Opening reference questions

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The opening reference question posed by the library user is the first part of the reference interview. This first question may be something general like, "Can you help me?" or may include a specific topic like, "Where are the science books?". In both cases, there is probably a more specific need that needs to be addressed (Ohio Library Council 2006).


Often, the initial question does not clearly address the needs of the user and the librarian must get at the negotiated or real question through the reference process. Ross, Nilsen and Dewdney (2002) say that these queries "are 'ill-formed' with respect to the information system...they do not match the structure or 'expectations' of the system."


They list six types of typical problems in the opening reference question:


  1. Users ask for something very broad or general
  2. Users ask for something specific but there is a mismatch
  3. Users aren't exactly sure how the library system works
  4. Keywords in the user's question are ambiguous
  5. The user's question involves a reconstruction
  6. The user's question contains an error or misconception


One classic example of an ill-formed query is the "oranges and peaches" story. A user initially asked for a book called "Oranges and Peaches." After some questioning the librarian eventually discovered that the student needed On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (Dewdney and Michell 1996). This example involves a reconstruction of a source.


Eichman (1978) asserts that the opening reference question is not just a simple opening move. He posits that the opening question can function in three ways. That is:


  1. expressively, relaying the attitudes and feelings of the inquirer, consciously or subconsciously;
  2. phatically, establishing a channel through to the mind of the librarian;
  3. informationally, posing a question about some subject matter.


Additionally, he claims that the best response from a librarian "is a restatement of the inquirer's opening speech act as a statement, prefaced perhaps with something like, 'You want---,' or 'You want to know wh---.'"


Just as the opening question is important in face-to-face reference encounters, it also functions in online and virtual reference. "One similar trait in particular is apparent from both the online and the reference interaction data: the generality of the users’ initial question as opposed to the "real" level of specificity of the query as it evolves during the interaction" (Nordlie, 1999).


Eichman (1978) equates a computer search to that of an in-person encounter. The user has to establish a communication channel and then uses general search terms, which can then be made more specific through refinement. He also writes that the technique of repeating the opening question can be used in computer programs that answer questions.



Dewdney, P. & Michell, G. (1996). Oranges and Peaches: Understanding Communication Accidents in the Reference Interview. RQ, 35(4), 520-536.


Eichman, T.L. (1978). The complex nature of opening reference questions. RQ, 17(3), 212-222.


Nordlie, R. (1999). “User revealment”—a comparison of initial queries and ensuing question development in online searching and in human reference interactions [Electronic version]. In Proceedings of the 22nd Annual international ACM SIGIR Conference on Research and Development in information Retrieval (Berkeley, California, United States, August 15 - 19, 1999). SIGIR '99. ACM Press, New York, NY, 11-18.


Ohio Library Council. (2006). ORE on the Web. Retrieved November 13, 2006, from


Ross, C., Nilsen, K., & Dewdney, P. (2002). Conducting the Reference Interview: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Librarians. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.


Whitney L. Winn