Brenda Dervin

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Biographical Information

Brenda L. Dervin was born on November 20, 1938 in Beverly, Massachusetts. Dr. Dervin currently is Professor of Communication, and Joan N. Huber Faculty Fellow in Social and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Communication at Ohio State University. She has previously held posts on the communications faculty of Syracuse University and the University of Washington.


Dr. Dervin received a BA from Cornell University in 1960, and went on to earn both a MA (1968) and a PhD (1971) in communications research from University of Michigan. She was also awarded an honorary PhD in social sciences from the University of Helsinki in 2000.

Contribution to Reference

Dr. Dervin’s background in the field of communications has provided a unique vantage point at which to view the work of reference librarians. She has made significant contributions to the field of reference, specifically to the nature of the reference interview. Her research and writing focuses on various aspects of how people make sense of their environments. Dr. Dervin’s development of a Sense-Making Methodology has been applied to numerous disciplines, including health communication (Teekman, 2000), understanding deaf culture (Linderman, 1996), feminist studies (Clark, 1999) and workplace processes (W-Y Cheuk, 1998).

Within the reference transaction, the Sense-Making Methodology frames the interaction between user and librarian as one in which the goal is to “bridge the gap.” Dervin’s research in this area explores the idea that people generally come to the reference transaction (or another instance of communication) with an obstacle or gap in understanding that serves as a fundamental block. The role of the reference librarian, Dervin argues, is to approach the reference transaction with a goal of understanding the “gap” from the user’s perspective. Through a series of query negotiations, the librarian attempts to paraphrase the information problem, and understand the context in which the question is being asked. The librarian must also determine the depth and scope of answer that is required, and elicit any relevant constraints. Such an approach may employ a mixture of Open Questions and Closed Ended Questions, though Dervin argues that a series of Neutral Questions ought to guide the interview, with the librarian careful to avoid imposing judgments or assumptions on the information need or the potential uses for the information.

Professional Life

Dervin is a fellow of the International Communication Association, and served as its first female president in 1986. She is a prolific author, with over two hundred journal articles to her credit, and is also one of the most cited authors in her field. Through the years, she has served on the editorial board of various scholarly journals, including Communication Studies, Journal of Communication, Library Quarterly and Information and Behavior.

In 2005, Dr. Dervin was honored an award from the American Society for Information Science and Technology for Outstanding Contribution to Information Behavior Research.

She has advised numerous dissertations and masters theses, including the dissertation of Patricia Dewdney, with whom with whom she collaborated on the 1986 article, “Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview,” in Reference Quarterly.


Cheuk, W-Y, B. (1998). An information seeking and using process model in the workplace: A constructivist approach. Asian Libraries, 7 (12), 375-390.

Clark, K.D. (1999). A communication-as-procedure perspective on a women's spirituality group: A Sense-Making and ethnographic exploration of a communicative proceduring in feminist small group process. The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication, 9(4).

Dervin, B.L., & Dewdney P. (1986). Neutral Questioning: A New Approach to the Reference Interview. Reference Quarterly, 25(4), 506-513.

Fisher, K.E., Erdelez S., & McKechnie, L.E.F. (Eds.). (2005). Theories of Information Behavior. Medford: American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Linderman, A. (1996). The influence of deaf culture on the sense-making of deaf americans. Paper presented at a non-divisional workshop held at the meeting of the International Communication Association, Chicago.

Radford, M.L.. (1999). The Reference Encounter: Interpersonal Communication in the Academic Library. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

Teekman, B. (2000). Exploring reflective thinking in nursing practice. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 31(5), 1125-1135.

The Sense-Making Methodology Site (2005). Dr. Dervin's Curriculum Vita (Comprehensive Version). Retrieved November 21, 2006, from

Who's Who in the Midwest 2000-2001: Millenium Edition. (2000) Chicago. Marquis Who's Who.

Elizabeth H. Bornheimer

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