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The reference interview is a vital element of basic library service, so improving your skills in this area can significantly enhance your own and your library's performance.

  • Are you - or someone you supervise - new to working at a reference or information desk?
  • Would you like to be better at getting library users to tell you what they really want when they ask you for help?
  • Do you ever spend time looking for an answer to the question the user asked and then have to back track and start over when you discover what the real question is?
  • Would knowing how to "cut to the chase" save you time at the desk and help you handle your workload?

In this course you will find out why people rarely tell you right away exactly what they are looking for. You will learn and practice the key elements of a good reference interview so that they become part of your own on-the-job "tool box." The course will also cover the basics of coaching a colleague/partner in reference interview skills so that you can effectively practice and transfer what you have learned to others at your library.

Workshop Description: This all-day basic course will provide an overview of the reference interview and its main components. Through extensive practice and exercises interspersed with discussion, you will become comfortable with using proven methods for eliciting library users' information needs. You will also practice coaching techniques that you can use after you return to your library to make your new skills a permanent part of your work life. The instructor will provide a checklist, a list of useful reference interview phrases, and a bibliography/webliography, as well as other practical, useful tips that can be applied immediately.

Reference interviewing improves with practice. You will get the most out of this course if you attend with someone else from your library so that you can continue to work together on improving your skills after the course is over.

Pre-workshop assignment: Before coming to the workshop, you are expected to read the material on the reference interview offered by California Opportunities for Reference Excellence (CORE), found at (This is a reading assignment only. You are not expected to complete the exercises.)

Also, try to spend some time before the workshop listening to how you or others ask for help in stores and/or service agencies. Are you comfortable asking for exactly what you need right away? Why or why not?

Preliminary Course Outline:

  • Definition of the Reference Interview
  • Components of the Reference Interview
    • Welcoming
    • Gathering information with open questions
    • Confirming the exact question
    • Following up
  • Special Contexts
    • Busy times
    • School assignments
    • Cultures other than your own
    • Telephone, email and virtual reference
  • Taking it Home: Coaching for Effective Skill Transfer
    • Why do it?
    • Make an agreement ahead of time
    • Be supportive; make it positive

Post-Training Follow-Up: Between 12 and 15 days following each session of this course, there will be a follow-up conference call (approximately 45 minutes to an hour) for trainees, scheduled at a time agreed upon by the group. The conference call (AKA "conversation circle") will be facilitated by the instructor and will address troubleshooting, special barriers, and any other particularly challenging situations that have come up since you've been back on the job. There will be no cost for the conference call.

Workshop Instructor: Sallie Pine