Zen and the Art of the Reference Interview

Recently I have been prompted to examine the procedure I follow when undertaking a typical Reference Interview. The Reference Interview is the enquiry process that occurs when a person asks a Librarian for some information. It is something I do without thinking about and I follow a procedure that is typical of all Librarians working in Information Services for customers. It is the nature of our work. It is the basis of our training and study. It is second-nature.

So the process is that the customer approaches (sometimes hesitantly) and I smile and ask “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help you?” The questions will vary from: being direct, well-defined, and fast and easy to accommodate, to vague, unsure, complex, deep and involved. They will often ask “Have you got the book “Such and such?” or “Have you got the latest book by “Whoshewhatsit?” or perhaps “Can I order the next DVD in the series “TV show?” I will check the library catalogue at the PC near me and advise the customer. If we don’t have it I will try to determine the age of the item and look online to see if it is still in print, check at other libraries via the Libraries Australia website or Libraries Link and advise the customer. I will order it in for them whenever appropriate and that is more often than not. I will use Google and Amazon as last resorts but most often I have located the information before that.

When a question is vague, general, or ill-defined I will often take the customer to the book shelves where we can browse together while continuing with the conversation and the “reference interview”. This helps the customer hone in on their needs and also introduces them to the arrangement and scope of the collection we offer.

Sometimes a question may go beyond the scope of the public library; questions like “I want to read the history of the Australian 15th Battalion in World War 2. Can you help?” Of course I will follow the same procedure of checking our resources, but inevitably I will end up at the Australian War Memorial website and search their online resources. In this case the gentleman had already visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and asked the staff there the same question, so he was way ahead of me. This came to light in the course of our conversation.

The point I wish to highlight is that each question is unique, as is each person who asks a question. I approach each question afresh and with the aim to open a conversation with this person; a conversation that is fluid, natural, flexible, unique, and engaging. I will follow my intuition and try to respond accordingly. There is no pat academic explanation to a process I follow by instinct, despite the fact that I do indeed loosely follow a procedure that is typical of all fellow Librarians or Information Professionals. I do not want to appear automated, stilted, academic, procedural, like I’m ticking all the boxes, robotic, bureaucratic, nor condescending. I merely want to engage in an exploration of resources with a fellow human being and in that interaction discover things together.

I relish the challenge and mental gymnastics required over the course of a days work helping people find the answers to their diverse questions. I love the thrill of the hunt that draws on my detective skills and lateral thinking ability. I enjoy the new things I learn by default from other people’s enquiries. And more importantly I feel my life is enriched by the small everyday relationships that develop along the way.

Advertisements

One thought on “Zen and the Art of the Reference Interview

  1. Pingback: A kick from an Information Flaneur | Sues Bent

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s