Reviewing the Reference Interview

Tonight I start my first evening at the reference desk, and I was brushing up on the Reference Interview and found an old assignment I had done on the subject. It looks like it had been my duty to read everyone’s write-ups and post a collection of our experiences. We had played at “secret shoppers” talking to librarians, seeking their help with a question of our own choosing.

It looks like I had a lot of data to go through! Lots of insights. I am going to share this write-up, figuring it’s helpful insight about one of the more important and constant aspects of any librarian job: reference. I am making a couple of edits, but for the most part, with a bit of intro here, I figure it’s pretty good. This is something originally written by me, and the data is mainly from students in my course with me. If I had kept up my blogging more while getting the degree, this might have ended up posted far sooner! I do have a couple of references, and I will leave those as-is.

It’s also kind of fun to read it and think that it’s definitely in my same “voice,” something that is solidifying more with more and more time spent writing on a constant basis!

The Reference Interview

This week’s topic was the Reference Interview. According to Ohio Reference Excellence:

-“The reference interview answers the basic question: what does the patron really want to know?” (1)

I liked the way this site broke down the information, and it’s really too bad that a lot of people got reports saying this website is infected or in some other way malicious. For all I know, I now have a virus, but also knowledge. (We’ll see what I think of the trade.) The site broke down the steps of the reference interview:


-Open Questions



-Getting all the needed information (the “6 pieces of evidence”)

-Following Up

-Ending the Interview (2)


And the “6 pieces of evidence” to get are:



-Type and Amount



-The Basic Question (3)


The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) guidelines for a good reference interview are:





-Follow-up (4)


The reference interview begins with the premise that the question asked is not the question the user wants the answer to, or, in other words, the question is not yet well formed when the user first asks it. The librarian’s job then is to peel back the layers and to find out what is needed – a perfectly formed initial question is more likely to be “where is the restroom?” or else from a secret shopper like ourselves. Notice the first four items Ohio Reference Excellence lists: all pertain to figuring out exactly what the user is asking, by paraphrasing back the question in more search-able terms, asking open questions so the user provides more information, clarifying and verifying to make sure the need is understood by the librarian. And then the more closed questions that can help determine the “6 pieces of evidence.”

We all conducted a pair of reference interviews, from the user side, and our experiences and observations are an excellent learning tool. We had a variety of good and bad experiences, both of which teach quite a bit. The walk-through in this video is also excellent for thinking through both a good and a bad reference interview: . We seem to have generally used the RUSA standards to consider our reference interviews, thinking first in terms of how approachable the reference desk and librarian were (some were tucked away, sometimes we weren’t greeted); interest and encouragement were often expressed; careful listening and inquiring questions were used in a wide range (from not at all to just right); the searches were in general successful; and follow up was fairly low. If I were to rate the top two purposes of a reference interview, based on our observations, I would say:

-Finding some information


I would say privacy, because it seems none of us had to come up with a cover story for why we were asking our questions; the librarians remained impartial and willing to help with our searches. I also say finding “some” information because even simply determining that the question was understood correctly was not universal. Paraphrasing seems like it was rare.

Very few reference interviews included every part of the best practices of a reference interview. This left the hanging question, are these steps a checklist or a process for using best practices? Are we just going through motions or truly accomplishing something? And if not every step is always necessary, what steps are necessary?

To quote our facilitator, Carolyn Fagan, “You can read all the articles and watch all the videos about how to conduct a good reference interview, but it was my experience with the face-to-face interview that really drove home the importance of being friendly and approachable” (5). Unapproachable situations rarely ended with a satisfied secret shopper. Many of us compared the approachability and friendliness of children’s librarians with the distance and coldness of some of the “adult” librarians. Showing interest was not mentioned as often, but I know my librarians showed interest in my question, and it made me feel more comfortable. Creating a sense of ease in the reference interview can really make a difference.

Many of the interviews might not actually be interviews in the true sense: not a lot of questioning happened. We were prepared for questions, and they were not forthcoming. Then the librarian just searched some and provided sources. Don’t make assumptions! Being right in that case might just as well be a case of luck as of anything else. Remember our central premise is that we’re assuming the reference question is not yet fully formed when the user first asks it. Listening and inquiring are key, because otherwise the transaction is lacking. Many of the online searches in particular lacked questions – and some of these ended up with little more than a Google search being provided. Did the librarian assume we knew how to use an online chat but not Google? Some of the searches also seemed like they were interested in speed, or quantity, but it seems that quality would have been our preference, and meeting our specific information need would have been ideal.

In terms of the search itself, even this was not always present. Sometimes the librarian merely instructed in the use of a tool, or a possible search term. Letting the user do the search is good, but we had a far more favorable response overall to the librarian assisting in-person at the librarian’s computer, a terminal, or else online with co-browsing. Involving the user combines the search and instruction, and seemed very well received. The chat logs at the end of online interactions, in particular, are both a record of what items were found during the search, and also a handy instruction tool for later on.

That is, if the librarian talked through their search techniques. Or, better put, fill the silence while you search! Often we felt ignored or abandoned while the librarian searched; however, the librarians who talked us through their search – or even just informed us a search was in progress – made us feel comfortable.

It seems that of all the steps, follow-up was the most neglected. In many cases, we felt that we would use the service again, though we were not invited to do so. Or were we, with the librarian’s enthusiasm and helpfulness?

I do not have an answer to which steps are most important, or whether all are always necessary. For instance, not many of our transactions seem to have included questions to obtain the “6 pieces of evidence,” yet in most cases we received some good starting materials, at the very least. Does experience help us determine these things without asking? Were most of our questions rather simple or straightforward? Did we volunteer more information than we realized? Or, were the librarians so interested in privacy and confidentiality that they did not nail down specifics? Questions to ask ourselves as we move forward.

Two closing observations:

-Don’t discourage the user early on. Making it sound like success is unlikely is just a bad move. If success seems unlikely, try to find something in inter-library loan, or in some way work on a referral. Several online librarians focused on only the local library, for instance, when the Internet gives us options for accessing so much more! My online librarian did the opposite: made success sound likely before she even got started. It really got me excited, and I didn’t actually really “need” the information we were searching for.

-Watch out for saying “good luck” to close the interview! It sounds like that can be perceived as “good luck finding anything,” which can leave us feeling hopeless in our search, or patronized in terms of our searching skills. Again, I suppose, this is discouraging.

Be encouraging, the information is out there! Finding both the (real) question and (the source of) the answer is the name of the game.







(5) Fagan, C. (2009, September 8). The Reference Interview [Online forum comment]. Retrieved from


About CompGeekDavid
Co-founder, editor, podcaster, web comicer, forum moderator, and writer for Comparative Geeks. Father, husband, geek, nerd, gamer, librarian, Christian, Libertarian, Science Fiction philosopher, and probably a number of other descriptors.

One Response to Reviewing the Reference Interview

  1. I should add that this is all based on underlying professional guidelines, from the ALA:


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