So what is reference interviewing anyway? According to Ross (2003) reference interviewing is "the asking of one or more questions intended to discover the user's information needs" (p. 39).
As library users are able to access more and more electronic databases from their home computer, it seems obvious that reference interviewing online will increase dramatically. Online reference interviewing can be defined as communicating online in real time with users via "chat" or some other text-based way(i.e. instant messaging).
There are many benefits to online chat such as the following (Ronan, 2003):
- The user can remain anonymous if he or she wishes
- Inhibitions are lowered
- Users can control the pace of the conversation by how fast they choose to respond
- Users may leave the conversation whenever they want by just logging off
- The user reveals his/her level of understanding or need because chat requires him/her to ask the question word-by-word
- "the librarian must rely much more heavily upon classic questioning techniques" (p. 46)
- the librarian only has the text message/information the user shares
- the librarian must often ask other questions to clarify what the user typed
- Chat programs can include escorting or co-browsing features which allow the librarian to watch the user search for information and thus offer instruction to the user on how he/she can improve their search strategies
Although online chat has several advantages, there are special challenges that arise. Psychologist John Suler notes that online chat is devoid of nonverbal cues such as voice, facial expressions, body language, etc. In fact, both the librarian and the user must rely solely on the written word to communicate. In face-to-face interviewing, the librarian has both visual and aural cues to make use of in answering reference questions (Ronan, 2003).
So what are some practices librarians can adopt to provide good reference services online? Ronan (2003) provides three general guidelines:
- Remain Approachable
A. Have a good user interface
- Choose a memorable or catchy name ("Ask-a-Librarian" or "Q and A Cafe" (p. 44))
- A login screen that requires users to input essential information about themselves (name, email address, phone #, academic status, institutional affiliation, etc.)
B. Place links to reference services in intuitive positions on the webpages and in databases to make it easier for users to get reference services and to get context-specific help.
C. Provide proper feedback by acknowledging the user and his/her questions.
- Time is of the essence, so do not make the user wait too long.
D. Use the user's name in the conversation
- For example, "Hello Steve. So you need some information on China?" (p. 45).
E. Make the chat experience less impersonal by introducing yourself and revealing a little bit about yourself as you work with the user.
F. Show interest by letting the user know you are listening and/or thinking about their question. Also let the user know what you are doing so they don't feel ignored.
- Exercise Good Searching Behaviors
A. Know online reference resources and how to search them. Also know some general sources in addition to subject-specific ones.
B. Teach the user searching skills.
C. Be aware of the user's time frame and adjust the search you conduct accordingly.
- Let the user know how long it could take to conduct a search.
- Have the user look in a source you found for the answer while you search for other sources.
Make sure that you ask the user if his/her question was answered and encourage them to return if they need any more help.
Joan Durrance (1989) conducted an influential study in which she identified environmental factors and library staff behaviors that increase the likelihood of reference interview success. Success, as defined by Durrance, is "the willingness of the inquirer to return to the same staff member at a later time" (p. 32). Durrance understands the importance of accurate answers in reference interview, success, but in her study, she wanted to focus on those environmental and behavioral factors.
Concerning environmental factors, she found that a lack of signage and the ambiguity in signage caused confusion as to what functions areas in the library performed. She discovered that such confusion negatively impact the reference interview as her researchers found it difficult to discover where to go for services and whom to talk to.
As far as library staff behavior is concerned, Durrance found the following qualities/conditions to increase reference interview success:
- The staff member, when approached by the user, is free or assisting another library user.
- The user learns the library staff member's name.
- The staff member is nonjudgemental about the question asked.
- The staff member is friendly and made the user feel comfortable.
- The staff member shows interest in the question asked.
- The staff member provides an accurate answer.
Interestingly, she also found that library users more easily tolerate wrong answers from library staff than they do library staff who make them feel uncomfortable, show uninterest in the question, or come off as judgemental.
Ross (2003) unapologetically asserts that reference interviewing must be a part of every reference transaction because it will provide better information services and even save time over the long run (p. 39). She highlights some problems library users encounter when the librarian does not conduct a reference interview, all of which either result in wasted time and/or poor information services:
- "The Without-Speaking-She-Began-to-Type Manuever" (p. 39)
- The librarian just keeps typing and searching without telling the patron what is going on.
- The patron does not learn anything about how to find the information on their own
- Inefficiency in Finding Information
- The librarian just types in keywords he/she hears in the user's question.
- The user finds information that does not answer his/her question the first time.
- Incorrect Reference Interviewing
- The librarian asks the user questions that have more to do with the library system than with the user's information needs. For example:
- "Did you check the catalogue?" (p.40)
- "Have you used this index before?"(p.40)
- "I suppose you've checked our circulating collection?"(p.40)
- "The Unmonitored Referral" (p. 40)
- The librarian just refers the user to a particular source without any follow-up. The librarian does not provide any real or helpful answers. For example:
- The user is just given a call number
- The user is told where to look on the shelves
- "Try Lexis-Nexis" (p. 40)
Durrance, Joan C. (1989). Reference Success: Does the 55 Percent Rule Tell the
Whole Story. Library Journal, 114, 31-36. Retrieved November 2, 2006 from
the Wilson Education Index database.
Ronan, Jana. (2003). The Reference Interview Online. Reference and User Services
Quarterly, 43, 43-47. Retrieved November 2, 2006 from the Wilson Education Index
Ross, Catherine Sheldrick. (2003). The Reference Interview: Why It Needs to Be Used
in Every (Well, Almost Every) Reference Transaction. Reference & User Services
Quarterly, 43, 38-42. Retrieved October 15, 2006 from the Wilson Education Index.