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What is a reference interview?
The reference interview is a conversation between a member of the library reference staff and a library user conducted for two purposes: 1. to clarify the user’s needs, and 2. to help the user meet those needs. Often the first question a user asks does not fully represent their need. The reference interview is crucial to gaining a more complete picture.
For example, a user may approach the reference staff member and ask, “Do you have Clementine in the Kitchen as an e-book?” A search in the catalog indicates that the library does not have this title online but it is in the print collection. The reference staff member might open a reference interview by saying, “No, we don’t have access to Clementine in the Kitchen as an e-book but we do have a print copy. Are you interested in it or would you consider other books similar to it that are accessible online?” In raising this question, the reference staff member allows the user to determine what aspect of the originally sought after title is more important to them: content or format. With their answer to the question posed, the reference staff member can either provide information about the print title or search for memoirs about French cooking that are part of the e-book collection, such as The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France.
The ideal reference interview begins with the user’s perceptions of the reference staff member. It is important that we appear alert, approachable, and ready to help. As the user approaches, provide an encouraging welcome by saying, “Hi! How may I be of help?” or something similar. When accepting a question online, also create a welcoming environment by typing the same opener.
As the user describes their need, a student staff member’s primary concern is to discern whether the question is one they can answer or is appropriate for referral to a librarian. In some cases, the student staff member may be positioned to answer an initial question (or a few initial questions) but then discover that the remaining information needs should be referred.
If at any time the user’s questions are unclear, pause and ask for further explanation. When inquiring why particular information is needed, contextualize the request so that the user knows its purpose, and is assured that the explanation is valuable to the search process. In an academic library, appropriate questions include, “Is this for a particular class?” and “Has a librarian already visited your UCWR class?,” when the user has already shared their enrollment in that course.
Whether the user’s information need is satisfied by the student staff member or is referred, the ideal reference interview closes with an open-ended question that allows the user to ask any lingering questions they may have about this or another concern. This final question might be “May I be of any additional help?” Invite the user to return by closing with a comment such as “This desk will be staffed until 10:00 this evening. Please stop back if you think of anything else.”
Reference interview process
- Greet the library user.
- Listen to the user's question or description of the information need.
- Clarify the question or information need.
- Consider whether you need to make a referral.
- Tell the user what steps you are going to take.
- Present information sources to the user.
- Confirm that the information need has been met.
- Offer additional help, if needed.
Greet the Library User
Questions to Ask:
- "Hi! How can I help you?"
- "Is there something I can help you with?
- Be alert and on the lookout for users who by looking for help.
- Pay attention to interactions between library users and the Circulation Desk staff or Digital Media Services staff and offer help if needed.
Listen to the user's question or description of the information need
- Think about what sort of help this user might need. Is the user looking for something specific, like a specific textbook, or something open ended, like several journal articles to use for a paper?
- Pay close attention to anything that seems unclear to you about the question. Remember that many library users don't use the same terminology tha we use in the library to describe resources and services.
- Ask yourself what additional information you will need to help the patron.
Clarify the question or information need
- Before providing a response, ask questions to understand the user's needs. Even questions that seem very simple will often require clarification.
- Develop the habit of asking a clarifying question before providing a direct answers.
- User: What time does the library close?
- Library Staff: Are you looking for the hours for Lewis Library, Cudahy Library, or the Information Commons
Questions to Ask:
- "Can you tell me more about your assigned/project?"
- This is a simple way to get the user to provide more contextual information so you can understand the question more fully.
- "Are you just getting started on this, or have you already tried looking around?"
- If the user has already tired to find the answers and failed, you can learn more about what the user is struggling with.
- If the user is just getting started, you can supply appropriate background information.
- Be careful not to sound as if you are judging the user for not having done research on their own before asking for help.
- "Are you looking for a specific book / article / movie / website / etc., or are you doing a general search for sources?"
- It's important to understand if the user already has a particular source or item in mind, or if the user is doing exploratory research.
- If the user is looking for a specific source, such as an article recommended by a professor, then it is considered a "known item search," and you'll want to help the user to the best of your ability to locate the item.
- "Is this for a class assignment?" Or "What class is this for?"
- Most questions will be from students working on a class assignment, but not all.
- Asking about the course gives you a lot of useful information:
- General subject area for the question. Sociology vs Nursing, for example.
- Course level. Students in upper level courses are more likely to have some understanding of the research process for their discipline.
- Is it a UCWR class? UCWR is the first year writing coruse, and all students in that class meet with a librarian to learn about using the library catalog. These students may need additional help with developing their research topics. In most cases, you'll refer UCWR students to the IC Reference Desk or the firstname.lastname@example.org email account.
- "What the time frame for your project/ assignment?"
- Sometimes users need help right away! And sometimes the user is in no rush at all. It's helpful to know this, for a few reasons:
- Helps you understand how time the user will have to work on the project.
- Is there time for the student to schedule an appointment with a librarian?
- Is there time for an interlibrary loan request?
Consider whether you need to make a referral
- It may become clear early in the reference interview that the user has an in-depth research question and should be referred to a librarian. You may try to provide some basic help, such as directing the user to a research guide or showing them how to access a database, but you should make it clear that additional help is available and attempt to make a referral.
- Other questions may seem simple at first, and it's only through the process of the reference interview that you realize that you need to make a referral.
- You should feel comfortable making a referral at any time in the process. Consult the "Referrals" section of this guide for more details on how and when to make a referral.
Tell the user what step you are going to take
- Tell the user what steps you are going to take as you carry them out.
- If you're not quite sure how to find the needed information, say so, and then reassure the user that you will take steps to resolve the question.
Things to tell the user:
- "I don't know if we have that book, but I'm going to search in the library catalog to see if we have a copy."
- "I'm going to open up the library research guide for History to see if there's a good database for that.
- "I'm not sure about that, but I'm going to check the library website to see if I can find the answer there."
Present information sources to the user
- Check in with the user as you offer different sources that might help address the question or information need.
- You may need to ask additional questions to clarify the information need at this point.
Questions to ask:
- "Is this what you were hoping to find?"
- "Can you tell me more about the article you're trying to find?"
- "Does this answer your question?"
Confirm that the information need has been met
- Knowing when a reference transaction has come to a close can be tricky. Checking in with the user will help clarify this.
- Remember that your goal is to help the user locate a known item, or to teach the user how to use library resources to search for information. It's not your job to do the research for the user.
Questions to ask:
- "is this everything you needed today?"
- "Do you think this is enough to get you started?"
- "Do you feel ready to work on this on your own, and let me know if you need more help?"
Offer additional help
- As you conclude the reference transaction, be sure to let the user know how to get more help if needed.
Questions to ask / Things to tell the user:
- "Is there anything else I can help you with?"
- "The reference desk in the IC will be open until 10:00pm tonight. Please stop by if you need anything else."
- "If you need more help with this later, you can use the chat reference service on the library website."
- "The research guide that I showed you has contact information for the subject specialist librarian. Be sure to send an email if you have more questions."
Cudahy Library Reading Room