References Services: Recommending and Interpreting Resources

This week we will be examining the reference interview and the best practices associated with it. This part of reference services (RS) is the main component of the RS engine. It’s been studied, rehashed, updated, debated, and reviewed numerous times. It’s defined in ODLIS as “The interpersonal communication that occurs between a reference librarian and a library user to determine the person’s specific information need(s)…” Though the wording of the interview questions varies considerably, the concept remains the same: find out what the patron needs and do your best to help them get it.

Some libraries have established guidelines for their librarians. The Ohio Library Council created a module to explain the reference interview process and included other modules to teach more about other library services. RUSA and the National Archives of Boston also made a PowerPoint presentation.

The main parts of the reference interview are as follows:

  1. Identify and understand the patrons’ information needs.
    1. It’s essential to ask the right open-ended questions, such as those detailed by RUSA:
      1. “Please tell me more about your topic.”
        1. In many cases, the patron will have a topic in mind already. Sometimes they’ll have a general idea of what they need, and other times they will be particular. In both cases, it’s critical to make sure you understand what they mean.
      2. “What additional information can you give me?”
        1. Examples would be asking about a syllabus to see the assignment specifications or looking up the topic to understand the search query better, particularly if you’re unfamiliar with it.
          1. Side note: sometimes, patrons won’t have the assignment information with them and may not have access to it online. When this happens, it’s vital not to show frustration and give them various resources they can easily access again.
  • “How much information do you need?”
    1. Generally, people know how much they need, but it’s a good idea to give them a little more than required in case one of the sources doesn’t work well for them.
  1. Asking closed-ended questions also helps clarify what’s needed:
    1. “What have you already found?”
      1. Their answer is what gives you a starting point.
    2. “What type of source do you need?”
      1. They might not know the official name of the source needed, so you’ll need to know how to decipher what they are saying versus what the professional term is.
  • “Do you need a book or an article?”
    1. For most information literacy classes, at least one type of each source will be required.
    2. If the patron doesn’t know which source would be best, show them options.
  1. “Do you need current or historical information?”
    1. Sometimes there’s a no-later-than date on sources. Such as no sources from later/before 2018. In that case, you’ll need to show them how to narrow their search parameters both on the library website and in their search engine.
  2. Understand the depth and quantity of the information needed.
    1. “Do you need to dive deep into this topic or gain a general understanding?”
      1. They may or may not know, but chances are they do.
        1. A deep dive will likely require more time and effort unless they merely need to be pointed in the right direction.
        2. A general understanding will require less effort on behalf of the librarian in most cases. Still, the action necessary should never be a determining factor in the willingness to help.
      2. Complete the interview efficiently.
        1. No one wants to wait longer than they feel necessary, especially those in a hurry to find information.
        2. Reading someone’s body language when they are flustered can help indicate they may need calming tones and extra sensitivity from the librarian.
          1. In next week’s post, we’ll be delving into best practices for problematic patrons.
        3. Interpreting the resources
          1. This is one of the key parts of the interview.
            1. Some patrons won’t need help deciphering resources, but others will need step-by-step guidance.
              1. Be sure they fully understand the source before ending the interview.
              2. Also, depending on if they end the interview prematurely, emphasize your availability by telling them you’ll be around until such-and-such time. That way, they can find you again if they have more questions.
            2. Develop a positive rapport with the patron.
              1. Being friendly, positive, and kind is always good, no matter the situation, especially when conducting the reference interview.
              2. The patron must genuinely feel they can contact the librarian again without hesitation.

The reference interview takes on many forms, both in person and electronically, but the main aspects of it, as discussed above, remain relatively consistent. People contact librarians because they have successfully done so and received the help they need. Being trained and naturally adept at providing RS will ensure the process goes smoothly time and again.

By Gretchen Hendrick Gardella, MLIS

Gretchen Hendrick Gardella is a Librarian with administrative, research, and vast technical skills. Ms. Gardella brings over 16 years of experience working in academic and public libraries to the discussion.