Open Questions

Open questions are an effective way to give your patrons the freedom to express information needs in their own words, while at the same time guiding them in the direction that will best help you find the material that will fill their information need.

You should always give your patrons a chance to tell you what their questions are, rather than telling your patrons what you think they ought to be.

In the Model Reference Behaviors Checklist, open questions are in the section called INQUIRING, and are labeled "Probes". That's just what you are doing -- you are probing beneath the question that was first asked to get to the underlying information need.

An open (or neutral) question is one that can't be answered by "yes" or "no". You have probably had experiences like the following, a common result of asking closed questions:

"Do you need this for a school report?"
"No"
"Do you need this for a trip you are going to take?"
"No"

Closed questions often don't get you much closer to the patron's real need. You feel like you have to keep guessing what the patron is doing. It's much more efficient to simply ask, "What kind of information on ____________ are you looking for?" You compel the patron to talk to you about their information need rather than just saying yes or no.

If you offer choices, the patron may choose one of them even if that choice isn't what's needed. They may be trying to be agreeable, or may think the choices represent all that's available. When you offer leading questions, you are putting words in your patron's mouth and asking your patron to pick one of your choices. If you have not guessed right, you may never find out the real question.

Using open questions also saves you from having to know about the topic. You have to know something about a subject to begin with to ask a leading question. With open questions, you don't have to know anything about the subject. You just need to ask an open question like, "Can you tell me more about that?"

Go to Useful open questions.

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This page was last updated on April 28, 2003.