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Reference Guide

A refresher for State Library of Oregon librarians and support staff to support and improve reference interactions (and tracking those interactions) with patrons across all platforms (email, phone, chat, in-person).


 A reference interview is a conversation between a librarian (or library representative) and a library user, in which the librarian responds to the user's initial explanation of his or her information need by first attempting to clarify that need and then by directing the user to appropriate information resources.

Basic Interview Steps

1.  Approachability

Everyone who lives and works in your community needs information.  Discovering the needs of each individual who comes in to the library calls for people skills. Sometimes the first question a patron asks is really just trying to find out if you are approachable and friendly.  These questions may range from “Do you work here?” to “Where is the Historical Oregonian microfiche?”  So your job is to go from that initial contact with the patron to actually finding out their needs.


Establishes eye contact

Gives a friendly greeting

2.  Interest

Maintain eye contact

Make attentive comments

Give full attention

Speak in comfortable, relaxed tone

Confidential place to ask a question

3.  Listening (Characteristics of a good listener)

A good listener gives patrons a chance to tell you what they want. Listening to a patron without interrupting or jumping to conclusions is a necessary skill for successful reference service.  You need to discover what the patron really wants.  There may be reasons why a patron is hesitant to ask the real questions they need answers to.

What are the patrons' real information needs?

A good listener does not interrupt.

Paraphrase in your own words to demonstrate understanding (repeat back what the patron said in their own words without adding any thoughts or questions of your own.  Paraphrasing can help with a patron who keeps repeating their request over and over.)

Ask clarifying questions if you are not sure about the request (Clarifying can be used to make sure you have all the details you need.   Example: “Do you need black and white photos or color photos?” )

4.  Interviewing (Discovering what the client really wants)

Open ended questions are an effective way to give your patrons the freedom to express the information needs in their own words.  Open ended questions can  not be answered with yes or no.  Verifying a question gives you one last opportunity to make sure you understand the patron’s real question.

Ask open ended questions to probe. (The open ended questions also give patrons a chance to express information needs in their own words.  You don’t have to know about a subject with open ended questions. Let the patron tell you.)  Closed ended questions just don’t get you much closer to the real information need.

Verify specific question by paraphrasing and using a closed question to confirm request.  Verifying avoids “jumping to conclusions.”

5.  Searching

Keep customer informed of progress

Offer referrals

This may be an opportunity to teach information literacy by searching with the patron.

6.  Answering

Speak clearly and distinctly

Cite the source

Check with the customer to be sure the information is understood

7.  Follow-up

Asking the patron if they have everything they need improves your success rate.  You know you have found the information the patron really wanted.

Use appropriate follow-up questions or statements

The only way to make sure the patrons have what they need is to ask.