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The Art of the Reference Interview. Ontario Library Association Conference February 2005 Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Kirsti Nilsen Faculty of Information and Media Studies The University of Western Ontario. Librarians As a Keystone Species.

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the art of the reference interview

The Art of the Reference Interview

Ontario Library Association Conference

February 2005

Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Kirsti Nilsen

Faculty of Information and Media Studies

The University of Western Ontario

librarians as a keystone species
Librarians As a Keystone Species
  • Anthropologist Bonnie Nardi and librarian Vicki O’Day write,
  • “We believe that the diverse services available in the library are still important and useful, and we believe that the increase in online information presents more opportunities to leverage the skills of professional librarians than ever before. Through our fieldwork in libraries, we have identified librarians as a keystone species.”
  • Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O’day. 1999. Information Ecologies.
the library visit study
The Library Visit Study
  • To gather data about what happens in reference, users did three things:
  • * They produced a detailed step-by-step account of exactly what happened in the reference transaction
  • * They reflected on their experience by summarizing which aspects of their experience they had found helpful and which aspects they had found unhelpful
  • * They filled out a questionnaire evaluating their experience as a user of reference service, including “would you be willing to return?”
would you be willing to return percent reporting yes
Face to face visits

(Of 261 visits)

Total YES 65%

Public libs. 61%

Univ. libs. 75%

Virtual visit

(Of 59 visits)

Total YES 61%

Public libs. 70%

Univ libs. 56%

Would You Be Willing to Return?Percent Reporting YES
four common problems
Four Common Problems
  • “Without speaking, she began to type”
  • Bypassing the reference interview
  • Taking a system-based perspective
  • The unmonitored referral
1 the without speaking she began to type manoeuvre
1. The “Without-speaking-she-began-to- type” Manoeuvre
  • Occurred in about one quarter of the library visit transactions
  • An example:
  • The user asked, “do you have information about about optical character recognition?”
  • What happened?
  • I stood there for several minutes while she searched. I could not see the screen and she did not ask me any questions. The silence grew a little awkward as I watched her mutter and purse her lips as her searches seemed to render negative results. Finally she said, “this may be too technical.”
2 bypassing the reference interview
2. Bypassing the Reference Interview
  • Reference interviews are conducted only half the time
  • An example:
  • The user asked “do you have books about Richard Wagner?”
  • What happened?
  • The user was given call numbers for books about Richard Wagner. He returned to say that none of the books on Wagner contained the desired information.At this point, the librarian discovered belatedly that the user needed a plot synopsis for all of the Wagner operas and recommended an opera guide. The librarian admonished, “you could have saved a lot of time if you had just asked for that initially.”
3 taking a system based perspective
3. Taking a System-based Perspective
  • Even when the library staff member does conduct an interview, too many of the librarian’s questions relate to the library system, not to the context of the user’s information need.
  • Some examples:
  • “Did you check the catalogue?”
  • “Have you used this index before?”
  • “What were the indexing elements?”
  • “Did you come up with some call numbers?”
  • “Have you checked the 282s?”
  • “I suppose you’ve checked our circulating collection?”
4 the unmonitored referral
4. The Unmonitored Referral
  • The unmonitored referral was reported in somewhat more than one third of the time.
  • An example:
  • The user asked for information on cellulitis, which is a skin infection, and was given a call number for a book: “I found the book (not quite in its right place). It was called Cellulite: Defeat it through Diet and Exercise.”
negative closure or how to make users go away
Negative Closure: or How to Make Users Go Away
  • Here are some strategies, apart from providing a helpful answer, for getting rid of the user. We call these strategies negative closure:
  • * The librarian provides an unmonitored referral.
  • * The librarian immediately refers the user somewhere else, preferably far away.
  • * The librarian implies that the user should have done something else first before asking for reference help.
  • * The librarian tries to get the user to accept more easily found information instead of the information actually asked for.
negative closure
Negative Closure...
  • More ways to get rid of the user:
  • * The librarian warns the user to expect defeat because the topic is too hard, obscure, large, elusive, or otherwise unpromising.
  • * The librarian signals non-verbally that the transaction is over by tone of voice, by turning away, or by starting another activity.
  • * The librarian claims that the information is not in the library; is unavailable; or else doesn’t exist at all.
  • * The librarian tells the user he’s going away to track down a document but then never returns.
moving to virtual reference
Moving to Virtual Reference
  • Do things change when we move from the physical reference desk to the virtual reference desk?
a definition of virtual reference
A Definition of Virtual Reference...
  • Virtual reference is reference service initiated electronically, often in real-time, where users employ computers or other internet technology to communicate with librarians, without being physically present.
  • Communication channels used frequently in virtual reference include chat, videoconferencing, voice over Internet protocol, e-mail, and instant messaging.
  • (ALA, RUSA, 2004)
the library visit study phase 3
The Library Visit Study: Phase 3
  • Comparing face-to-face and virtual reference interviews:
  • * We use the same method to gather data, but now the questions are asked at a virtual reference desk at a Canadian university or public library that offers such a service via an “ask a librarian” or similar link.
  • * Service can be email or chat.
  • Advantage: copies of emails or transaction records of chat sessions provide more data for analysis.
remember the measure of success willingness to return
Face to face visits

(Of 261 visits)

Total YES 65%

Public libraries 61%

Univ. Libraries 75%

Virtual visit

(Of 59 visits)

Total YES 61%

Public libraries 70%

Univ libraries 56%

Remember the Measure of Success? Willingness to Return.
would you return to chat to email reporting yes
Chat services

(Of 17 visits)

Total YES 71%

Public libraries 75%

University libs. 67%

Email services

(Of 42 visits)

Total YES 57%

Public libraries 67%

University libs. 50%

Would You Return to Chat? To Email? % Reporting YES
what behaviours lead to user dissatisfaction
What Behaviours Lead to User Dissatisfaction?
  • Bypassing the reference interview
  • Unmonitored referrals
  • Failure to ask follow-up questions
how often do these behaviours occur
How Often Do These Behaviours Occur?
  • Face-to-face virtual (261 visits) (57 visits*)
  • No reference interview 51% 83%
  • Unmonitored referral 37% 30%
  • No follow-up 64% 68%
  • *2 virtual visits had no response at all
the unmonitored referral a patron comments after receiving a list of unhelpful urls
The Unmonitored Referral… a Patron Comments After Receiving a List of Unhelpful URLs:
  • “By simply giving me some URLs of various sites, ... the librarian assumed that I would be able to effectively navigate these sites. The thought hadn’t occurred to her that I might not be able to surf the sites properly.”
lack of follow up
Lack of Follow-up
  • After asking for biographical information on Albert Camus:
  • “I was happy with the answer I received in terms of its accuracy [but the information I really wanted to know was not provided]. I cannot say I was entirely satisfied. I am uncertain about sending an additional email message to pursue the question further… since a follow-up offer is lacking. I feel I am not encouraged to do so.”
out of 57 virtual visits only 10 17 included an interview
Out of 57 Virtual Visits Only 10 (17%) Included an Interview
  • Chat Email (17 chat visits) (40 email visits*)
  • Number 8 2
  • *2 email visits had no response at all
reference interviews in chat
Reference Interviews in Chat
  • Only 8 of 17 chat transactions included an interview.
  • This is 53% with no reference interview, similar to the 51% without reference interviews in our in-person data.
email reference interviews
Email Reference Interviews
  • Only 2 of 40 email transactions included an interview.
  • What was different about these 2 transactions?
  • The email Ask-A-Librarian form substituted for the reference interview.
options for the email reference interview
Options for the email reference interview
  • 1. Lots of back and forth emails—BAD IDEA
  • 2. We can provide a good detailed form that substitutes for the reference interview.
the internet public library s ask a question form is a good model
The Internet Public Library’s Ask-A-Question form is a good model.
  • In addition to Name and email address, and question,
  • a good form asks questions that clarify the information need, such as:
  • * What specifically would you like to find out?
  • * Please give us some background that will provide a context
  • for your question
  • * How do you plan to use this information?
for more information on the art of the reference interviews see
For more information on the art of the reference interviews, see:
  • Conducting the Reference Interview, byCatherine Sheldrick Ross, Kirsti Nilsen, and Patricia Dewdney (New York: Neal Schuman, 2003).