As an almost ready to graduate MLS student in the pre-online catalog, pre-Internet world, it was my first day at work as a professional librarian and this was my first reference question. “Can you give me information about railroads?” It seemed to be a simple question, easily answered with books on railroading, but this was not so. Since that day, every time I assist a patron, I silently bless my Reference class professor. He gave me the most valuable piece of advice I received in my training; “The patron never truly asks for exactly what they really want.” This is why the reference interview is so important. In this situation, it took many questions. I kept repeating things back to the patron in order to narrow down and discover that what he actually wanted was a book that gave him information about the glass insulators on the electric poles which ran along railroad tracks.
When a question is asked, it only takes a moment to respond with a clarifying question. Are you doing research or are you looking for something for personal use? Is it for you or has someone asked you to find them this information? A recent question from a teen involved health issues of digestive tract organs. “No, it is not for a paper. It’s for my Dad.” Further discussion revealed it wasn’t really for her father, but for her father’s girlfriend; making it appropriate to give the young lady books which included these health issues as they related to women’s health.
Some situations need to be handled gently, especially ones concerning medical or legal information. Doctors will sometimes send patients to get information about their health. In one instance, our staff dealt with finding information for an individual whose doctor sent her to learn about heart transplants, since she would need one. Another, more distressing situation, was the patron who came in to ask about the diagnosis she was given by a doctor; all she had been given by him was the name of the condition. The librarian had to hand the patron material which informed her that her condition was terminal. Since the staff member knew that the patron’s interest was personal rather than academic, she gave materials which were less clinical as well as those written from personal perspectives.
Reference questions are also opportunities to highlight other options for patrons. Requests for GED or other tests allow the librarian to direct patrons to online databases that include reviews and practice tests. Ones for automotive books can lead into AllData and Chiltons databases. Language book requests can be an introduction to library audiobooks, CD-ROMs, and databases.
The best thing about these questions is how they will educate you. Patrons’ questions will reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of your collection. Through reference interviews you will get to know your patrons; their needs, wants, and interests, and, most importantly who they are as a part of your library community.
Carol Baker has worked in libraries since she was a teenager. Since getting her MLS, she has worked almost 36 years at the Newton Falls Public Library [infamous for its 44444 zip code] as Children's Librarian, Special Services Librarian, Youth Services Coordinator, Assistant Director, and currently Adult Services Librarian. As in all small systems sometime these positions have been simultaneous. She features their library and reference questions in the Ask the Librarian newspaper column and on her blog, http://