Monday, October 11, 2010

The Reference interview

“I know you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize what you heard is not what I meant.” Unknown.
By the end of this module you should be able to
  • Understand how communication errors occur
  • Identify open, closed and sense-making/neutral questions
  • Identify the components of the reference interview
  • Conduct a reference interview in person, over the telephone, and by e-mail.

Required reading
Dewdney, Patricia and Gillian Michell. “Oranges and Peaches: Understanding Communication Accidents in the Reference Interview.” RQ 35.4 (Summer 1996): 520-36. 15 Mar. 2004.

Reference and User Services Association. Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Professionals. 1996. 15 Nay 2004.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. “The Reference Interview: Why It Needs To Be Used in Every (Well, Almost Every) Reference Transaction” Reference & U ser Services Quarterly 43.1 (Fall 2003): 38-43. Academic Search Premier.

“Tips Toward Good Telephone Etiquette.” The Human Resource Aug. 2000. 15 Mar. 2004.
You may also want to checkout the following page for “fun” rather than a required reading.

New Jersey State Library. “Reference Humor.” Fun For Bookworms. 30 June 2000. 15 Mar. 2004.

“Weird Reference Questions.” June 16, 2000. 15 Mar. 2004.

With few exceptions, all of us at one time or another have sought a specific item. Perhaps we were in a grocery store and instead of asking a clerk where the dates were we asked “Where’s the baking section?” not realizing that in this store, dates were kept with the fruits and vegetables. Maybe we had an address for a particular store and asked for directions to the street we believed it to be on rather than naming the store. We arrive there only to find it has moved. Similarly we might have gone into a bookstore and asked for the location of the history section when what we really wanted was a specific book on genealogy which is shelved in the reference section. This trait of asking for something specific is a common behavior of library patrons as well.

The reference interview
Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Patricia Dewdney in their article “Reference Interviewing Skills: Twelve Common Questions”, pose the question: “Why do people ask general questions when they really want something very specific?” (Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, and Patricia Dewdney. “Reference Interviewing Skills: Twelve Common Questions.” Public Libraries 25.1 1986):7-9.) Their answer is that the initial question may act as a means of establishing contact.

During a reference encounter, two strangers met in a public place. The librarian expects to hear the request for information fully formed. The user, on the other hand, has unspoken questions that must be answered before he will be willing to invest time telling the whole problem: “Am I in the right place? Is this person available to help me?” The user is asking for some reassurance that you are listening and are the right person to help. (Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, and Patricia Dewdney. “Reference Interviewing Skills: Twelve Common Questions.” Public Libraries 25.1 1986):7-9.)

Making contact with the user is the first step in what is known as the reference interview. The reference interview can be thought of as a conversation where one person asks another for help in finding information about a topic which they may know little about and have a harder time trying to describe what it is they want to know about it. The ALA Glossary defines the reference interviews as “The interpersonal communication between a reference staff member and a library user to determine the precise information needs of the user.”

Bopp and Smith break the reference interview into five steps:

  1. Open the interview.
  2. Negotiate the question.
  3. Search for information.
  4. Communicate the information to the user.
  5. Close the interview.

Open the interview
In the American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals, approachability is the first behavior listed. As a reference worker you must present a welcoming presence, one which encourages patrons in need to approach for help. T o be approachable the guidelines say the reference staff:

  1. Is poised and ready to engage approaching patrons and is not engrossed in reading, filing, chatting with colleagues, or other activities that detract from availability to the patron.
  2. Establishes initial eye contact with the patron.
  3. Acknowledges the presence of the patron through smiling and/or open body language.
  4. Acknowledges the patron through the use of a friendly greeting to initiate conversation and/or by standing up, moving forward or moving closer to the patron.
  5. Acknowledges others waiting for service.
  6. Remains visible to patrons as much as possible.
  7. Roves through the reference area offering assistance whenever possible.

An appropriate opening sentence might be: “How may I help you?” This type of question is known as an “open” question. It is preferable to “Can I help you?” to which a patron might reply “No.” If using the rover approach (i.e. circulating in the reference area and approaching patrons who seem to be in the need of help, rather than remaining behind a reference desk which requires a patron to app roach you) it is important that staff not use potentially off putting phrases such as “I notice you need help.” No one wants to appear “dumb” and patrons may become defensive if they feel singled out.

Negotiate the question
No one wants to seem ignorant or feel foolish. For these and other reasons the first question people ask may not be precisely what they want. Some additional reasons why people may ask a very broad or general question when what they really want is specific information include:

  • not being sure what it is they want or need
    e.g. students may not fully understand the requirements of an assignment
  • not feeling at ease in asking the question
    e.g. may want information on a controversial subject such as pornography or sex education
  • may feel the real question is too sensitive or personal to reveal
    e.g. information on divorce when you are going through one, or information on a medical condition
  • lack knowledge of the depth and quality of your library’s collection
    patrons think library will have general information on the topic only and not the specific information they want
  • lack confidence in the ability of the reference staff
    e.g. professionals such as teachers or a scientist may believe reference staff are not capable of handling their specific questions because they lack their training and subject background and so ask general questions they feel staff can handle instead.

Reference interviews often start out either by the user asking a broad general question such as: “Where are the books on movies?” or a very specific request such as: “I’d like to see the Winnipeg phone directory.” When answered literally, the answers may not help the user. Suppose, for example, the user really wants to know the top grossing movie of 2000. Rather than scanning books in the “movie section,” the answer could be easily found in an almanac or on the Internet. Similarly, a patron might really want the seating plan for the Centennial Concert Hall and requests the phone book believing that it is there.

When approached, you need to respond in a way that puts patrons at ease and encourages them to proceed with their questions. Use of non verbal skills such as eye contact, smiling and, if appropriate, standing in order to be on the same level as the patron, plus verbal skills such as acknowledgement and encouragers let users know they have made contact and invites them to tell you more.

Not all reference encounters result in a “reference interview”. However,

It is useful to conduct a brief interview with a patron during which the following are touched upon:

  • Why the question is being asked
  • The subject of the question
  • The amount of information required
  • External constraints for the patron such as time the user has to spend
  • Patron constraints
  • Prior efforts at finding information (Gottschalk, 5)

Open questions are an effective and efficient way of allowing patrons to express in their own words their real information needs. An open question is one which cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” or an “either/or”. It forces patrons to expand on their original question rather than just answering “yes” or “no” or selecting from a menu of “either/or” choices. Point 3.0 “Listening/Inquiring” of the Guidelines for Behavioral Performance specifically states:

  • Uses open-ended questioning techniques to encourage the patron to expand on the request or present additional information. Some examples of such questions include:
    Please tell me more about your topic.
    What additional information can you give me?
    How much information do you need?

Typically open questions begin with words such as: who, what, when, how, where. “Who starred in the moving you’re looking for?” “When did the film appear?” “Where was the picture set?” are further examples of open questions.

Open questions encourage the user to talk. Closed questions, on the other hand, usually limit a response. In fact, they are a common technique used in the cross examination phase of a trial (e.g. “The car was travelling at 120 km/hour wasn’t it?” rather than “How fast was the car travelling?”). Closed questions often begin with words like: can, do, have/has, is, will.

  • Can you tell me more about William Boyd? (Potentially a useful question but as structured the patron could reply “No.” A better way of phrasing might be “What do you already know about William Boyd?”)
  • Do you want books or articles? (either/or)
  • Have you checked the catalogue? (This question is not recommended as it can put the patron on the defensive, especially if they are not familiar with how the catalogue works.)
  • Is the information for a school project?
  • Will you need reviews from newspapers?

Closed questions seem to come more naturally to us. Rather than saying “What questions would you like to ask?” we will often say “Do you want to ask any questions?” While not recommended at the beginning of a reference interview, closed questions are helpful to confirm or clarify a fact. They are also useful for verifying that you have understood the question before you start a search.

So far we have discussed two types of questions; open and closed. There is a third type and it is known as the sense-making or neutral question. Sense-making questions are a form of open question designed to try to understand a question from the patron’s point of view. Closed questions such as:

Is this for a project?
Do you want American or Canadian authors?

Limit response to yes/no, this/that. Maybe the user wants British or Mexican authors. Closed questions involve a judgment on the part of the reference worker of what is relevant to the user.

Open questions such as “Tell me more about your topic.” allow users to answer in their own words and do not limit answers to the narrow range of choices presented by the closed question. Open questions are invitations to talk. Sense-making (neutral) questions are a subset of open questions. They guide the conversation along lines relevant to the information being sought. Sense-making questions are meant to direct the reference technician to learn from the patron the nature of the underlying situation, the gaps faced and the expected uses.

Ross and Dewdney provide the following examples of sense-making questions.

To encourage the person to describe the situation:
What are you working on?
How did this question arise?
What happened that you needed to know this?

To find out how the person sees his/her situation:
What problem are you having in this situation?
Where would you like to begin?
Where do you see yourself going with this?

To assess the gaps:
What kind of help would you like?
What are you trying to understand?
What would you like to know about X?
Where did you get stuck in this project?

To identify the kind of help wanted (uses):
What would help you?
How do you plan to use this information?
What would you like to see happen in this situation?
If you could have exactly the help you want, what would it be?
(Communicating Professionally 27, 28)

To be sense-making (neutral) a question must be open, tap the patron’s situation, gap in knowledge, or use, and be free of assumptions.

Comparison of closed, open and sense-making questions

Closed Open Sense-making
Do you want annual reports? What sort of details do you want? If you could tell me the kind of problem you're working on, I'll have a better idea of what would help you.
Are these national or international companies? What do you mean by large? What would you like to know about large corporations?
Are you looking for a particular company?What corporations are you interested in? Tell me a bit about how you plan to use this information.

Jennerich and Jennerich in their The Reference Interview as a Creative Art list 12 skills that they feel must be learned to conduct a successful reference interview.

Nonverbal skills

  • Eye contact
  • Gestures
  • Posture
  • Facial expression and tone of voice

Verbal skills

  • Remembering
  • Avoiding premature diagnoses
  • Reflecting feelings verbally
  • Restating or paraphrasing content
  • Using encouragers (e.g. yes, OK, what else, uh huh, tell me more, indicate you are interested and listening)
  • Closing
  • Giving opinions and suggestions
  • Asking open questions

Active listening involves paraphrasing (restating) the patron’s question. Its intent is to reflect back to the patron your understanding of his request and give him the opportunity to affirm, deny, or revise your statement. Since many patrons shy from answering straight forward questions, active listening allows the patron to correct or acknowledge statements rather than answer ones that seem nosey.

Active listening dialogue
Patron: I’m having trouble with the OPAC.
Reference Technician translates to: She can’t find what she needs, and responds: You can’t find what you need in the OPAC?
Patron responds: I’ve forgotten how to use it.

According to Ross and Dewdney:

Paraphrasing feeds back what has just been said… A common structure to use for paraphrasing is an introductory clause, such as

  • It sounds like...
  • So you think…
  • You’re saying…
  • You mean…
  • As you see it…
  • As I understand it…
  • As I understand you… (Communicating Professionally 29)

They also provide the following tips for paraphrasing:

  • Be concise
  • Feed back on the essence
  • Don’t add or change to the meaning
  • Avoid sounding like a parrot
  • Use a checkout if called for such as
    o Is that how you see it?
    o Did I get that right? (Communicating Professionally 30)

Throughout the stages of the reference interview “communication accidents” can occur. Ross and Dewdney single out six common causes why.

  1. Not acknowledging the user.
    a. Acknowledge by eye contact, gestures, restating the initial question
  2. Not listening
    a. Practice active listening
    b. Pause or use an encourager
  3. Playing 20 questions
    a. Open or sense-making questions take less time than guessing with a series of closed questions
  4. Interrupting at inappropriate times
    a. Use closure to direct the conversation and pauses or encouragers to signal the user it’s her turn to talk
  5. Making assumptions
    a. Assumptions based on the user’s appearance or your perception of the problem are often inaccurate
    b. Avoid premature diagnosis and ask sense-making questions instead
  6. Not following up
    a. Recover from communication accidents by asking follow-up questions such as “Did that help you? What other help would you like?”

Sometimes it is only by asking why that we feel we can best help a patron. However, the “why question” can be a mine field. For example the question might relate to a sensitive personal problem the patron does not want to reveal to a stranger. Ross and Dewdney in an article in Public Libraries offer the following guidelines for the “why question.”

  • Never ask why directly, because it sounds abrupt and judgmental.
  • Make it clear you are asking this question because you can be more helpful if you know intended uses.
  • Avoid assumptions. Guessing is often inefficient and sometimes can be offensive when you guess wrong.
  • Leave the user in control. He may not choose to reveal why the information is wanted and you must then do the best you can with the information that is provided. (8)

Close the interview
Once the question has been negotiated and you think it has been answered, the last step in the reference process is to ask a follow-up question such as “Does this completely answer your question?” or ”Can I be of further assistance?” If you were unable to satisfy a patron with the resources available at your library you should offer to follow up with colleagues, other libraries, departments or the like as appropriate to ensure that if an answer is available the patron can access it (see point 5 Follow-up Guidelines for Behavior).

To test out your reference interview skills online checkout the “Reference Interview” page from Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries at

Telephone and virtual reference
It is becoming more common for patrons to access library services without ever physically coming into the library. Dial-in databases such as EBSCOhost and Electric Library Canada allow patrons to search for information on topics and read fulltext periodical articles online at home rather than having to come to the library to do their research. For some this ability to access services remotely is a convenience, for others, such as the housebound, it may be the only feasible way they can use the library.

Whereas about 99% of Canadian households have telephones, Statistics Canada reports that in 2000, 40% of Canadian households accessed Internet from home. As we can see from numbers of households accessing the Internet, the telephone remains the dominant means of communication from the home. Long before the “electronic revolution,” most libraries provided remote reference service via the telephone and continue to do so.

When providing telephone reference both the requestor and the reference technician handling the call are at a disadvantage. Lacking face to face communication, clues provided by body language are lost. It is therefore extremely important to listen closely in an effort to pick up verbal clues. Just as with the face to face interview, patrons may not reveal with their initial inquiry the real information they are seeking. Use reference interview techniques such as open questions, clarification, when necessary, and repetition of the question to verify you have understood the information need.

Since you are unable to see who your patron is, be careful not to jump to conclusions about the kind or level of information required. You may need to ask . Someone who’s voice over the telephone seems to be that of a school-age child may be a mature person and vice-versa.

Attitude can be reflected in tone of voice, so be careful to present a positive image. Ross and Dewdney suggest the following when using the telephone:

  • Develop a pleasant speaking voice.
  • Identify yourself.
  • Acknowledge by restating at least part of the question or part you did catch so caller can fill in the rest.
  • Use minimal encouragers e.g. “Uh-huh,” “Go on,” “Anything else?” so caller will know you are there and listening.
  • Clarify the question or request by using open questions.
  • Explain what you are doing and give an estimate of how long it will take. Offer to call back if time is a factor.
  • Refer patron to someone who may be able to help if you can’t.
  • Verify key facts before seeking answer.
  • Record messages accurately. Restate names and phone numbers as you write them down so caller has a chance to correct any mistakes (Communicating Professionally 92-3).

Jennerich and Jennerich feel that since questions asked over the telephone can be easily misinterpreted “Only factual information should be given out over the telephone, and brief information should be read aloud without interpretation” (16). In situations where both in person and telephone reference takes place at the same service point, a telephone policy needs to be established. Jennerich and Jennerich believe such a policy should establish:

  • The priority telephone reference will receive.
  • How telephone reference will be handled when there are many in-house patrons.
  • Limits (if any) that will be placed on questions. For example, only three items will be looked up in the catalog, or no information will be given from the city directory (62).

With the growth in off site usage, especially in libraries supporting distance education courses, some institutions have reconfigured their telephone reference. North Carolina State University Libraries for example has established an off-site services desk. “By removing the telephone from the reference desk, the new service point for off-site services has enabled desk staff to give their full attention to telephone calls” (Anderson, Boyer and Ciccone).

More and more libraries are offering an e-mail reference option. Here too some of the same concerns and techniques that arise with telephone reference apply as well. In neither instance can you see patron, gender, age, or nationally may not be clear so assumptions must not be made. Just as warmth and friendliness should be expressed in your telephone voice, so too should these proprieties come through in your written e-mail responses.

E-mails should not be allowed to pile up. There should be a regular schedule for checking and timelines for responding. As with any other written correspondence, e-mail replies need to be checked for proper spelling and grammar.

The Internet Public Library provides a well known example of an e-mail reference service at “Ask a Question at the IPL Reference Center” Patrons are first asked to check the “Frequently Asked Questions” and “Pathfinders” sites to see if an answer to their enquiry is already available. If not, patrons are then directed to the “IPL Ask a Question Form” which directs them through the reference process. Read through the form and pick out the elements of the reference interview which are incorporated (e.g. “What do you already know about your subject/question?” is an example of an open question).

IPL also experimented with live online chat reference. A local example of online chat reference is the University of Winnipeg’s “Live Help” service.


active listening
paying careful attention to what is being said by a patron and then rephrasing it back to the patron to ensure that what you think you heard and thought was meant is what was actually meant.

closed question
a question that can be answered with a “yes” or “no” or by selecting from an “either/or,” “this or that” choice.

open question
a question that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no” or by selecting from an “either/or,” “this or that” choice.

reference interview
the interpersonal communication which occurs between a reference librarian and a library patron to determine the user’s specific information needs, which are not necessarily the same as the question initially posed. Patrons can be reticent about expressing the precise nature of their inquiry, so patience and tact may be required. A reference interview may occur in person, by telephone, or via e-mail, usually at the request of the user, but is sometimes initiated by the librarian when the patron appears to need assistance, but has not explicitly asked for help (Reitz).

In the delivery of reference services, the practice of walking about the reference area on the lookout for library patrons in need of assistance, as opposed to remaining seated at the reference desk, waiting for users to approach with their questions. Roving reference librarians learn to tell by body language and other nonverbal cues when a user is experiencing difficulty and often initiate a reference interview by politely asking if the person’s needs are being met. In large libraries which schedule more than one librarian on reference duty at the same time, one may rove while the other remains at the desk (Reitz).

sense making (neutral) question
A special kind of open question that asks specifically about situations, or gaps, or helps/uses. Derived from Dr. Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory. (Ross and Dewdney. Communicating Professionally 27)

Works cited
Anderson, Eric; Josh Broyer, and Karen Ciccone. “Remote Reference Services at the North Carolina State Universities.” Facets of Digital Reference: Conference Proceedings: The Virtual Reference Desk 2nd Annual Digital Reference Conference, Seattle, October 16-17 2000. 6 Apr. 2001.

Bopp, Richard E. and Linda C. Smith. Reference and Information Services: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Englewood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 2001.

Gottschalk, Tania. Reference: Ready Reference. [Winnipeg]: Red River College, 1999.

Jennerich, Elaine Z. and Edward J. Jennerich. The Reference Interview as Creative Art. 2nd ed., Englwood, Colo.: Libraries Unlimited, 1997.

Reference and User Services Association. Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals. 1996. 1 May 2001.

Reitz, Joan M. ODLIS: Online Directory of Library and Information Science. 2000. Western Connecticut State University Libraries. 1 May 2002.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, and Patricia Dewdney. Communicating Professionally: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Library Applications. 2nd ed. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1998.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, and Patricia Dewdney. “Reference Interviewing Skills: Twelve Common Questions.” Public Libraries 25.1 91986): 7-9

Statistics Canada. “Household Internet Use Survey.” The Daily. 26 Jul. 2001. 1 May 2002.


Audrey said...

I found the description of closed vs. open vs. sense-making questions extremely helpful. As I'm a bit afraid of conducting reference interviews, I find these guides very valuable.

Audrey said...

The description of open vs. closed vs. sense-making questions was extremely helpful!

Lisa Joy Gallary said...

IPL Reference Center no longer exists - A librarian at the Tafe directed me to my local university "Ask Us" page instead.

According to Wikipedia: The IPL opened on March 17, 1995. On January 1, 2010 it merged with the Librarians' Internet Index to become ipl2. It ceased operations completely on June 30, 2015