Reference Interview

In brief:

  • Your patron's wants are your patron's needs.
  • Listen closely to find out what your patron wants and then make sure the patron has either found it or a way to get it.
  • Be nice to all patrons. Remember, honey catches more flies than vinegar.


  • What is the actual question? You will need to actively listen and show genuine interest and empathy to find this out;
  • How will your patron use the information? This can be a delicate point. While it is important to respect your patron's privacy, it is often necessary to know how your patron will be using the information. This will help you make sure that you are getting the information s/he is looking for.
  • How much material is needed? Resist the urge to drown your patrons in information. Maybe they do just want to know what time it is, not how to build a watch. On the other hand, make sure they get all the information they need, and that it is accurate.
  • What level of information is needed? Don't anticipate your patron's level of needs or sophistication. Let them tell you.
  • How quickly does your patron need the information? Some information becomes useless when it is late and sometimes late is sooner than you think.

Tricks of the trade

  • People usually come to the librarian after looking elsewhere and are often frustrated because they have not found what they are looking for.
  • Active listening means working hard to make sure you are hearing what the patron is saying to you. Everyone has trouble expressing what they mean. It may be necessary to ask a patron during the interview questions such as "What kind of information about are you looking for?" in an effort to discover what the individual needs really are. When the patron replies, "What I'm really looking for is...",you will know you have succeeded.
  • Never make anything up and never give an answer without confirming it in a reliable source.
  • Do not force your help on a patron who does not want it, but be approachable so that patrons will feel secure in asking for help.
  • Remember that everyone is a student.
  • Make sure you are answering your patron's question, not giviher/him your answer.
  • Close the interview on a positive note. If you cannot help the patron, find someone who can. Try to follow-up in some way, and make it possible for your patron to tell you if s/he needs additional help at a later time.
  • The reference interview is a subtle interaction. It can be harder to determine the actual question than to locate the accurate answer.

There is a lot to reference, but it is important to meet your public's informational and recreational needs. Remember the more you practice, the better you will become.

ASPeN: The New Library Directory

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