Reference Interview: Asking all the right questions.

A reference interview is what reference librarians do when a person comes to them asking for help finding something. This node is written primarily for reference librarians but has information that can be of use to anyone who ever finds themselves in a situation that requires them to help find information for themselves or others. Parents may find this helpful in helping their children with school reports. Employees may find this useful in determining what their employer is looking for.

This is a very important part of the job. Why? Well consider this: a person asks for “A book called “ Oranges & Peaches.” After doing the reference interview you successfully find the book they are looking for: “Origin of Species.” Another person comes in requesting “books on Afghanistan.” This reference interview leads to satisfying your library patron by providing articles on the Taliban. A third customer comes in wanting “Information on Prohibition.” The interview leads to making them happy with a picture of a flapper’s dress. See why a reference interview is so important?

Use of open-ended questions is a necessity. That is, questions that can not be answered with just a “yes” or “no.” These type of questions being with “who,” “what,” “where,” “why,” and “when.”

A typical reference interview consists of three of four questions which may lead to more questions based on the answers. The possible questions one uses are endless. A person should choose the ones they are most comfortable asking and make them automatic when a person asks for assistance. Several examples of possible questions include:

  • “What kind of information on __________ are you looking for?”
  • “Would you tell me more about…”
  • “Is there something specific about __________ that you are looking for?”
  • “What do you already know about __________?”
  • “Can you describe the kind of information you would like to find?”
  • “Can you tell me more about your subject? This will help me to help you find the best possible information.”
  • “What is it you want to know about __________?”
  • “What else can you tell me that might help us locate materials?”
  • “Would you explain that to me in more detail?”
  • “Do you know some key concepts, terms, or vocabulary for this topic?”
  • “If I could find the perfect book to help you, what would that book have in it? Or, what would the book be called?”
  • “What would you like to know about this topic?”
  • “Could you tell me what you are working on?”
  • “I’m not sure I understand…Can you give me an example?”
  • “Where have you checked for information so far?”
  • “Where did you hear or read about __________?”
  • “What do you mean by __________?”
  • “I’m not familiar with __________.”
  • “When you say __________, what do you mean?”
  • “I’m not familiar with that person. What is he or she known for?”
  • “I’d be interested in knowing…”
  • “Would you explain…?”
  • “What examples can you give me?”
  • “How will you use the information? This will help me with our search.”
  • “Can you describe the kind of information you would like to find?”

There is also the Neutral Questions for a reference interview

To assess the situation:
“It would help me with our search if you could tell me what you are working on, how the need for this information came up, what you are trying to do in this situation, and what happened that got you stopped.”

Then to assess the gap in information:
“What would you like to know about _________?" "What you need to know about __________?" "What are you trying to understand?”

And finally to access the uses for the information:
“If you could have exactly the help you wanted, what would it be?” “How will this help you? What will it help you to do?” “If would help if you told me how you are planning to use this information.” “I think I can help you faster and much better if you could tell me….”

All these questions lead to finding the best information for the patron. What needs to be kept in mind is how these questions are asked. Tone of voice, timing, and demeanor are key here. If you appear threatening the patron will become defensive. If you appear unsure they will lose confidence in your ability to help them. Balance is key. Be firm but not too firm with your questions.

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