Have you ever had a reference transaction that just sort of ran off the rails? In my eight or so years of a being a librarian, this is my own personal favorite reference encounter while staffing the desk:
Patron: “Do you have the source?”
Me: “What source?”
Patron: “The SOURCE!”
Me: “Do you know the name of the source?”
Patron: “It’s just THE SOURCE.”
Me: “Is it something you need for your class?”
Patron: “YES! The professor said you had it.”
Me: “Is it something your professor put on reserve, like a journal article?”
Me: “Well, can you describe the source? Tell me more about it?”
Patron: “It’s a book that lists words of other words.”
Me: “Oh…a THE-SAUR-US! Yes, I have a thesaurus. It’s right here behind my desk.”
Yep, true story. A simple miscommunication (and mispronunciation!). Ahh, the art of the reference interview. If I had asked the patron to describe “the source” in the first place, we could have avoided this whole mess. And you know what, it was my fault. I should have more readily assessed the patron’s ability to describe “the source.” The Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) posts guidelines for the reference interview. In short:
- Approachability – Stop looking at your computer screens, reference librarians! See Will Manley’s American Libraries column on this.
- Interest – Stephanie Willen Brown writes that indicating her interest in the patron’s question also helps her buy time in thinking of appropriate resources to use. Clever!
- Listening/Inquiry - Here is where I could have improved. The patron did not have a “research” question. He knew exactly what he needed. A simple clarification could have solved the issue immediately.
- Searching – The teaching moment. When it’s a research question, I’m always emphasizing what keywords to use and why. I help brainstorm different keywords with the patron (Searching for heart attack? Try myocardial infarction, too!). I’ll often write them down for the patron in case he/she will be searching independently later. Interesting debate as to whether librarians “teach” at the Reference Desk from Edward Eckel. My view: if it’s more than just a simple directional or ready reference question, then teach ‘em to “fish”!
- Follow-up - I like showing patrons how to get to the Research Help page on the library’s website. Good common sense customer service.
So, have you had a reference transaction that’s gone down the drain? Share it!