Reference Interview Guidelines


I find that I fancy  myself an extrovert until I start speaking to someone I do not know. All of a sudden I am rushed, talk too much about myself in a bubbling, insecure haze, then realize I have forgotten to ask the pertinent questions that would give me value in a face-to-face interaction. It stems not from selfishness and wanting to talk about myself, but shyness and making up for not wanting to seem like a true introverted person. At the end of the conversation, I have missed out on asking the right questions.

Much like this nightmarish scenario that I perform with new acquaintances, a reference interview can be rushed, spotlighted by worry to give the wrong information and wanting to perform well, but in the end, missing the point of the interaction all together. There are guidelines put out by the Reference and User Services Association Board of Directors (RUSA) that helps professionals stop, listen, ask questions, and eventually give the patron the information for which they asked. Here are tips to use both in your professional life, and if you’re like me, they could come in hand in real life conversations as well:

  1. Approachability – Be open. Say, “Hi, how are you, my name is…” Ask how you may help.
  2. Interest – While you begin the search, gather the information and show interest in their topic. Let them know what you’re doing while you’re doing it. “So you’re talking about…” or “Let me pull up my search tools.” Look at them in the eyes and make sure they know you are with them.
  3. Listen and Inquire – Ask follow-up questions to cement your search inquiry. Ask if if they’ve done any previous searching. If the topic you’re discussing is private or something they may be embarrassed about, be quiet about your inquiries. They will appreciate your discretion.
  4. Search – Begin your search through catalogs, databases, search engines, etc. But let them know what you’re doing. Don’t disappear without a word to what you’re doing. “Give me a couple minutes to search, but I’ll be right here.” This goes for face-to-face as well as virtual queries. Knowledge that you’re there is very important. Also, tell them what services that you’re using. It may be a perfect time to show them the offerings of the library. Did they know they can search at home? Do they know how to find the databases on the website? Never make them feel as if they should be doing it and not you, but let the patron know they have the option. This may serve them if they have a topic they want to be discreet about, or if they have searches they want to fulfill at odd hours. Also, when you give them the sources that they want, ask how they want them. Physical? PDF? Links? Mailed to them, checked out? Does something need to be ILLed? Make sure you have answered their question correctly and they aren’t inadvertently hiding information.
  5. Follow-up – Double check with them before they leave. “Have I answered your question? Does that help?” Be open again, not dismissive. Give them your time. If you ask this question they may reveal that it wasn’t exactly what they wanted and you may need to relook at your search results. Tell them thank you and to come again, anytime, virtually or face-to-face.

Reading over these guidelines really did make me question how I perform day-to-day conversations. I always feel rushed, never give myself a second to breathe and make sure I’m asking the right questions.

Cassell, K. and Hiremath, U. (2013) Reference and Information Services: An introduction (3rd ed.). Chicago: Neal-Shuman.




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