I Heart Poultry, or: The Importance of the Reference Interview

With Valentine’s Day coming up, this reference interaction popped into my head.

Now I normally don’t blog about specific patron encounters, but this one was years ago… circa 2003 when I was a newbie librarian.

A man approached the reference desk and asked a simple question:

Do you have any books on poultry?

With my newly minted MLS, I thought I better do a good reference interview:

Well, are you looking for books on any specific type of poultry: like chickens or turkeys? About farming, urban chickens, or feral? We have a fairly large agriculture collection. 

Wow, how self-important I sounded! It resulted in a quizzical look from the man. He said:

No! No! I’m looking for romance stuff.

At this point I’m confused. Chickens? Romance?

Then it dawned on me. He wasn’t looking for books about poultry. He was looking for books about POETRY. He wanted romantic poems. I misunderstood him.

You see, wanting to “impress” the patron with my knowledge, I should have just started the reference interview with a simple question: Can you tell me more about what you want to find? 

Problem solved and there wouldn’t have been a poultry/poetry dilemma. Lesson learned!

I Need “The Source”

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?”

Patron: “No.”

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:

  1. Approachability – Stop looking at your computer screens, reference librarians! See Will Manley’s American Libraries column on this.
  2. InterestStephanie 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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”!
  5. 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!