Tuesday, October 11, 2016

How I Do Reference Interviews

13+ years out from my MLIS graduation, a lot of memories about my time at Simmons have started to fade. However, one thing is still very clear: learning how to conduct a reference interview. Our professor (and our textbook) made a big deal of how it isn't the librarian's business why a patron needs this information, and I took that "don't ask why they are asking" admonition very much to heart... for about a month after I started working in an academic library. Don't get me wrong: I still respect my patrons' right to privacy, but making sure they can fulfill the professor's requirements is also a big part of my job. As a result, I've tweaked my reference interview tactics. I don't hit every one of these with every student, but hopefully you'll understand my thinking after you read through this list.
  1. "If you don't mind my asking, is this for an assignment?" If they tell me it's not, I revert immediately back to the method I was taught in graduate school. If they tell me it is for an assignment...
  2. "Do you have the assignment with you? It would help me to help you if I could see it." The student who was supposed to pick any painter from the Romantic period but who asked for information about a Renaissance painter? Or that other student who insisted they weren't allowed to use internet sources when really they weren't allowed to use web sources? Saved both of them a lot of time and heartache.
  3. "When is this due?" This lets me know if we have time for interlibrary loan, or to request things from other libraries in the consortium, or if we only have time to look at resources that are available right away.
  4. "Where have you looked? And it's totally cool if you haven't looked anywhere; I'm just trying to figure out where to start." Yes, I say that whole thing. Sometimes students get so overwhelmed that they can't even talk about their topic clearly, and I don't want them to feel bad about that. If a student has gotten to the point where they're willing to come to a librarian for help, I want them to feel good about it. However, if they have looked somewhere and had no luck, I can sometimes help immediately by pointing them to a different database or even sometimes a reference book.
  5. "Can you tell me why you picked this topic?" Here's where I'm fishing for search terms. Sure, there are the assignments I've seen so many times before that I know the right words from the get-go, but there are plenty of times when someone working on a senior capstone project introduces me to a brand new topic. And though I know plenty of good search phrases in the disciplines on my campus, I am always learning.
  6. "Do you feel comfortable working on this on your own? Do you have enough direction to get started?" I don't typically ask this until I'm fairly certain they'll say they are fine, but I still ask it so they can hear it themselves.
  7. "If you need any more help, [how to find me and how long I'll be available]. And good luck with your assignment." I also go back, about 5 to 10 minutes later, to see if everything is still going smoothly. It's about making sure that the student has the tools they need.

So there it is: my process for conducting reference interviews at an academic library. Other academics, did I leave anything out that you usually do? 


  1. Asking why questions (delicately) is a thing: Dewdney, P., & Michell, G. (1997). Asking" why" questions in the reference interview: A theoretical justification. The Library Quarterly, 50-71.