New Library Directors Handbook

Reference

Reference is about meeting the information needs of a customer. It's easy to panic when a person asks you a question about something. Remember that the more reference work you do, the better you will become at it. Here are some suggestions that will hopefully make the process easier:

  • Don't forget the encyclopedia or almanac. Many ready reference questions can be answered in these two sources.
  • Try to look through the materials in your reference collection. By doing so, you will become familiar with what you have on a topic and where to go for answers.
  • Before beginning to look for an answer, think of several different places the information could be. Try the most likely source first. You can save yourself some time and grief by doing so.
  • If you can't find the answer, offer to try local resources. These can include other libraries, city government, etc.

Before we leave reference, we need to take a few moments to talk about the reference interview. When a customer asks you a question, they are rarely asking you the real question. It's easiest to explain this by example. A patron may walk in and ask for a cookbook. Your first inclination may be to direct them to the cookbook collection, but in reality what that person really wants is a history of cooking in the Rocky Mountain West. If you just lead the person to the cookbooks, the individual probably won't find what s/he is looking for.

  • So what should you do? The first step is to ask the patron questions. Here is a possible reference interview based on the above example.
  • Patron: I'd like a cookbook.
  • Librarian: We have a lot of cookbooks. Are you looking for something specific? I may be able to help you find it faster.
  • Patron: Well, yes, I'm looking for a historical reference.
  • Librarian: Historical? Do you mean an old Montana cookbook? Something else?
  • Patron: I'm looking for a history of cooking.
  • Librarian: A history of cooking in general? Or are you looking for something more specific?
  • Patron: I'm looking for a history of cooking in the West.
  • Librarian: By west, do you mean the entire west or a specific region?
  • Patron: The Rocky Mountain West.
  • Librarian: I want to make sure I've got this, so I'm going to repeat your question, as I understand it. You would like information about the history of cooking in the Rocky Mountain region?
  • Patron: Yes, that's correct.

Do you see how the librarian found out what the patron really wanted? S/he had to ask a series of questions to finally arrive at the real one. Instead of asking for what they really want, patrons will simplify the question. If you answer the first question, you probably aren't going to lead them to the information they really need. The reference interview takes practice, just like any part of working in a library. The more you do it, the better you will be at it.