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Connecting With Clients: Communications Theory and Reference Interviews

Caryn Wesner-Early and Laura Hjerpe

Caryn Wesner-Early (L) and Laura Hjerpe (R)

Reference interviews have been a central part of librarianship for a long time, so it was appropriate that Caryn Wesner-Early, Search Strategy Expert, ASRC-MS and Laura Hjerpe, CGI Federal, presented a fresh look at them. Their talk covered the various types of reference interviews, why have them, how to do them, and what to do if the  client is not happy with the results.

Reference interviews are not easy because frequently the requester is trying to describe something they don’t know, is unaware of what is available, or needs help defining the scope of a project. So it is easy to misunderstand what the user want. We know what is in our libraries, but sometimes we don’t know if what was found is the right answer. Here are some good reference interview characteristics.

Reference interview characteristics

Goals of the interview include making contact, identifying the real question, checking that the need has been met, and encouraging repeat business.

During the interview, there may be a shift between quick reference and research. The requester and librarian are colleagues in the process. Both have the same goal: to find the needed answer. Let the requester do most of the talking.  Repeat, summarize, paraphrase.

Good communication skills are vital because the requester is providing the terminology to determine the search.  Body language and facial expressions influence what we hear. Make eye contact with the requester and have a relaxed open posture.

Listen carefully and give full attention to the request. There are three kinds of listening: competitive/combative (the listener interrupts and challenges the speaker), passive/attentive (the listener is considerate but might not be engaged enough or provide feedback), active/reflective (the happy medium, the listener is engaged but suspending judgement of the requester). Active listening tips: provide feedback, defer judgement, summarize, then respond. Ask the requester to clarify or give an example of what is desired. The Mindtools site has good advice for communicating. Use open questions to encourage the requester to talk, such as

  • What are you focusing on?
  • What else can you tell me about it?
  • If you had the perfect reference or were writing an article on this, what would it be called?
  • What have you tried so far?

Sense-making questions add structure to the interview and help fill in the gaps:

  • What industry is this term used in?
  • Do you want results only from that area?
  • What does term mean in your field?
  • Where would you like to begin?

Advantages of the in-person interview are that the requester and information professional can see each other’s body language and can go to the shelves together to check materials that might be relevant to the question. Disadvantages are that participants may feel rushed, and language differences can cause problems.

If you are doing a phone interview, smile when you are talking which will give you a good voice. Remove all distractions and don’t multitask, ask speaker to clarify, say more, give an example. It can be more difficult to explain a process even if both participants have the same site open on their computers.

Virtual reference interviews using chat, IM, or email present their own problems. If possible, read the request before starting to work on it and isolate parts of the request that are not clear.  Another colleague of a supervisor may be able to help. Nuanced conversations are difficult; tone, mood words, capital letters, and punctuation must be regarded. Emoticons and informal language can be used to advantage, but a professional tone must be maintained. Virtual reference interviews often provide time to think about the question and compose a thoughtful answer.

Here are some suggestions for chat etiquette:

  • Be conversational but professional.
  • Be concise but not rude.
  • Break a long answer into two or more parts.
  • Use short, frequent messages.
  • Accept a few typos in your response.

Research interviews on advanced or complex topics are different; they are more extensive and require different methods. The interviewer must ask for alternate terms, jargon, concepts that must or must not be included in the results, and other specific details. At the end of the interview, review what you and the requester have agreed on as the scope of the search. The scope of the search can change during processing, so be sure to document and review these changes with the requester.

Reference interview problems and solutions:

  • If an interview is taking a long time, use closed questions to signal the end. Ask if anything else is required and offer to schedule a time for a follow up.
  • If the requester is unhappy, review the original request and what was done. Ask what is missing and make sure you understand the problem. You may need to refer the requester to a supervisor to resolve the problem.
  • If a requester is angry, do not argue. Use active listening skills to focus on the complaint. Parrot back key points to confirm your understanding and focus on the solution.



YSee paper on anger in the library from 1999.

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