The Reference Interview Part 1: The Essentials

**crossposted at Literature Reviews for Library Techs**


When patrons enter a public or academic library, they often need  assistance in locating the information they are seeking.  The idea of the reference interview is to focus the query of the enquiring patron to determine what it is specifically that they are looking for.   As with other interpersonal interactions, there is a process involved in undertaking an interview.  The purpose of this article is to examine the literature to determine best practices for the essential reference interview.

This article seeks only to identify the essentials of the interview process.  A later article will examine special topics regarding the reference interview.

Before you respond to the query

The reference interview begins before the verbal interaction starts (Bopp and Smith, 62) (Jennerich and Jennerich, 10).  Ross, Nilsen, and Radford (50) point out that “inappropriate body language can keep a reference interview from ever getting started.”   First impressions are important.  The staff must appear approachable to the patron.

Eye contact, as long as it is friendly, lets the patron know that you are paying attention and interested in what they are saying.   Friendly facial gestures such as smiling and nodding can let the patron know that you are paying attention and interested.  Ross, Nilsen, and Radford also mention pausing as a strategy.  Give the patron a chance to answer your question, rather than rushing in to supply a possible answer.  There may be cultural variations regarding each of these behaviours, but generally speaking in Western culture, these gestures work to facilitate an interview (Ross, Nilsen, and Radford, 50-55).  This can be followed up by a friendly greeting, such as “Hi, how can I help you?” (Bopp and Smith, 63) This should be accompanied by a friendly tone.

Open Questions

There are several strategies that reference staff can use to focus a query.  The two most common are open questions and closed questions.  The patron will describe the nature of their enquiry.  Sometimes, this will be very specific.  Often, however, it will need to be a little more focused.   An open question is one that cannot be answered with a yes or no (Bopp and Smith, 64), and where the patron answers in their own words (Katz, 168) without you providing further details (Owen, 5).  There are no assumptions made (Ross, Nilsen, and Radford, 89).  The problem is that Yes or No questions can lead patrons in a particular direction, and not necessarily the one that will find the information they seek.  An example would be:

User: Where can I find out more information about race cars?

Staff:  What specific information about race cars would you like to find?

User: I’d like to learn more about kart racing.

Staff: What specifically would you like to learn about kart racing?

Generally, these questions begin with what, where, when, why, and how (Owen, 8-9).  Here are Owen’s criteria:

Who? might mean what kinds of people, animals, and organizations are we dealing with?

What? might mean What are those people, animals or organizations doing?

When? might mean Are we dealing with current, recent, or historical information?

Where? might mean Which localities, regions, countries do we have to consider?

Why? might mean Why are they doing it? Or Why are you, the enquirer, interested in this subject?

How? might mean what methods are they using to do it? Or How do you, the enquirer, want the subject handled?

Jennerich and Jennerich (16) point out that it can be challenging to master open questions, so they suggest that novice reference staff write down possible questions, and then apply them in interviews.

Closed Questions

Once the topic has been narrowed down, closed questions can be used to narrow the focus a little more.  They may or may not be Yes/No questions, but they can be answered with a limited range of options.  To continue with the above example:

User:  I’d like to learn more about the history of kart racing.

Staff:  Which time period are you interested in exploring?

Sometimes, the patron may start with a closed question.  In this case, the staff can either respond with a direct answer providing the specific information requested, or respond with an open question that attempts to specify the information requested.

Other types of questions and approaches

A type of closed question is a forced choice question (Owen, 6).  This is question where the staff gives the patron two options in the question and is asking if they are looking for one option or the other.

In this case, there must be two options which are readily apparent to the staff.  Another form of closed question is a leading question (Owen, 7).  As Owen says,  these are intended to lead the patron in the direction you want, and should only be used in instances where the staff is 99% sure of what the patron wants.

Neutral questions can also be asked.  They are really a form of open question.  An example would be “Can you give me more information on what kind of problem you’re working on?”  They are questions that move the conversation along in a direction that can apply to any information request (Jennerich and Jennerich).  Ross, Nilsen, and Radford (94-102) refer to them as sense-making questions.  They point out that Dewdney (1986) performed a study where  one third of staff are not trained in reference interviews, one third trained in microskills, or basic attending skills, and one third trained in sense-making questions.  The results showed that patrons received better results from staff trained in sense-making questions.

Brief encouragers can also be used to affirm that you are understanding the request.  Examples could include “OK,”  “Yes,” and “Tell me more.”   You can also use acknowledgements, where you simply restate the initial query to confirm it with the patron.

As Ross, Nilsen, and Radford say, “good listening is the foundation of all oral communication,” (58).  Active listening is important.  Research shows that of all that we hear, only about 25% will be interpreted correctly (Bopp and Smith, 67-68).  It is worthwhile to reflect back to the patron what they are saying to confirm understanding, particularly if it’s around some feeling of frustration or emotional upset.  Paraphrasing is where the staff reflects back to the patron what they have just said.  Summarizing is similar to paraphrasing, except it covers a “larger span of the conversation.” (Ross, Nilsen, and Radford 102-104).

When the reference staff has enough information based on shared understanding, it is time to start searching (Bopp and Smith, 69).  As the search process continues, you can keep asking questions to narrow the search.  As in all forms of educational processes, the reference interview at its best will involve the user, especially in public or academic libraries.  This includes the search process, where the staff can explain to the user how they are finding the information the patron is seeking.   Ideally, this will involve moving from the reference desk to a nearby patron terminal, or a table with reference books.

When presenting the answers to the patron, it is important to convey the sources of the information , as well as, if not done already, information on the search process (Bopp and Smith, 71) (Ross, Nilsen, and Radford, 112-114).  Recent research has found that patrons are increasingly asking questions that require more involved searching, as opposed to short, factual questions.  Finally, it is good to confirm with the user that this meets their information needs as expressed in their query.

Finally, closure is where the staff wraps up the interview.  In this case, you want to do so verbally, so that you are transparent with the patron (Ross, Nilsen,  and Radford, 104-105) (Bopp and Smith, 71-72).   You simply want to give a one sentence description of what has been learned, as well as a confirmation that the patron doesn’t need any further assistance.

Interviews across demographics

Interviews with children and young adults should be approached differently, as their minds aren’t as developed as adults, and they have less experience with libraries (Ross, Nilsen, and Radford).  Ross lists a number of suggestions for these interactions.  However, some of the more helpful hints I think would include involving the child more in the reference process.  Also keep in mind that, as they are less developed, they may have a tendency to mispronounce words.  Along the same lines, use basic language and avoid library jargon.  Finally, as their memory is not fully developed, they may not remember titles, but are more likely to remember characters and other visual or auditory elements of the item.

Cross-cultural factors can also play into interviews.  Nonverbal language can mean different thing across cultures.  The important thing is to do some research and learn the best ways to deal with a patron from a different culture.

ESL speakers can be a challenge.  Ross, Nilsen, and Radford make several suggestions as well.  A lot of it has to do with being patient, speaking slowly, and not using complex language.  As well, I know from working at a circulation desk in a library with a heavy ESL population, and also as a form EFL teacher in Taiwan, that a lot of it has to do with using nonverbal gestures to try to confirm understanding.


The reference interview can be viewed as a process, albeit a fluid one.  The approaches outlined above may not occur in the prescribed order, and many of them may not occur at all in a given interview.  It may depend on the personal preference of the reference staff, as well as the depth of the interview.  That said, there is a general movement from the general to the specific as the interview progresses.  Generally speaking, you will first ask open questions to drill down from a broad generality to help identify what the patron is seeking.  Closed questions may then be used pinpoint precisely the patron’s information needs.  The one cornerstone that is always present is active listening, especially where it is a complicated topic which calls for an explanation from the patron.  Make sure you understand what the patron is saying.  Unless it is a simple query, reflect it back to confirm with the patron.


Bopp, Richard E., and Linda Smith, eds.  Reference and Information Services: An Introduction.  4th ed. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited, 2011.  Print

Jennerich, Elaine Z., and Edward J. Jennerich.  Reference Interview as a Creative Art.  2nd ed.  Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1997.  Print.

Katz, William A.   Introduction to Reference Work: Reference Services and Reference Processes.  7th ed. Vol. 2.  New York: McGraw Hill, 1997.  Print.

Owen, Tim.  Success at the Enquiry Desk: Successful Enquiry Answering – Every Time.  The Successful LIS Professional.  3rd ed.  London: Library Association Publishing, 2000.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, Kirsti Nelsen, and Marie L Radford.  Conducting the Reference Interview: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians.  2nd ed.  How-To-Do-It Manuals Number 166.  New York: Neal-Schuman, 2011


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