The Reference Interview

Discovering the patron's real information need

The first question a patron asks is often simply a conversation opener - a way to say "hello". Sometimes patrons are really just trying to find out if you are an approachable, friendly person.

The patron may ask, "Do you work here?" or "Can you answer a question?" The patron is actually saying, "Hello, I'm here. Please pay attention to me." Sometimes these opening statements are recognizable right away.

Sometimes, however, the first statement sounds like a real, specific question, when actually the patron is still just feeling you out. You may get questions like, "Where is the section on dogs?” or "Do you have a history of Italy?"

There is always a more specific need behind those questions!

The first patron above may be looking for the address of a Cocker Spaniel Club or the local leash law. The second patron may be looking for a map of Italy, the history of Rome, or an evaluation of tour companies that go to Sicily.

Discovering that real information need will help you do a much more efficient and successful job of helping the patron.

There are many places these model reference behaviors have been incorporated. One of the most important is ALA’s Reference and User Services Association’s Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals (1996). . You can also find information and guidelines from RUSA on other topics relating to professional services and user services at the RUSA Reference and User Services Association web site.

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This page was last updated on April 22, 2003.