Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Learn From My Mistakes: Reference Interviews

Helping patrons at the reference desk is one of the hardest things I do as a librarian. I can locate pretty much any kind of information, but ferreting out a patron's actual information need is tricky. There's a whole verbal dance I do, trying to establish the context of the information need without being too nosy and asking process questions without sounding judgmental. Sure, I took a class in reference and information services in my graduate program, and that gave me some of the theory. [After feedback and discussions on Google+, I want to make something clear. We did role play in my class, but there was a big difference for me between what happened in that professor's classroom and what actually happens on the reference desk.] However, really learning how to conduct a reference interview didn't start until I had my first professional position.

I'll never forget one of the big mistakes I made early in my career. A college student came to me for help and I would have sworn I heard her ask for "information on zebra muscles." Earlier that day, I had seen a book about equine biology, so I was excited. I found her an article and then brought her up to the stacks to show her that perfect book. Then, about 10 or 15 minutes into our conversation, I noticed a look of confusion on her face. I think I said something really smart like, "This isn't what you need, is it?" She confirmed my suspicion that I was off base, so I asked her to tell me more about her topic. It turned out that she was writing a paper about an invasive species of bivalves; she wanted "information on zebra mussels." I felt really stupid, but I learned the value of the reference interview that day.

In the intervening years, I've made other mistakes but I've also gotten a lot better at helping people with their research. In the hopes of saving you some of the embarrassment I've experienced, here are some of the things I've learned to do when conducting reference interviews:
  1. Listen empathetically. If you've never heard of this concept, it's about showing the other person that you hear what he or she is saying. It isn't just parroting his/her words; it's showing your understanding of what was said. I've saved myself so much trouble since I started doing this. Here's an example: A student who came to the reference desk asked me for help finding a source about cultural differences in dining etiquette, and I responded, "So you need something that talks about the different kinds table manners people use in different cultures?"
  2. Look beyond the surface question. A graduate student who asked me where to find the New York Times online really needed movie reviews from the 1950s. An undergraduate who wanted to know where the poetry section was really looking for a feminist analysis of a specific famous poem. Part of looking beyond the question is figuring out the context of the information need. This can be hard in a public library context, but I think my technique might be applicable. I usually ask some version of, "Is this for a school assignment or for your own purposes?" If I'm told it's personal, I stop asking questions in that vein. If I'm told it's for school, I ask to see the assignment sheet.
  3. Ask process questions, but ask them in a way that puts people at ease. "Have you had a chance to look for this information yet? If so, can you tell me where? If not, it's not a problem." won't put someone on the defensive as readily as "Have you tried looking for it yet?" will. (You also want to ask how quickly the information is needed, but I've never had a patron get their back up over this kind of question.)
  4. Pay attention to body language and changes in expression. If the community member I'm helping starts to look confused, I know I'm off topic. On the other hand, if she walked up to the reference desk with her shoulders up near her ears and then she starts to look more relaxed as the conversation progresses, I know I'm on track.
  5. Remember this is a customer service interaction. Maybe I'm biased because I put myself through graduate school by waiting tables, but I think the customer service aspect is hugely important. I always ask questions like "Is this the kind of thing you need?" while I'm still in the reference interview. When we finish, I make sure to tell him or her how much longer I'll be on the reference desk, when I will be back, and how he or she can get help if I'm not available. Finally, if s/he stays in the library after we're done at the reference desk, I try to follow up with a simple "Did that work out?" after 10-15 minutes.
I'm a lot better than I was on the day of the zebra muscles/mussels debacle, but I'm still working towards that perfect reference interview technique. Nevertheless, this list represents a lot of hard learned lessons, so I'm hoping you'll read it and learn from my mistakes.

How about you? What have you learned so far about conducting reference interviews? Any mistakes you'd care to share?


  1. Ooh, I really appreciate this! My reference instruction in lib. school left a LOT to be desired and I've always felt like that was a huge hole in my education. But, as I read this I find that I use a lot of the techniques you mention here. I'm a public librarian and don't do a lot of reference, and am very insecure about it--but this made me feel like maybe I'm better than I give myself credit for :)

  2. I first read that as Listen Emphatically.


  3. For a full account, read Conducting the Reference Interview: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians by Catherine S. Ross and Patricia Dewdney (there is a new edition, but I haven't seen it). Catherine Ross was one of my MLIS instructors and she was excellent, and this book contains much of what we did in class. I worked at a reference desk as I worked on my degree, and I know her class helped immensely.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I had a decent reference class during my MLIS. I liked the professor enough that I also took Bibliographic Instruction from her. The big thing for me is that there's a difference between learning it in a classroom (discussing the ethics of a reference interview and reading the theory behind the interaction) and what happens when you're in the thick of a real life reference interview.

  5. Today someone asked for the Suze Orman books. It turned out she had seen Orman on TV yesterday, and the subject was living wills. Totally not in the Suze Orman section. My co-worker mentioned that she has been slacking on her reference interview lately!

  6. Good advice! I hope I remember it if I ever find myself in a job that involves more reference work. I agree with Miss Anna that working a reference desk seems intimidating right now. My reference and online searching classes were decent, but there's nothing like on-the-job experience to boost your confidence.

  7. I just started my first job as a reference and instruction librarian and this post was really helpful. I find myself struggling all the time with helping patrons learn how to find the answer, as opposed to just giving them the info they want. I guess it depends on the patron and if they want to learn or if they are impatient. I'm still working on my reference interview skills. My ref class was pretty good, but nothing quite prepares you for the real thing.