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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.