The Reference Interview Part II: Special Topics

**crossposted at Literature Review for Library Techs**


In my previous post on reference interviews, I discussed some of the basics of giving a reference interview, the process of doing so, and drilling down to find out specifically what the patron is looking for.

Here, I wanted to explore some interesting research that has been conducted on ways to improve best practices in this area.  After the first section on Ross, you will find among these sources a particular emphasis on understanding psychological perspectives on the reference interview.

Ross: The importance of using the reference interview in every situation

Catherine Ross (2003) argues that it is important to use the reference interview in every situation.  She cites three points to support this argument:

Less time is spent

1)      By library staff looking for the wrong thing

2)      Within the library system processing book transactions and library loans for the wrong materials

3)      By e-reference staff in typing out answers that direct users to the wrong electronic resources

Ross cites studies by her and Dewdney (1994)(1998) that analyze the patron’s perspective of the reference process.  They identified four common problems that occur in these transactions.

The first problem is the “without speaking she began to type manoeuver.”  This occurs in about a quarter of reference transactions.  The staff starts to type as soon as the initial question is asked, and does not speak to the user to clarify.  In this case, not only does the staff not clarify what the patron is looking for, but the patron doesn’t learn anything about the search process.

The second problem is “bypassing the reference interview.”  In half of all interactions, the reference interview is not even conducted.

The third problem is “taking a system-based perspective.”  This is where the staff asks questions of the patron regarding the library system, such as “Did you check the catalogue?” and “Have you used this index before?”  Rather than using library jargon, the staff should ask the patron questions in the language with which they are familiar, and will encourage them to describe their information needs in their own terms.

The fourth problem is “the unmonitored referral.”  This is where the reference staff refers the user to a resource in the library, such as a call number or an index, but does not follow up to make sure the user found what they were looking for, often leaving the user unsatisfied.   This occurred in about one-third of the transactions.

Ultimately, Ross recommends taking a user’s perspective in the reference interview.  User’s needs can be quite complex.  A simple request such as the request to see a phone book can “mask complex information needs that require a range of resources and often a referral.”

The Reference Interview as Partnership

Similarly, Mabry (2003) emphasises the importance of seeing the reference interview as a partnership between the reference staff and the user.  She explores the cooperative learning model.  Applied at the reference desk, it means that the reference staff knows more about the library, but the user knows more about their research need.  There are three fundamental areas which are examined:

  1. The expectations brought to the encounter and how it shapes the outcome of the interview.
  2. The fact that the reference staff and the user are equals in the process.
  3. That we are engaging in a single moment in time that won’t recur, and that we shouldn’t consider it lightly.

Mabry talks about getting help.  There should be cooperation among reference staff, so there will be “a truly expert group of individuals, ready to help.”  There is also cooperation between the staff and the user, in that they are both learning from each other.  What the staff answers in the interview is reinforced in their own minds.  The nonverbal exchange is also important; if we come across as rushed or impatient, then we are teaching that the question is not very important.

Both parties are equals in the reference process.  The staff is not the expert in what the user needs.  That includes not second guessing what they need.  You can make suggestions about a different format or resource than the user is suggesting, but it is up to the user what the focus will be.  Conversely, the user has a responsibility to not simply dump an assignment on the reference staff and expect the staff to simply arrive at a “diagnosis.”  The reference relationship is an equal one with equally shared responsibility.

Another important aspect of equality is not judging the views of the user.  Even if nothing is said, the “judgement will be felt by the user.”  It may also take us out of the moment and adversely affect the staff’s ability to answer the user’s question.

The Cognitive Interview

According to Moody and Carter (1999), the interpersonal nature of the reference interview demands that we understand how we store and process information.  There are five empirically validated principles of memory retrieval structured around the cognitive interview:

Context reinstatement suggests that an event is more likely to be recalled if the stimuli surrounding it are recreated.  This concept can be utilized in the reference interview through the recall of both physical and psychological context.  The physical context might include shelf and table areas, book colours, etc., while the psychological context might have the patron think about how they felt during the episode in question (e.g. frustrated, angry, confident, etc.)

Focussed retrieval implies that recall of stimuli will be negatively affected if there is another task being performed simultaneously.  In the interview, this could be simply minimized by eliminating competing stimuli, such as noise and interruptions.

Extensive retrieval is states that recall of stimuli will increase as recall tests are given over time. This concept can be incorporated into the reference interview by asking the user to make numerous memory searches, even after they feel that “all possible items have been recalled.”  In the interview scenario, the reference staff would not simply repeat the same question, but rather find ways to rephrase or reform the question.

Varied retrieval has to do with the concept of schemas.  A schema is a cognitive representation of a structured scenario.  Where you can take multiple perspectives of one particular scenario, you will recall more information from the perspective that you are asked to take.  For example, in an experiment, subjects were asked to take the perspective of a house from the perspective of either a house-buyer or a burglar.  A recall test is performed, followed by a second recall test where the subjects switch perspective.  Subjects recalled much more information related to the second perspective in the second recall.  An example of varied retrieval in a reference interview would be asking the patron if they looked in a particular section of the library, such as the recent periodicals, or asking them what they did when they first arrived.

Multiple representations states that an event may be stored and therefore recalled in two different forms.  In an interview situation, you could begin by asking the user for an open ended description of the query.  This could provide the reference staff with various kinds of the “patron’s images or mental representations of the items to be recalled.”  The staff can then consider these images separately having them recall images in various situations, such as recording the assignment, the assignment while it was on their desk, or a visualization of the instructor discussing the information.

The Social Style of Patrons

Sisselman performed a study to determine if different social styles of patrons might affect their perception (as well as the reference staff’s perception) of the quality of the reference interview.

As a theoretical base, Sisselman used social style theory, which divided people into four different social styles, based on two different dimensions of human behaviour, as shown in the below diagram.

Social Styles

In the study, five reference librarians were observed conducting a total of 24 reference interviews.  All subjects were given a questionnaire after each interview.  After the first twelve interviews, the librarians were given information about social style theory, and about how to ascertain the social styles of different people.  Strategies were also suggested for dealing with people of varying social styles.

Almost all patrons, regardless of social style, found what they were looking for and were satisfied with the exchange, and that was the impression of the librarians as well. Librarians and patrons were most out of sync on the question of whether anything was taught or learned during the interview.  This was most significant with respect to patrons who were drivers.  Before the training, librarians scored the interviews more highly than after the training.  Patrons evaluated the interviews roughly equally before and after training.  There was, however, a much weaker correlation between their respective views before the training as opposed to after.

Though the social styles are divided roughly equally across the general population, it is interesting to note that most of the patrons in the study were analyticals.  Since twenty percent of analyticals were satisfied with the interview even though it may not have been initially what they initially requested, it seems possible to expand on a request, and that the patron may learn something new from the reference staff.

Mental Models Theory

A mental model is the working model of a real-world system that is constructed in someone’s mind.  A conceptual model is a complete and accurate representation of the system in question.  Based on LIS research in the past on mental models theory, Mitchel set up a study where librarians and users were observed in a reference interaction.  After each interaction, both parties were separately interviewed.  They were asked two questions:

  1. Initially, how easy did you think it was going to be to find an answer to this question?
  2. As it turned out, how easy was it to find an answer to the question?

Results showed that both parties overestimated the difficulty of answering the questions, but that patrons tended to think that their questions would be easier to answer than librarians did.  Librarians were not able to predict how easy it would be to answer a question, even though they would have a more accurate mental model of the system.  Mitchell and Dewdney interpreted these results as showing that the librarian and the user have different mental models of the library system, the librarians being a closer approximation of the conceptual model of the system.


Once you delve a little bit beneath the surface, things get very interesting.  The reference interview is one of those areas of library studies that is more art or social science than hard science, and is centered upon human interaction.  With Ross, we took a look at the results of some studies where library students played the role of users, and some of the unhelpful shortcuts that reference staff tend to make.  We followed up with attempts to understand these interactions through psychological perspectives.  Cognitive psychology, cognitive science, and social psychology all help us develop ways of enhancing and developing new best practices for them.  Interdisciplinary approaches, in my mind, are always helpful to understand a fuller picture of a topic within library studies, or within any discipline for that matter.


Dewdney, Patricia, and Catherine Sheldrick Ross. “Flying a Light Aircraft: Reference Service Evaluation from a User’s Viewpoint.” RQ 34.2. (1994): 217-231. Print

Kluegel, Kathleen, Catherine Sheldrick Ross, Jana Ronan, Kathleen Kern, and David Tyckson. “The Reference Interview: Connecting in Person and in Cyberspace.”  Reference & User Services Quarterly.  43.1. (2003): 37-51. Print.

Mabry, Celia Hales. “The Reference Interview as Partnership: An Examination of Librarian, Library User, and Social Interaction.” The Reference Librarian 40.83/84. (2003): 41-56. Print.

Mitchell, Gillian, and Patricia Dewdney. “Mental Models Theory: Applications for Library and Information Science.” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 39.4. (1998): 275-281. Print.

Moody, Janette, and Elizabeth Carter. “Application of the Cognitive Interview by the Reference Librarian.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 38.4 (1999): 389. Academic Search Elite. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, and Patricia, Dewdney. “Negative Closure: Strategies and Counter-Strategies in the Reference Transaction.” Reference & User Services Quarterly 38.2 (1998): 151-163. Library Literature & Information Science Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 10 Dec. 2012.

Sisselman, Peggy. “Exploiting the Social Style of Patrongs to Improve their Statisfaction with the Reference Interview.” Library Review 58.2 (2009): 124-133. Library, Information Science & Technology Abstracts. Web. 10 Dec. 2012.


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