A formative experience for me in library school was working the reference desk with the librarians at the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington. I watched in wonder as the librarians each listened to their respective patrons, and through a series of questions, gently pulled from the speaker the details needed to really answer their question and find the correct resource to assist them. When I would inquire as to how they did that, how did they know the questions to ask, how did they know what resource to recommend, how did they know what the patron was really asking, I was frequently told: listen; practice; and you’ll get there.
It’s been a few years, and I think I am getting there slowly, but I’m still fascinated by the process of the reference interview. It’s so much more than simply answering trivia questions all day. As stated by Stephanie Willen Brown, “The reference librarian’s fundamental task is to translate the patron’s question into one that can be answered with the library’s resources.”
It’s in this “secret-sauce” translation piece of reference where experience and technique really shines for librarians. Patrons often approach the desk with all manner of inquiries, inquiries that often don’t touch at the heart of their problem. They may ask for a resource they’ve heard of from someone else, peppering their explanation with terms they picked up from a Google search, or for access to a database they are unsure how to use. By listening and being approachable, I can often figure out which resource is the best fit for what the patron is really asking. Those interactions are the successes. Sometimes, I am relegated to simply pointing out the location of reference materials and making myself available for questions. Those interactions feel less successful. But again, I am listening and practicing.
Employing the strategies we were taught at Gallagher while sitting at the reference desk is second nature at this point. In my current position, a large percentage of the patrons who approach the reference desk are public patrons and 1Ls. I assume when dealing this this patron group that I will need to work extra hard to translate their questions into one I can help them answer because these groups are usually working with the least amount of legal knowledge and background. I purposely employ reference interview skills when working with these groups. When working with higher level law students and faculty, I assume they have the tools and language to ask directly for what they need. I realized recently this isn’t always the case.
I had two interactions in the past month which reminded me that reference and the reference interview are not conducted solely at the reference desk. We carry these tools with us throughout the library and law school.
The first interaction began with a request for a presentation to a group of journal students on the process of researching legislative history. They wanted the basics covered: why we research legislative history, how to do it, and how it can assist them in writing their notes. Great, legislative history is by far my favorite topic to present on. They submitted their note topics to me and I began to prepare the PowerPoint. I then realized very few (none) of these topics would benefit from legislative history research. So, I spent a large portion of my presenting time covering tools that would assist them, such as Research Guides and 50-state-surveys. They later told me this was the most helpful portion of the presentation.
The second interaction involved a faculty member who requested a literature review. She sent a specific question she wanted researched and we went back in forth in email a little for full clarity. I began the research and found some promising leads. I then met with the faculty member in person. We had a nice chat and then it became clear that although she requested a literature review, what she really wanted was me to find specific people in history that fell into a demographic she wanted to write on. Without this clarification, I would have spent weeks compiling journal articles that answered the question asked, but didn’t assist her research in the slightest. This would have wasted my time and have been of little use to the patron.
Both these user groups involved sophisticated researchers asking well formed questions that required library resources to answer. But if I had simply done as they asked, neither group would particularly benefit from my skills or knowledge. By asking follow up questions and actively listening, I was able to translate their initial questions into an understanding of what resources they really needed. It was then that my novice librarian brain realized we should conduct reference interviews every time we are asked to help. We can’t assume a level of communication based on a patron’s knowledge base. The meeting of the minds between librarian and patron is predicated as much on my ability to hear the patron, as it is their ability to ask the question. This realization was a perfect reminder to listen, practice, and repeat. Someday, I’ll get there.