Open Questions, also known as Open-Ended Questions or Infinite Response Questions, are questions that prompt the inquirer to provide information. The goal of an open question is to extract information from the inquirer that was not originally provided. As a general rule open questions begin with who, what, why, where, when or how and call for a more than one word response.
Open questions are useful at the beginning of a reference interview, as a tool to gain more information from an inquirer. Open questions can be used to 1) find out what a person wants in order to supply the need, 2) get a description of a problem or event, 3) encourage the person to elaborate, 4) get clarification (Dewdney, Nilsen, & Ross, 2002). The less restrictive nature of open questions allows the inquirer more freedom of response and, in the context of a reference interview, more control over the exchange. Open questions can help to eliminate much of the guesswork from a reference interview.
There are downsides to using open questions, such as how they require more effort on the part of the inquirer (Richardson). In some cases, open questions may make the inquirer feel as if they have been 'put on the spot' causing anxiety, and thus resulting in a loss of trust on the part of the inquirer. On the other hand, open questions can also foster trust between the inquirer and librarian. Open questions can show the inquirer that the librarian is genuinely interested in their needs rather than just getting the job done quickly.
A study conducted by Mary Jo Lynch in the late 1970s in New Jersey public libraries showed that only 10 percent of questions asked were open questions. Another study conducted by Patricia Dewdney in the 1980s showed that out of 166 reference interviews she looked at approximately 80 percent of the time open questions were either not used or were immediately followed by a closed question (example: What would you like to know? The price?)(Dewdney et al., 2002). Possible reasons for the limited use of open questions include their perceived time-consuming nature. Among librarians, there is often a myth that open questions require more time than a series of closed questions. However, by taking the extra time in the beginning of the reference interview to ask open questions and listen to the answers time-consuming mistakes and miscommunication can be avoided. "Open questions usually save time because they give users the chance to focus immediately on whatever is important to them" (Dewdney, et al., 2002).
Examples of Open Questions
What kind of information are you looking for?
How will you use this information?
How else may I help you?
What aspect of (blank) are you most interested in?
What research have you done so far?
How did you hear/learn about (blank)?
If you could have the perfect source what would its title be?
The opposite of an open question is a Closed Ended Question.
Dewdney, D., Nilsen, K., & Ross, C. (2002). Conducting the Reference Interview. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.
Richardson Jr., John V. Open Vs. Closed Ended Questions in the Reference Environment. Class Notes.