Wikipedia defines a reference interview as a conversation between a librarian and a library user in which the librarian responds to the user’s initial explanation of their information need by first attempting to clarify that need and then by directing the user to appropriate information resources.
About the learner:
First you must know who “the learner” is. This will help to clarify their exact information needs.
- What course they are studying. This will help determine what starting point their enquiry is coming from.
- What level. A foundation degree student may require a more detailed answer, with more types of resources, than someone studying a first diploma.
- What purpose. A student may be starting research for a big end of year project, or may simply be satisfying their curiosity.
The learner’s real question:
Sometimes what the learner asks for and what they actually need are two different things. I recently had an enquiry where I was asked if we have any books on the 1950s. From our conversation I clarified that this learner was a fashion student who was really interested in 1950s fabric prints.
- There is often a fundamental conflict between what the learner asks and the material that would answer their question.
- The learner may not be clear themselves exactly what their real question is.
- The learner may have difficulty articulating their real information needs.
The reference interview:
- Be welcoming and open! Smile!
- Ask open questions like: tell me more about what you need?
- Consider probing questions, closed questions, repeating or rephrasing
the question to make sure you’ve got it.
- Ask clarifying questions to determine the learner’s real information needs.
- Find the information for the learner. Do not give them a scrap of paper with a number scribbled on it.
- Finish by following up with the learner as to whether you have answered
their question, or helped them enough to get started.
- Consider, where appropriate, offering relevant journals or database searches for further reading. One big problem for academic libraries is learner’s not being aware of all the resources available to them.
This conversation is paramount to raising the aspirations of all learners, engaging and creating a pleasant learning environment.
It is why we do this!