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Graduate Reference Assistant Program: Reference Interview

What does the patron need?

When a patron approaches the reference desk, the first question that needs to be determined is what does the patron need? The patron does not always fully articulate the nature of the query. The reference interview is used to clarify what the patron needs.

There are several type of typical questions:

1) Ready reference questions can be answered with one or two sources. For example: where was George Washington born?

2) Research questions that require more complex sources and should be referred to a librarian. For example: finding scholarly articles on how exercise can reduce stress.

3) Bibliographic verification where the patron has a partial citation and needs to find additional elements of the citation.


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The Reference Interview

The basic purpose of the reference interview is to determine the type, quantity, purpose, timing (deadlines), and level of information needed. Questions to ask the patron:

1. Type: Type of information needed: (short answer, scholarly source, journal, historical or primary source)

 2. Quantity: How much information is needed? (a fact, figure, book, article, multiple sources) How much information does the patron already have? Where have they already searched for information?

 3. Purpose: How is the information going to be used? Is this for a class assignment, what class is it for? (e.g. the answer and research tools can be different for a Writing About Literature class versus a Psychology class assignment). To write a research paper, a speech, thesis, dissertation? To add a line or two to an existing resource? To answer an exam question? Personal curiosity?

 4. Level: What research level is the user? First year student, graduate student, scholar, expert? Be sure to refer students and faculty to the subject liaison also.

 5. Timing:  How much time does the user have to find the information? 10 minutes, an hour, a few days, the entire semester?

  Katz, William. Introduction to Reference Work: Reference Services and Reference Processes, vol. II., 1987.

Successful Reference Interviews

There are several key elements to a successful reference interview:  Approachability, Active listening, Summary, Developing a search strategy, and Follow up.

1)    Approachability: Try to signal patrons verbally or non-verbally that you are approachable. For example: make eye contact, say hello, nod, or smile. Avoid activities that cause patrons to assume you are too busy to be interrupted. For example: having your head down in deep concentration while being engrossed in a book or article or chatting with co-workers in a manner that indicates you are busy or do not want to be interrupted. 

 2)    Active listening: Once a patron has approached you, begin with an open ended question such as: "How may I help you"? or  "May I assist you in finding information"? You should try to determine how much information in needed and what level of information is needed.

For example: Patron:  I am looking for something about Toni Morrison.

Graduate Reference Assistant (GRA): Will you tell me a bit more about the type of information you are seeking? (Ideally the patron will then give more details.) If not, you might prompt with closed ended questions such as:  Are you looking for books written by the author? Or, books or articles about the author or their work? What have you done so far? Please tell me a bit more.

 3)   Summary: You should SUMMARIZE the patrons information need by restating what they asked in your own words.

For example: GRA: Let me be sure I understand your questions. You are saying that you are looking for Toni Morrison's book "Beloved"? Is this correct?

Once it is clear that you and the patron agree about what they are seeking, encourage them.

For example: Great. We can check to see if our library has a copy of the book available.

4) Search Strategy: Once it is clear what the patron needs, you should construct a search, select search terms, and identify the most appropriate sources. Demonstrate how they can search for information on the topic, while the patron watches.

For example:GRA: Let's start by searching the Library Catalog by the author's name. Review the search results to see if we have a copy of "Beloved". If so, write down the call number for the book and direct the patron to the stacks where the book is located.

If the patron needs more detailed information, such as literary criticism of "Beloved",  you should ask one of the librarians for assistance.

5)   Follow up: Once you have led the patron to the needed resources or tools (databases, reference books, etc..) to find the needed info be sure to  FOLLOW UP.

For example:

  • Ask the patron to stop by the desk after they return from the stacks. 
  • Put the patron at a computer near you and tell them they can ask you for help if they have any additional questions.
  • If you see the patron again, ask them if they found what they needed.
  • Give them a librarian's business card to follow-up with additional questions.

Katz, William. Introduction to Reference Work: Reference Services and Reference Processes, vol. II., 1987.

Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma. Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century: An Introduction. 2004.

Further Readings on the Reference Interview

Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma. Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century: An Introduction. Second Edition Revised. 2011.

Call number (3rd floor): Z711 C355 2011