Mastering the reference interview…what I’ve learnt so far

keep calmI’ve been an officially official Research Librarian since the 25th of June 2012* and since that nerve-wracking Monday I’ve undertaken hundreds of reference interviews. So have I learnt anything in these interview? You can bet your lemon that I have!

First and foremost I’ve learnt that reference interviews are tough! As Librarians we can never get comfortable in our interview techniques because as soon as we do a curve-ball comes and knocks us on the head. You think I’m lying but they’re tough! There are however some techniques I’ve learnt (often the hard way) to help combat the reference interview.

Rule one: Stay calm

I know it’s really really hard sometimes but don’t inherit their stress! When you’re attacked with questions from a stressed out client/user/non-librarian alien the absolute worst thing you can do it latch on to the heightened state and get stressed out yourself, STAY CALM! You’re not helping yourself or them to find the right answer by getting stressed because if you’re all stressed out you make it a lot harder for yourself to find the real question behind the half-truth requests that you will be given from highly-caffeinated-sleep-deprived-students-lawyers-gremlins-public. By staying calm and asking simple questions like “can you give me a bit more background please?” you can find out the true nature of what they’re after and be able to help them faster and better.

Whilst Librarians as a breed are always keen to leap into superman-like action at the first sign of research related distress, take the time to get a complete view of what they are after and then leap into action.

Rule two: Carry on

Be confident in your statements. Often the hardest thing for a Librarian to do is to discover that something doesn’t exist and then go an tell the requester with confidence that what they are looking for isn’t available. If something isn’t available, it’s annoying but it’s not available and for won’t magically appear because they’ve asked for it. Be confident in telling the requestor that you’ve looked extensively and let them know where you’ve looked. In short always be confident in your skills if you aren’t confident in your skills it’s very difficult for someone else to be.

Rule three: Always ALWAYS ask questions – who what when where why how

Go back to Storytelling 101 and ask those important questions:

·         Who – Who are you? Who has asked you to find this? Who gave you this task?

·         What – What are you after?

·         When – When do you need this by?

·         Where – where have you already looked?

·         Why – why are you looking for this? Can you give me some background?

·         How – how have you looked?

Asking all these questions will help you uncover the key facts/details of what the requester is after and provide you with a complete picture of what the requestor wants.

Rule four: Show that you understand the question by saying it back to them in your OWN words

The quickest way to let someone know that you understand what you’ve told them is to repeat it back to them in your own words. When you do this not only do you show the requestor that you understand but also where you’re not quite clear on a certain point. It’s a lot easier to find out everything when you can covey to the requestor what parts of the question you understand.

Rule five: Keep a record

Keep a record of where you’ve looked, what you looked for and how. This will not only help the requestor see just how extensively you’ve looked but also help them to understand how they could search in the future… aka teaching good search skills subliminally

Rule six: they may look innocent but don’t believe them when they say they’ve checked there

Even if the requestor has actually looked somewhere they aren’t a professional researcher and will not searched to the same calibre as you. It’s always a double check to confirm that they haven’t missed anything.


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