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Reference Question Training Just what is a “reference question.” This may seem trivial But it is important that you understand what is meant by that phrase. Training Presentation This is a self-guided PowerPoint presentation.

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Reference Question Training

  • Just what is a “reference question.”
    • This may seem trivial
    • But it is important that you understand what is meant by that phrase.
  • Training Presentation
  • This is a self-guided PowerPoint presentation.
  • Please view this in slideshow mode or else the links and buttons won’t work.
  • Throughout the slideshow, you’ll see questions and you’ll be presented with possible answers.

Click on the response you think best answers the question.

For example, click here.


Usually, whichever answer you click will take you to a new slide.

Click here to see an example.

And then click on the “Click here to see an example” text box again to remove this one.

But sometimes, you’ll just get another text box.

Now go ahead and click here to begin the session. Enjoy.


A. Where are the photocopiers?

B. Do you have any information about the invention of the Xerox machine?

Which one of these is a reference question?

C. Can you help me with the copy machine?


Right! This is a reference question.

What makes it a reference question?

A reference question is a reference question, regardless of whether we can answer it or not.

A. We have a book that can meet the person’s information need.

B. This person asked the question at the reference desk.

Just because the question was asked at reference doesn’t mean that it’s a reference question

C. It required referring to our catalog to find an answer or resource for this person


…involves the…use…of one or more information sources…

  • From the definition by the Office of Commonwealth Libraries

Since we had to use the catalog to find something that could help this person, that qualifies as a reference question.

Try another one!


Where are your dinosaur books?


Is this a reference question?


yes it is
Yes it is.
  • …involves the knowledge…of one or more information sources…
  • From the definition by the Office of Commonwealth Libraries
  • Just because you don’t have to look up dinosaurs in the catalog doesn’t mean it’s not a reference question. You may well know that dinosaur books are in the 567.9’s from past experience. That’s “knowledge of one or more information sources.”

Try another one!


“Where are the photocopiers?” is a directional question.

  • This is a question that you could answer simply by pointing
  • It requires a knowledge of the layout of the building and its facilities
  • But it doesn’t require any specialized knowledge of our collection or resources.



Try Again


“Can you help me with the copy machine?” is a technical assistance question.

  • It requires a working knowledge of our machines and how to operate or troubleshoot them.
  • It doesn’t require any specialized knowledge of our collection or resources.
  • Instructing people in the use of specific programs (like MS Word to write a resume or using one of our databases) however, is a reference question.

Try Again


Which of these is NOT a reference question?

This is reference instead of directional because you need the catalog or web resources to answer it. And if you know it because you’ve already checked for someone else earlier, well that counts as “knowledge” of our collection.

  • Where’s your latest John Grisham book?
  • Where are your biographies?
  • Do you have a copy of Sizzlin’ Sixteen available?

This is also a reference question. Just like the John Grisham question above, you would have to refer to our catalog to see if a copy is available.


Right! “Where are your biographies?” is a directional question, not a reference question.



Try another one!


Wait a minute. “Where are your books about photocopiers?” is a reference question, but “where are your biographies?” isn’t? What’s going on? What’s the difference?

Looking for a subject is different than looking for a section of the library (i.e. biographies, fiction, paperbacks, etc…)

Many libraries have signs indicating where the biographies are located. If there’s a sign, that makes it a directional question.

There isn’t a difference. These arbitrary rules from the Office of Commonwealth Libraries are just to confuse you because, secretly, they hate librarians.


OK, now you’re just picking the wrong answer on purpose, aren’t you.

The Office of Commonwealth Libraries doesn’t secretly hate librarians. The rule isn’t arbitrary and there really is a difference.

Try Again


There are many signs in a library. Just because a sign is up doesn’t necessarily make something a directional question.



Try Again

  • Just like asking about a specific title or author
  • You would need to take advantage of our catalog to help this person.
  • That makes it a reference question
  • Not all “where are…” questions are directional.
  • If they’re looking for subjects
    • that’s reference
    • If they ask for a section, like non-fiction or biographies
      • that’s directional.

Try another one!


Technical Assistance or Reference?

“Hey, what’s wrong with this thing? I was just chatting with people I’ve never met in real life when the computer stopped working.”

Technical Assistance



Right! It’s a technical assistance question.

  • Technical Assistance examples
  • When you unfreeze one of our computers
  • Demonstrate logging in with a library card number and PIN
  • Checking someone’s SAM account



There is, in fact, a very short list of question types that aren’t reference questions…

  • Directional questions
  • Questions about basic account information – PIN numbers, items out, renewals, etc.
  • Questions about rules or policy descriptions
  • Basic equipment help

Not Reference

All other questions are counted as reference.

Try another one!


…involves the… instruction in the use of one or more information sources…

  • From the definition by the Office of Commonwealth Libraries
  • This isn’t a reference question.
  • A reference question requires:
  • Instruction in the use of a specific program
    • like how to research one of our databases.

Try Again


What about when you just can’t find an answer or resource for someone?

A. Do you shrug and conclude that the information doesn’t exist?

No Results Found

B. Do you suggest to the patron that they might get better results with your manager or somewhere other than the library?

C. Never surrender! Never give up! There’s some secret keyword combination somewhere out there that’ll get Google to give up its secrets.


How does it feel when some indifferent and uncaring customer service lackey gives you the “whaddya want ME to do about it?” look?

  • Don’t be that lackey.
  • Even if you can’t help a patron directly:
  • Refer them to a colleague, your manager or even an outside agency
    • They might have more specialized knowledge than we do.

Try Again


Yep, as long as we can point somebody in the right direction, we’ve done our job.

  • the appropriate resource may not necessarily be part of our collection.
  • The appropriate resource could very well be an organization out in the community or a more specialized library somewhere else.
  • Or it may even be a colleague working next to you or on the other side of the building.
  • These are called referrals.
  • They count as successful reference transactions and they should be tallied.

Try another one!


This is a very admirable sentiment and can often lead to success in many endeavors in life.

  • However
  • You’ve got too many people to help to let one person take all your time
  • While you may be able to find an answer if you work at it for half an hour or 45 minutes, the patron isn’t necessarily best served that way
  • You can refer them to your manager or our reference department
    • These folks may know our resources better and have gone to school to learn advanced research techniques.

Check Out

  • Remember, referring a patron to someone who can help them better is still a successful transaction. So don’t be afraid to point them in the right direction.

Try Again


“OK, I’ve got kids in school and they’ve all got homework. I need books about dinosaurs, the solar system, Vincent van Gogh and what the Mississippi River represents in Huckleberry Finn.”


Careful, it may look like it’s all one question, but it’s not. When there are multiple subjects in a question, each subject counts as its own reference question.

How many reference questions are included in this query?



Nope, sorry. There’s at least one reference question here.


Right! When you have to research multiple subjects, each subject counts as an individual reference question even though the patron may ask for them all at the same time.

So each of the following…


The Solar System

Vincent van Gogh

And the meaning of the Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn

… are reference questions.

Try another one!


“I’m looking for Small Favor, Turncoat and Changes by Jim Butcher. I also need Rachel Caine’sIll Wind, Heat Stroke and Chill Factor. The kid wants Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, yup, all of ‘em. Oh, while you’re at it, throw in the Stephanie Meyer Twilight books for the missus.”

How many reference questions is this?


There’s more than four reference questions here.


There’s more than one reference question here.



This is 15 reference questions.

“Hey wait a minute,” you might be thinking, “how do you get 15 reference questions out of that mess? I thought author/title checks only counted as one question?”

  • It’s like this
  • If someone asks for one title and author, that’s one reference question.
  • If someone asks for multiple titles from one author, that’s one reference question per title.
  • Just like each subject search is a reference question, each title check is a reference question.
    • Every time you have to check our catalog to see if we own a title, count that as a reference question.

Try another one!


What should you do with every reference question somebody asks you?

Well, yes. To the best of you’re ability, provide a resource, an answer or a referral. But there’s one more thing you should do when you get a reference question.

Umm, answer it?

Answer it and then move on to the next question.

OK, yes, you’ll have to move on to the next question, too. But before you do that, there’s something else you need to do.

Tally the question.


Yes! Tally the question.

  • This isn’t just some weird DCLS thing
  • The Office of Commonwealth Libraries keeps track of library usage across the State of Pennsylvania
    • including how many reference questions get asked
  • This data is used by organizations like PaLA to advocate for libraries in places like the State Legislature
  • Every time you tally a question, you provide more evidence that the people of Pennsylvania and Dauphin County find libraries are
    • important
    • relevant
    • and useful

Almost there


Good job!

  • If you’re seeing this screen, you made it through the presentation. So, now you know all there is to know about reference questions, right? Right?
  • Short Summary
  • Knowledge
  • Use
  • Instruction
  • A reference question is one that requires you to take advantage of our collection or resources in order to answer.
  • Remember, “resources” can mean anything from an individual book on the shelf, our catalog, the World Wide Web or even your colleagues.

of the library’s

  • Resources
  • Collections
  • And for those who love legalese, here’s the legally binding definition of a reference question, too.
  • “A reference transaction is an information contact that involves the knowledge, use, recommendations, interpretations, or instruction in the use of one or more information sources by a member of the library staff.”
  • Commonwealth Libraries