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.
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?
What do they need to know?
Why do they need the information?
How much information is needed or desired?
Where have they looked?
When do they need it?
Articulate and restate the patron’s question
[Adapted from the Ohio Library Council’s Six Pieces of Evidence.]