5B: Reflection on Readings

This weeks readings urge us to dive right into the reference interview: learning its components, being wary of common mistakes, and forcing us to think of reference intentionally. The intentionality quickly became rather fascinating to me. Before these readings I had begun to think that I could simply develop these skills using common sense and some sort of brain muscle memory. I no longer think that is necessarily true. While I believe reference interview skills can be honed, I also believe it must be done by practicing each aspect of the reference interview from acknowledgement to open questions. The books even break down a reference interview into these small components; one section for open questions, another for closed, and a third for sense making questions. Within each of these sections is a plethora of information that one reading will never allow me to absorb. Instead, it appears that a future librarian must practice. They must practice greeting people with a smile. They must practice overcoming the urge to jump on a keyword and look only in the catalogue. They must practice extracting information from users in a way that is both systematic and artful. There are many, many more things they must practice, but the point is that they do. Librarians must be present when preforming a reference interview and use their skills intentionally and to best effect.

As the readings point out, problems arise when there is a want of intentionality in an interaction. Without it, a librarian may skip a reference interview entirely. It seems to me that the problems that plague about fifty percent of interactions between librarians and patrons stem from not taking steps to determine the six pieces of evidence (who, what, when, where, why, and how from Smith & Wong). This is the process of using reference skills; taking the patrons initial question and determining what they actually want. Basically, they should preform a comprehensive reference interview. This is especially true seeing as patrons original question can vary wildly from the actual information they want. For example, a user comes in asking for information on quilting when they actually want to find an index of artisans. If the librarian simply entered the key word quilting into the catalogue, the results would not accurately represent what the patron wanted and they would leave disappointed. However, a series of open and closed questions, along with a bit of paraphrasing could yeild the why. The why in this case is that she is organizing a local art fair and wants to contact artists and ask them to come. From the why, you can easily get to there where – from all across America or only the southeastern part of Michigan. Each successive answer to the six pieces of evidence narrows down the search, making it simultaneously more likely the patron will leave happy and that the librarian will avoid the common errors of the reference interview. I enjoyed how Ross et al. described the same process as playing twenty questions. It made me feel like, if I become a reference librarian, I would get to spend my time solving small (and large) mysteries everyday. Those mysteries are two fold. One is the using databases and resources to find the actual material, while the other more interesting one is determining what the patron actually wants.

There was one especially unintuitive point that creates a bit of tension between the two texts. Where Smith and Wong urge the reference librarian to find the why, Ross et al. warn against actually asking why directly. Asking why seems like the easiest way to find out why the patron wants the information; ask why to find why. Just reading Smith and Wong, I would not have picked up that it is bad to ask directly. Instead, I would be sitting at my reference desk asking the five Ws and one H directly to the patron. It would be efficient. However, efficiency does not good reference make. In fact, it would lead me to make all sorts of negative connotations in the reference interview. According to Ross et al., why can turn a simple probe into a judgemental interrogation, lead to assumptions, and give control to the patron, or make it look like you are pushing into their business. Instead of being efficient, a good reference librarian is intentional; asking questions with the purpose of determining the why, without actually asking why. There are so many more intricacies, booby traps, and floors that fall out from beneath you in reference interviews. Learning to use tools to intentionally avoid these pitfalls seems like the best way to not only create positive results, but to enjoy the process.


One thought on “5B: Reflection on Readings

  1. I really like how you pointed out the importance of intentionality in the reference interview. I find myself somedays having to constantly remind myself to make sure I’m answering all the right questions so I can help a patron quickly. I once had an experience where asking a direct why would have been troublesome. I had a patron ask me where the self-help books were located. I had to be very tactful in discerning what exactly the patron was looking for. I think part of what made my interaction successful is that I remained very neutral and asked questions pertaining to what types of books and sources the patron was looking for instead of asking questions about what the patron needed help with (in their life) specifically. As you put it, efficiency does not good reference make.”


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