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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Reference Interview Training

Reference Interview Training

Introducing the Fine Art of Conversation Into the Reference Interview


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.

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.


  1. Pair up with a partner
  2. Discuss possible ice-breaker topics for initiating small talk with the patron
  3. Write down 3-4 potential topics which would be appropriate for the library environment

Points to Consider:

  • What are cues that a patron is receptive to small talk?
  • How do you assure you are approachable?
  • How will you transition from small talk to a discussion of research methods and resources?