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Reference Training: Answering Reference Questions

The purpose of this guide is to provide information on reference service and resources for library staff and others who may have the opportunity to assist patrons in a liaison's absence.

ALA Guidelines

The ALA Guidelines are for training, development and evaluting of library professionals and staff.

Remember WORF


W = welcoming, open attitude and body language

O = open-ended questions

R = restating/rephrasing the question

F =   ask follow-up questions

Recently Published Books on Reference Services

 
 
 
Harmeyer, D. (2014). The reference interview today: Negotiating and answering questions face to face, on the phone, and virtually. Lanham, Maryland. Rowman & Littlefield. 
 
 
Janes, J. (2003). Introduction to reference work in the digital age. New York, New York: Neal-Schuman
 
 
 
Nims, J., & Storm, P. (2014). Implementing an inclusive staffing model for today's reference services: A practical guide for librarians. New York: Rowman & Littlefield. 
 
 
 
 
Ross, C., & Nilsen, K. (2002). Conducting the reference interview: A how-to-do-it manual for librarians. New York: Neal-Schuman. 
 
 
 

Journals in the Evans Library

Below is a sampling of the many fine journals available through the Evans Library on the topic of Reference Services.
To find these and other periodicals that are available in full text: print, microform, or electronic, use the A to Z Journals tab on the Library's website. If you have a journal title abbreviation, search for the full title using the link listed below.
  • Reference & User Services Quarterly
  • Reference Librarian 
  • Reference Services Review

The Reference Interview

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

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 four key elements to a successful reference interview:  Approachability, Active listening, Summary and Follow up.

1)    Approachability: Avoid activities that cause patrons to assume you are to 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"?

For example: Patron:  I am looking for something about Ernest Hemingway.

Reference staff person: 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, articles, or a specific piece of literature? 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:Reference staff person: Let me be sure I understand your questions. You are saying that you are looking for literary criticism about Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea"? You want journal articles.  Is this correct?

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

For example: Great. I am sure we can find some information about this topic.

Or This one is a bit tricky but I know that we will find some materials for you.

At this point, it is a good time to know the patron's time frame for finding the information.

4)   Follow up: Once you have lead 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.

Dialogues for reference librarians referring to data services