In order to provide an efficient reference service, staff at a reference desk must communicate effectively with their clients. They must be able to identify requests that have legal and ethical concerns, and demonstrate and apply their knowledge of standard procedures.
Reference staff must learn to communicate with clients and interpret their needs. These skills involve
- determining an appropriate level of communication for each client
- interviewing clients to establish their needs – i.e. conducting a reference interview
- explaining procedures for accessing information
- providing information in a language and format appropriate to the client’s needs
- obtaining feedback on the appropriateness of the information supplied
- understanding the principles and practices of high quality customer service
The reference interview
A major part of reference work is finding out exactly what information a client wants. Some clients will explain what they want, but many give very unclear clues. All reference staff need to develop good communication skills to ensure a good service, and to save time and effort. In order to find out what information is required, you often need to conduct a ‘reference interview’.
A reference interview is the face-to-face exchange between a librarian and a
reader to communicate, refine or clarify a reference enquiry.
Library staff conduct a reference interview in order to
- determine the information needs of the client
- assist the client to locate the required information quickly
- enable the library staff to assess the client’s library skills
- explain the library’s resources and services if required.
Reference staff may need to encourage the client by asking questions and rephrasing questions, in order to find out exactly what is being asked. By spending time checking the question, you will avoid wasting time seeking the wrong information, and ensure that you meet the client’s needs.
The steps in a reference interview
In order to conduct an effective reference interview, follow these steps:
- Find out what information the client requires. The client might carefully explain what he or she wants, but in many cases clients use an indirect approach – e.g. they ask whether the library holds copies of Australian geographic, but they really want information about the Birdsville track.
- Ask the client to clarify the topic. You must avoid misunderstanding over the meaning of the question.
- Repeat or paraphrase the question to ensure you know what is involved.
- Try to find out what the client already knows and what sources (if any) have been consulted. It is sometimes useful to know why the client needs the information, but you need to ask tactfully because it may invade their privacy. Some clients will be reluctant to tell you why they want the information. It is also important to check how much time is available to find the answer.
- Develop a search strategy. In order to find the required information quickly and efficiently, you need an effective search strategy. This is often done in close consultation with the client. If you have conducted a successful reference interview, you should have thought of some relevant sources. If you cannot think of a source, start with an encyclopedia, which often leads to other sources. Consulting other library staff may lead to suitable sources.
Conducting the interview
Many clients start a conversation with ‘I know this is a dumb question but…!” Staff must reassure the client that all queries are of value and that the library is there to serve their needs.
Some clients find libraries confusing, intimidating and overwhelming. They may think their enquiry is not worthwhile or they are reluctant to bother library staff. It is important therefore for staff to make the clients feel welcome and at ease. The initial verbal and non-verbal responses of the staff will influence the level of interaction between the library and clients.
In order to help the client feel at ease,
- make eye contact – even if you are busy, eye contact can assure clients that you know they are waiting for help
- be prepared to help people – put down work you are doing
- use a friendly tone of voice
- stand up, don’t just point in the general direction of the shelves
- appear confident – take time to consider the query and work out a search strategy based on your knowledge of the tools at the reference desk and in the collection
- be patient and courteous even with difficult clients
- move from the reference desk if necessary to help clients.
Although some reference enquiries may not sound interesting to you, remember that the topic is of interest to the client. Aim to provide a good reference service regardless of your own interests.
In order to demonstrate an interest in the client’s request you should maintain eye contact, make attentive comments, give the client your full attention, and appear unhurried.
It is extremely important to listen carefully to the client to ensure you understand the request completely, and to ask the correct questions to clarify the enquiry.
In order to communicate in a positive manner you should always be courteous. Do not interrupt clients when they are explaining their enquiry. It is a good idea to paraphrase or summarise the question in order to make sure you understand what is required, and to verify the question before searching. Avoid using jargon when talking to your clients.
Questioning the client
Phrase your questions carefully to determine the client’s needs quickly and efficiently.
The most effective type of question is an open-ended question, which allows clients to explain everything they know about the topic, and to describe their information need as clearly as possible.
- Can you tell me more about what you need?
- What type of information are you looking for?
- We have a number of books about your topic. Could you give me more specific details?
- I am not sure I understand what your question means. Can you give me some more information?
- How will you use this information?
Closed questions give clients the option of answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’ or selecting between several options.
Do you want a bibliography on ancient civilizations, or do you want information on a particular region?
You should use closed questions only after clients have had the opportunity to explain their request – e.g. is this information recent enough?
Library clients often have difficulty explaining their needs.
- They will often ask a very vague or broad question. You need to ask open-ended questions to obtain more information.
- They may mumble so that you have difficulty understanding what they say. You may need to repeat what you think they have said or ask them to repeat the question.
- Some clients assume that if you work in a library you know the answer to everything, including every detail of the materials in the collection. This is impossible, but you should make sure you keep up to date with additions to the collection.
- A client may not have the correct information. Often library clients ask for information on behalf of someone else and they may have incomplete details. You need as much information as possible or you may have to persuade the client to find out more detail and then return to the library.
If the reference interview is not done properly, the client may receive wrong or misleading information. The library staff and the client will waste time and the client will become frustrated with the library.
The final part of the reference process is to determine whether the client is satisfied. In most cases you will be able to find an answer to a question, but you must ensure that the answer fully satisfies the client. If the answer is not satisfactory, you may need to refer the client to another member of staff – e.g. your supervisor – or to an information source outside your organization.
In order to determine whether the client is satisfied, check with them to be sure the information is received and understood. You may need to ask them ‘does this completely answer your question?’. Encourage clients to return to the reference desk if further help is needed. It is important for clients to know that they can return for further assistance if more information is needed, or if they could not locate exactly what they wanted.
In some instances, library staff find that they must refer a reference enquiry to others. Many libraries establish procedures that determine when a reference query should be passed on. These procedures may take into account the length of time taken to solve a query, how busy the reference staff are, or the intricacies of the query. There are also times when the question is too hard for a junior staff member, and they need to refer it to a senior member of staff who has more experience with the reference sources. If you are unsure of where to start looking for an answer, you should ask a supervisor for assistance.
You may need to refer an enquiry to a staff member within your own library – e.g. a question might relate to work done in the Technical Services section of the library. It may be necessary to refer an enquiry outside your organization because your library does not have the relevant sources to answer it. For example, you may need to refer the enquirer to the National Library, or a government department or embassy.
Remember, you do not lose face if you refer a question to other resources. The basic aim of a library is to serve its clients and to fulfill their information needs in the best way possible. Knowledge of these other resources and how to exploit them is also serving clients’ information needs.