Skip to Main Content

University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Reference Interview and Instruction in Reference Training

This guide accompanies the U of I Library graduate assistant training session.

Negotiating the User's Question

Patrons asking a reference question are often experiencing a variety of emotions – they may feel they have failed by not finding an answer by themselves, be embarrassed about their own research skills, or be uncertain that a librarian is the right person to ask their question.   As representatives of the university, there can also be a perceived power imbalance which can affect both patron willingness to ask questions and forthrightness in presenting a research need in full.  Cultural differences may also affect how a question is initially presented and expectations for an encounter.

  • 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.

Building a patron’s trust is a key factor when working with longer or more complex research questions.  Finding ways to relate to a patron’s experience, and sharing your own successes and failures as a researcher can help build this trust.  The ability to make small talk and recognize patron efforts to make a human connection during the initial phase of a reference interview can help smooth the transition into an in-depth conversation about academic research needs.

Gathering the Evidence

Identifying the most important questions to asks a patron takes time and experience.  When collaborating with a patron to get an understanding of their information need, you do not need to collect everything up-front. Some things will become relevant (or not) as an interview progresses.  Plan to work some questions into the search process later, such as when you are evaluating results with a patron.

Who is asking the question?

  • Undergraduate student, faculty, etc.?
  • On or off-campus?

What do they need to know?

  • Locating a specific item?
  • Topic - General discipline(s) or area of research
  • Type of information? (e.g. background information, scholarly analysis, statistics, etc.)
  • Technical level of user and/or information?
  • Work already completed

Why do they need the information?

  • Patron’s personal areas of interest
  • Patron’s desired areas for exploration

How much information is needed or desired?

  • Assignment requirements and/or other imposed boundaries
  • Complexity of research question
  • Complexity of information organization in the discipline

Where have they looked?

  • What have they done so far? This can help with determining level of patron knowledge
  • Avoid fruitless paths or determine why previous search did not work

When do they need it?

  • Deadlines
  • Availability for referrals

Articulate and restate the patron’s question

  • For more complex questions or those requiring multiple research methods and tools, be sure and restate the question back to the patron to make sure you understand it prior to beginning a search

[Adapted from the Ohio Library Council’s Six Pieces of Evidence.]