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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.

What is a reference interview?

The reference interview is a collaborative effort in which the user seeks to understand and explain their information need and the library staff member seeks to understand the user's question and find and communicate the answer.

It is focused on:

  • Prioritizing the conversation
  • Taking an interest in each individual
  • Assessing research background and confidence
  • Addressing research anxiety
  • Building trust and developing an ongoing research relationship

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

[Original from Kathleen Kern 2014; modified by David Ward 2016; modified by Piper Martin 2019; Adapted from the Ohio Library Council’s Six Pieces of Evidence.]