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A reference interview creates a partnership between you, as a reference provider, and library patrons seeking information. You work together towards a clear understanding of what they want to know, in order to efficiently and effectively link them to the resources needed.

Your skills in doing a reference interview can lead to this successful partnership. Building a toolkit of these skills is important if:

  • You are new to working at a public library reference or information desk.
  • You want to improve your methods for clarifying what the user really wants to know.
  • You have spent time to answer what you thought was the question, only to discover that it wasn't the patron's real information need.
  • You want to use a few open-ended clarifying questions instead of a dozen either/or questions.

Effective reference interview skills help you better manage the demands of a busy reference desk and provide the excellent customer service that will bring patrons back for more help. Whether you are a new reference provider, or have 20 years of experience, this workshop provides an opportunity to share your perspectives, to learn from your library colleagues, and to collectively explore best practices in the reference interview.

Workshop Description: This full-day workshop focuses on the complete reference interview, from approachability to positive closure for the transaction. Through discussion and activities, you will identify the behaviors that welcome the patron and set the tone for the reference partnership. In practice exercises, you will clarify the real information need through a combination of open and "sense-making" questions. You will look at how to handle situations when library patrons may be asking for advice rather than information, especially medical or legal advice. You will take away handouts on sense-making questions, a checklist to use for self assessment, suggestions for follow-up, and a list of additional resources, as well as practical tips that can be applied immediately.

Preliminary Course Outline

  • Approachability and Setting the Tone
    • Elements of communication
    • Welcoming behaviors
    • Proactive welcoming
    • Welcoming on the telephone
  • Ill-Formed Queries
    • Why the initial question may not be the real information need
  • Clarifying the Information Need
    • When to use open and closed questions
    • When to use sense-making questions
    • Asking WHY without saying WHY
    • Determining the context for the information need
  • Inclusion and Instruction
    • Making the patron a partner in the search
    • One-on-one instruction
    • How differing perspectives and communication styles may affect a reference transaction
  • Advice, Not Information
    • Guidelines for dealing with medical and legal questions
  • Positive Closure
    • Making an effective referral
    • Successfully concluding the reference transaction

Workshop Instructor: Mary Ross