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Services & Reference Assistant -Training LibGuide: Answering Reference Questions

This is an online training guide to help new and returning student workers become more familiar with what to do when working at the Services and/or 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.

There are 7 Steps to conducting a proper Reference Interview: 

1. Approachability

All students, staff, faculty, and members of the community need information. Sometimes the first question is really just trying to find out if you are approachable and friendly. These questions may range from “Do you work here?” to “Where are the engineering books?”  

Your task is to go from that initial contact with the patron to actually finding out their needs. Make yourself approachable!


-Establish eye contact

-Give a friendly greeting

2. Interest

It is important that you show the patron that you are interested and focused on what they are asking you. If you appear bored, or uninterested, it may come off as rude or intimidating and patrons will decide to forgo asking any questions. Some ways to show the patron that you are interested are to: 

-Maintain eye contact

-Make attentive comments

-Give full attention

-Speak in comfortable, relaxed tone

3. Listening

Listening is how you discover the patrons information needs. Often, they may not know how to articulate what it is that they need, so it is up to you to be a good listener to determine their true information inquiry. 

- Do NOT interrupt the patron. Wait until they have finished explaining their information need. 

- Paraphrase what the patron has asked in order to demonstrate that you were listening and understand what they are asking you. (repeat back what the patron said in their own words without adding any thoughts or questions of your own. Paraphrasing can help with a patron who keeps repeating their request over and over.)

-Ask clarifying questions if you are not sure about the request (Clarifying can be used to make sure you have all the details you need. Example: “Do you need black and white photos or color photos?” )

4. Interviewing

Open-ended questions are an effective way to give your patrons the freedom to express the information needs in their own words. 

-Ask open-ended questions to probe. 

-Verify a specific question by paraphrasing and using a closed question to confirm request. Verifying avoids “jumping to conclusions.”

5. Searching

It is important that the patron understands that you are working on their request. Keep them informed on the progress of their reference question. 

-Keep customer informed of progress whether over the phone or by showing the screen to the patron.

- Offer referrals. If you are unable to provide them with their desired results, offer a referral to a librarian or library that may be able to assist them. 

6. Answering

Always give the patron a clear answer, even if you are referring them to someone or somewhere else. 

-Speak clearly and distinctly.

-Cite the source.

-Check with the patron to be sure the information offered matches the information needed.

-Check with the patron to be sure the information is understood.

-Check with the patron to be sure that the method of access can be followed.

7. Follow-up

After providing an answer be sure to follow-up with the patron to determine if all of their information needs have been met. 

-Ask the patron if they have everything they need.  

-Use appropriate follow-up questions or statements.