. What kind of information are you looking for?<br />Please explain that in more detail. Please be more specific.<br />Please tell me more about the sources that you may use for your assignment.<br />How did this question arise?<br />
    12. 12. Clarifying questions<br />What have you already found?<br />What types of information do you need (books, articles, etc.)?<br />Do you need current or historical information?<br />What do you mean by X?<br />Please give me an example.<br />I don’t know much about X. Can you help me understand?<br />
    13. 13. Searching<br />
    14. 14. Follow-up<br />“If you don’t find what you’re looking for, please come back and we’ll try something else.”<br />
    15. 15. Time to Practice!<br />
    16. 16. Can you help me?<br />
    17. 17. Does she mean…<br />whales?<br />or Wales?<br />
    18. 18. Where are your science books?<br />
    19. 19. What she really wanted…<br />Photo of a Nun’s orchid (Phaiustankervilliae)<br />
    20. 20. Do you have any books about Woodstock?<br />
    21. 21. Remember WORF<br />W = welcoming, open attitude & body language<br />O = open-ended questions<br />R = restating/rephrasing the question<br />F = ask follow-up questions<br />
    22. 22. I will just remember that you helped!<br />
    23. 23. Resources<br />Ohio Reference Excellence on the Web, Module 2, Reference Interview<br />Ohio Reference Excellence on the Web, Module 2, Readers’ Advisory Interview<br />The Reference Interview: A Common-Sense Review<br />InfoPeople Webinar – The Reference Interview: Time for a Tune-up<br />Internet Public Library, Frequently Asked Reference Questions<br />
    24. 24. Image Credits<br />
    25. 25. This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. <br />To view a copy of this license, visit<br />or send a letter to Creative Commons, <br />171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.<br />