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Student Reference Assistant- Student Worker Training LibGuide: Answering Reference Questions

This is an online training guide to help new and returning Learning Commons student workers become more familiar with what to do when working at the Reference Desk

What is a reference interview?

A reference interview is a conversation between you and the library user.  Like any conversation, the key to a good reference interview lies in understanding what the person is saying.  Imagine a friend who wants to tell you about her day, but she isn't sure how much she should tell you.  After all, she doesn't want to bore you.  Just as you would have to coax the information out of your friend, you sometimes have to do that with library users.  There are a number of reasons for this.

When to answer reference questions

When to answer reference questions

As a student worker for the Learning Commons, your primary responsibility is to answer questions that library users may have about locating specific books, periodicals (journals and magazines), microfilm or electronic materials (books, documents, or articles). These situations can include:

  • I am looking for a textbook for a class. . . 
  • I have the titles to some books and the website says you have them, but I don't know where to find them. . .
  • I need to find some articles for a class assignment. . .

If you encounter a situation similar to these, begin by asking  the patron a series of questions.  These questions begin the conversation know as the reference interview. Use the information you learn from the interaction and the skills you have gained through your training sessions to provide the user with the best answer.

Your interaction with patrons typically should not last more than 5-7 minutes. If you find yourself unsure about how to answer the question or you have not found the answer within that time using the library resources, refer to the on call librarian.

What you should be able to do. . .

  • Demonstrate a positive, welcoming and friendly attitude when approached by patrons for assistance.
  • Address or appropriately refer multimedia and technical issues to Library Technology staff and/or Learning Commons staff as defined in the Student Training LibGuide.
  • Identify, select and search for materials using EBSCO Discovery Service database
  • Perform a basic reference interview as defined in the Student Training LibGuide (in person, phone or IM chat).
  • Identify and select topic-relevant LibGuides when assisting patrons.
  • Operate the catalog to identify library materials for patrons

The library user doesn't know what he/she is looking for.

In this scenario, the user has a broad topic to research that they will have to narrow down for a research project. In this case, showing the user the results for various, more-specific ideas can actually help the person find the topic that works for them.

The library user doesn't realize there are resources specific to his/her exact topic.

In this scenario, the user knows the topic they need, but they don't realize that there are specific resources to meet their needs. For example, a student trying to find a woman in politics to write about may ask for a general encyclopedia or an encyclopedia of politics or politicians. By knowing exactly what the user is looking for, you can help them find From Suffrage to the Senate: America's Political Women, an encyclopedia of women in politics.

The library user feels uncomfortable telling you what he/she is really looking for.

In this scenario, the user feels that the information they need may cause you to pass judgement on them. In this case, it is very important to respect the delicate nature of their search while also asking questions that give you more information. For example, the user may need information on abortion. To help the user, you need to ask if the information they are seeking is medical, political, historical, or ethical in nature. Avoid asking if this is for research or for personal use.

The library user thinks they've clearly told you what they are looking for.

In this scenario, there is some kind of communication barrier. The user thinks they are clearly communicating their needs, but you still don't know what they are looking for. Try paraphrasing what the user says back to them. This is a good way to see where the misunderstanding is. Avoid parroting back the terms that the user is using, as they may be using the same word but thinking of a different definitions.  For instance, in the 70s (when there were a lot of issues with plane highjackings) a library patron came into the public library, looking for schematics for a commercial airplane.  The librarian helps the man find what he is looking for.  He tells her, "Okay, now how do I blow this up?"  Taken aback, the librarian says, "Excuse me?"  The man explains that he wants to know how to enlarge the schematics on the copy machine. 

If an accent is the problem, try asking the person to spell the word you can't understand. For example, the user may sound like they are saying "crick." Asking the user to spell the word will clarify that they are saying "creek."