Episode 213: Reference

1930's - ca. - Alma Custead, Librarian, and Staff

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Contents of this page:
    • Introduction
    • Background
    • The Reference Interview
    • Other Reference Skills
    • Books We are Reading
    • Conclusion
    • Some Further Resources



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Reference work is what most people think of when they think about a library. Take a moment to picture it in your heads: do you see a smiling person behind the desk, maybe typing into the computer, maybe handing you a book?

That is certainly not wrong, and in addition to this type of service it also involves a lot of other work. Reference is increasingly moving away from sitting behind a desk and waiting for people to come to you with their lovely, well-thought out questions. Instead it now involves setting up a lot of material people can use on their own schedules, spending time training people in using online databases and other resources, and being present in many other locations. Library people go on rounds with doctors to provide on the spot reference work, they are embedded in academic departments – some going to class to provide resources as the lecture progresses, some present in office hours in a department to help students and faculty quickly and easily. We are also online with our patrons, providing chat services as well as online forms they can use. Library staff can push websites to patrons they are working with online, or answer questions immediately – so helpful!

Working at a Reference desk means a lot of time spent helping patrons do some things we regard as basic skills: signing into an email account, saving a document to a flash drive. But for many patrons, especially in a public library setting, these are skills they do not yet have, so the help is so important to them. There is also a lot of time spent fixing printers, troubleshooting the computer monitors, helping people connect to the Wi-Fi system on their tablets or phones. And of course, the most common Reference question has never changed: Where is the bathroom?

Whether your work in Reference is helping advanced researchers finding material to help them win the next Nobel Prize, or if it involves the more mundane questions of “my teacher says I need to find an author born on my birthday” – it all matters to patrons. As with so much we talk about on this podcast, there is a system to help you answer questions the best way possible!


The Reference Interview

The standard Reference text book, Reference and Information Services by Bopp & Smith, defines Reference interview as the “Conversation between a member of the library reference staff and a library user for the purpose of clarifying the user’s needs and aiding the user in meeting those needs”

As a profession, we have built that into a useful system to help us answer questions relatively painlessly. You may not follow it all exactly as designed for every question; but knowing that this exists can help you to feel more confident in your skills for finding information.

We are leaning on materials put together by the University of Illinois library school on reference interviews. You can find the link to this material on our podcast page, to explore everything else they have to share!


Patron Misconceptions, or Why the Reference Interview is Necessary

  • My question is stupid.
  • The librarian does not really want to help me.
  • I should know how to find this myself.
  • I don’t really know what I need, but the librarian will.

We can overcome all of this! You need to be proactive in breaking down those patron walls so we can be ready to provide them with all kinds of good information

  1. On your Initial contact with the patron:
    • Be approachable, smile.
    • Exhibit helpfulness.
    • Concentrate on the patron; eliminate distractions.
    • Show interest in the patron’s information need.
    • Treat all patrons as equally important.
    • Note non-verbal cues.

This is where you might adopt a retail model and actively ask people if you can help them. Patrons can be embarrassed about asking for help, or think they are bothering you – so take that step to show them you are ready to find great information for them!

2. Question negotiation

  • Encourage patron to reveal more about the question.
  • Use open-ended questions.  Keep the conversation going.
  • Concentrate only on the question.
  • Don’t interrupt.
  • Restate or paraphrase the question.
  • Don’t jump to conclusions.
  • Adapt your style to the patron.  Find a vocabulary in common.
  • Learn the approximate ‘size’ of the answer needed.
  • Use the cues and clues embedded within the question.

This is the hardest part for many patrons – they have an idea of what they want, but it’s hard to really know how to get that across! Everyone who has worked with books, in libraries or in bookstores, has had the question: I need a book; it’s red. Can you help me find it?

BUT: We now have an answer! Well, a partial answer! The New England Law Library has cataloged books by color, so you can actually search for all the blue books!

The other “classic” question is from people looking for books, but the title became garbled between hearing about it and coming to the desk. A little back and forth on the questioning will help!

A few examples

  • Tequila Mockingbird
  • How to Kill a Mockingbird
  • We All Fall Down (for Things Fall Apart)
  • Lord of the Rings (for Lord of the Flies)
  • Lord of the Files
  • Bonfire of the Vampire (for Bonfire of the Vanities)
  • Canary Road (for Cannery Row)
  • And the one always used in this example (though I’ve never actually head a patron ask it): Oranges and Peaches (for Origin of Species) But the example is such a part of our culture that the Lego Librarian mini figurine is actually holding a copy of the book Oranges and Peaches!


3. Search

  • Identify possible sources. Explain, briefly, some of the factors for selection.
  • Explore the resource.
  • Summarize progress.
  • Demonstrate use of sources in simple, clear language.

Keep checking in the patron as you are searching. This can be a good opportunity for some education in how the library works; and if they are paying attention they may be wowed by all the great materials we have!


4. Communication and evaluation of answer

  • Give source where answer was found.
  • Make sure scope and level of information is correct.
  • Communicate information in a clear and concise manner.

Don’t give a YA book to a researcher looking for materials on biology; and don’t hand a doctoral dissertation to a fifth grader. Be sure what you are giving them is what they thought they wanted – and be ready to dive back into the search if it is not!


5. Follow-up

  • Make sure patron is satisfied with answer.
  • Encourage patron to return, if necessary.
  • Seek closure when the user is ready.

This is where libraries can really shine in customer service! Check to be sure everything is good, and there are no more questions. And then be sure to tell them to come back and ask more questions! Convince them (and yourself, if necessary) that patron questions are the whole point to your job – not an interruption in your day! It would also be appropriate to thank them for visiting, or other closing statements.


Other Reference Skills

You want to be ready to fix things. Lots of things. Unexpected things. You will definitely not be trained in how to do it all – so cultivate the skills of being ready to dive in and see what you can do!


From the blog Librarian Shipwreck:

“Here are some things that I was asked to fix while I was working as a reference librarian:

  • Microfilm readers
  • The photocopier
  • Chairs
  • Compact shelving
  • The new photocopier
  • A VCR
  • High capacity staplers
  • A label maker
  • 3-Hole punchers
  • Digital microfilm readers
  • Three different types of printers
  • Shelves
  • Book carts
  • A document scanner
  • A different department’s photocopier
  • Patron’s computers
  • The wi-fi
  • The new photocopier that replaced the old new photocopier
  • Torn reels of microfilm
  • Clocks

Be persistent!! There is nothing more annoying to me than watching a library person try one resource – maybe even just Google – and finding nothing report back to the patron that nothing exists on their topic. Patrons believe us when we say this stuff! So build in yourself a spirit of resilience: keep going even after you have tried a few sources! Get up and look around the books for a while – great stuff is there. Look in a few databases you may not usually use – great stuff is there too. When I do research on employer satisfaction with new library staffers, a lack of persistence in trying to answer a question is one of the biggest complaints I get.

Confidentiality is not just a nice thing – it’s a fundamental tenant of our profession. So even though it may seem so exciting to share just a teeny piece of gossip you learned about your patrons in the library, it is massively wrong to talk about the questions people ask and the materials from us.  People ask us questions about some really personal topics – about their cancer diagnoses, about visiting relatives in prison, about the procedures for getting divorced or getting a restraining order. Reference work can be a very private matter, and it is crucial that all library staff are trained in this confidentiality practice starting on day one.

Be Non-judgmental in your work. We are moving past the idea that library staff can just shut off their personal feelings and experiences when you enter the building; so being neutral may be a challenge or even impossible. But we are non-judgmental about the questions people ask and the materials they want to take home. The person who is exploring fundamental Christianity for the first time may be nervous about it – and any hint of disapproval from the library staffer could derail a search and make the patron feel too self-conscious about asking any more questions, or even coming back to the library. Likewise, there are studies showing library staffers in public libraries and school libraries may not always know how to handle questions from teens who are exploring their sexual identities. Again – you may have your own personal views on any matter; but Reference work is not about sharing those views, it is about helping people to find the information important to them.


Books We Are Reading


Emil and the Sneaky Rat, by Astrid Lindgren ”

There’s a rat running amok in Emil’s house, and he’s determined to capture it. But hiding the rat trap just under his father’s bed probably isn’t ideal …That’s just the start of Emil’s adventures, which, once begun, never stop. Hens, dogs, little sisters – and adults – all flee his path. But Emil doesn’t mean to be bad, it’s just that trouble – and fun – follow him wherever he goes. A collection of utterly engaging tales from one of the world’s best-loved children’s authors.”


How the Hell Did This Happen?: The Election of 2016, by P.J. O’Rourke “In How the Hell Did This Happen?, P.J. brings his critical eye and inimitable voice to some seriously risky business. Starting in June 2015, he asks, “Who are these jacklegs, high-binders, wire-pullers, mountebanks, swellheads, buncombe spigots, four-flushers and animated spittoons offering themselves as worthy of America’s highest office?” and surveys the full cast of presidential candidates including everyone you’ve already forgotten and everyone you wish you could forget.

P.J. offers a brief history of how our insane process for picking who will run for president evolved, from the very first nominating convention (thanks, Anti-Masonic Party) through the reforms of the Progressive era (because there’s nothing that can’t be worsened by reform) to the present. He takes us through the debates and key primaries and analyzes everything from the campaign platforms (or lack thereof) to presidential style (“Trump’s appearance―indeed, Trump’s existence―is a little guy’s idea of living large. A private plane! A swell joint in Florida! Gold-plated toilet handles!”). And he rises from the depths of despair to come up with a better way to choose a president. Following his come-to-Satan moment with Hillary and the Beginning of End Times in November, P.J. reckons with a new age: “America is experiencing a change in the nature of leadership. We’re getting rid of our leaders. And we’re starting at the top.””



Reference is an ever-changing set of skills – but it all boils down to the basic idea: patrons need information, and you are there to provide it! Being confident, having a procedure in the Reference Interview to follow, and really knowing your resources – it all helps you to share information with your patrons. And serving our community members is the key to everything we do in the library!


Some further resources:

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