10 Tips for Reference Dialogues

The reference dialogue: books and a question mark

A cornerstone of library work is the reference interview (or interrogation if you’d prefer), as it is the principle persona for the library knowledge-base, and is increasingly the domain of library assistants and para-professionals. These are the ideas I’ve picked up from working in the public library sector.

1. Use the encyclopedias. Many students come in wanting books on obscure subjects. Especially in smaller libraries, there are no books to be found, but an encyclopedia article will do in a pinch, and is an authoratative source.

2. Ask questions. If he asks where the nonfiction section is, don’t just point at it; ask if there is anything in particular he’s looking for. Often there is, but you need to break the ice. If you’re asked for “history books,” don’t ask interrogative questions like “why do you need history books?,” but cooperative ones like “what kind are you looking for?”

3. Quality over quantity. Don’t give the patron a good book on crocheting and then eight unrelated books on knitting; start with one, and then follow up if the resource proves inadequate. Overloading him with information is not much better than doing nothing at all, as it is our job to sift the wheat from the chaff.

4. Leverage Google for the author of a title, the jargon of a field, or even how to spell an elusive word (if the mis-spelling is common, Google will list it with the question, “did you mean?”). This can be useful if you can’t understand your patron’s mumblings; search what it sounds like, and often you’ll get your answer. You can then query your library’s catalog with the details you found online.

5. Keep it simple. When a patron comes in asking how to search jobs or phone numbers online, be sure to put in a good word for the Pennysaver and phone book; they are often the more relevant choice.

6. Be nice. The theory of participation inequality applies to reference requests too. Though we will never have accurate stats, we can assume that 90% of library users who would like to know about something don’t ask, be it because they lack a definite question, feel uncomfortable, or are just quiet in general. Do you want to drive away the 10% that do ask, or make the 90% grow even larger?

7. Take initiative. If that user is staring quizzically at your biographies, or struggling with your public catalog, ask him if there’s anything you can do to help. Often, this will be the catalyst for a question-and-answer discussion that will bring out what he’s looking for.

8. Defer gracefully. For the many patrons who ask genuine questions, there are a few who will bring page-long lists of items for you to find, or expect super-human expertise from you. Offer to find the items or show them how to use the OPAC (“teach them to fish”), but if there’s a line forming, stay firm that their involved requests must wait.

9. Ask for help. If you’re having trouble finding accounts from the Spanish-American War, ask the resident history buff, or go to a reference librarian or the Internet if need be. No librarian is an island.

10. Follow up. Ask if there’s anything else he wants, or if the information you’ve provided works or is off-target. He may be afraid of being a pest, not realizing the core of the library is patron inquiries. By being open to feedback, you make the public welcome and at ease.

When we strive to be genuinely helpful, we are supporting the perpetual education of our citizens, and the library as the heart of the community.

Continued reading:
The Reference Interview by William C. Robinson
Mock Refernce Interviews by Jimmy Ghaphery