Reference Interview

Why don't patrons ask for exactly what they need?

Patrons are trying to be helpful and they tend to ask questions in a way they think will help you answer them easily. If they can get "the book" on the subject, they will look up the answer themselves. This leads to very common phenomena -- questions that are too broadly stated.

Patrons don't realize that information on any one subject can be found in many different forms (books, magazines, pamphlets, videos, microform, electronic sources, Internet) and in many different locations in the library (non-fiction, teen, new books, reference).

Patrons don't realize how libraries are organized and shouldn't have to!

Patrons will often ask for “a book” on something. If you knew the specific question, it might be answered by another source -- the WORLD ALMANAC or a magazine for example.

Another reason patrons may not express their information need is that the request may be of a highly personal nature - perhaps a medical or legal problem, and the patron may be embarrassed to share it, or simply feel that it's none of your business.

You need to be tactful to convey the idea that your job requires you to discover a person’s information need. Try to communicate the idea that the more information you have, the better job you can do in getting the patron the material that will be of the most help.

To do that, you need to:

  1. Make the patron feel comfortable.

  2. Be approachable.

  3. Be sensitive - you may need to go with the patron to a quiet place in the library.

Even when patrons are not reluctant to share their questions, they may have difficulty articulating their needs due to a lack of knowledge of the subject.

Go to Model reference behaviors.

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This page was last updated on April 25, 2003.