Referring Questions

When you can't find the answer in your library, always offer to refer the question.

The world of information is so vast that there is a good chance that even the most difficult-sounding request can be answered. Patrons do not always understand that libraries offer referral services and so may not request that you pursue the question. You need to specifically offer this service.

Patrons are often reluctant to put you to the trouble of referring their questions. You will need to assure them that this is a standard library service and one the library is happy to provide.

If you don't have time to do a thorough search in your branch refer the question immediately rather than letting it sit unanswered until you have time to work on it. If you find time to work on it later, check with your system reference center (or your headquarters library) to find out what has already been done to avoid duplication of searching.

Many questions sound impossible. Suppose your patron asks for directions on how to build a life-size replica of the state capital building. You may be tempted not to refer questions like that, but give it a try anyway. Even though your patron may not, in the end, get step-by-step instructions, you may be able to supply a history or discussion of the issue that would be helpful. And remember that what sounds impossible to you may be really easy for those working with a larger collection.

Sometimes patrons ask for something that we can't provide due to policy considerations. You know we can't, for example, diagnose a patron's medical condition. Explain clearly to the patron what the library can do to help, and refer a question based on what the library offers.

There are some questions that are clearly impossible to give the answer a patron might want. For example, one patron asked for a photograph of Jesus to see “what he really looked like.” You could respond that cameras weren’t invented during this time period, but some patrons will pursue these kinds of topics with you.

Directions for building a perpetual motion machine, the “real” assassin of John F. Kennedy, or other seemingly nonsensical or impossible questions may come from patrons at the reference desk. The main point is to stay focused and take each request seriously. At some point, you will need to deal with patrons who are asking for clearly impossible information, but try to do it in a manner that doesn’t demean or degrade them as individuals.

The person asking for a photograph of Jesus may just want information on the Shroud of Turin, and a short reference interview will bring that information out.

Go to Completing referral forms.

Back to Who knows the answer.

Back to Table of Contents.

Back to MORE Home Page.

This page was updated October 26,2003.