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Lansing Community College Library

Reference & Instruction Guide: Reference Interview

Policies, procedures, best practices and training guide, for reference and instruction services.


The reference interview is a dialog that answers a basic question: what does the patron really need? You can also use it to build rapport with your patron and teach your patron how to find the resources they need. Listen to the patron, ask clarifying questions, and look for non-verbal cues. Shadowing experienced librarians can help you develop your own techniques. It takes time and practice to perfect a reference interview technique that works for you.

Questions to Consider in a Reference Interview

You can use the following questions to receive more information from the patron about their inquiry:

  • Can you tell me more about your assignment?
  • I'm not familiar with _______. Can you explain it to me?
  • Are there any limitations to what kind of sources you can use in your assignment? (ie: web sources, peer-reviewed articles, anything from the library databases, age of sources, etc.)
  • What do you already know about _______?
  • What interests you about this topic, or what more do you want to know?
  • What do you mean by _______?
  • Have you started looking yet, or are you just getting started? What have you found so far? (if they have started research)
  • How do you feel about the sources we have found together?

Ask yourself these questions to find the best resources for your patron:

  • Am I very clear on what the user wants and what they are searching for?
  • Am I really focusing on the user and their needs right now?
  • Where could I find more information about this topic in addition to the usual resources we access?
  • If the student's request is too broad or too narrow, can we work together to alter the search in order to find them better resources?

Some patrons are hesitant to continue to work on their own after getting help from a librarian or, at worst, are hoping to get more of their work done for them. In these cases, you need an exit strategy. Offer the table next to the Research Help Desk as a work area where the student can easily reach you if they need additional help, or share your intention to check back in with them after a set amount of time.

When wrapping up a reference interview, some questions you might ask are:

  • Do you feel ready to continue working on your own?
  • Has your question been answered fully?
  • Is there anything else I can help you with?
  • Would you mind sharing your contact information for a follow up?

Common Reference Questions:

  • I am writing an argumentative essay and I need information on _______.
  • I need articles about _______.
  • I’m looking for some books on _______.
  • Can you show me how to use the library databases?
  • I’m working on an assignment, and I need to find statistics/graphs showing _______.
  • I’ve been looking for articles on _______, but I’m not finding anything.
  • I’m doing a paper on _______, and I need peer-reviewed articles.
  • I’m writing a paper for NURS 201, and I need to make an appointment with a librarian.
  • I need help with my citations.
  • I’m looking for a book, does the library have _______? (this question is most common at the start of the semester, and students are often looking for course reserves)
  • I found this book in the catalog, but I don’t know where it is, can you help me find it?
  • Can I get this book as an e-book?
  • My professor told me I could stream this video through the library, how do I do that?

Directional questions like the ones below can be referred to the Help Zone.

  • Where can I check out a laptop, a calculator, this book, etc.
  • I got an email saying my requested book is ready, where is it?
  • How do I get a study room?

The Reference Interview: Be a Guide

Skills & Steps

  • Actively listen to the initial question
  • Asking questions for clarification
  • Paraphrasing for clarification
  • Translating the question into potential library sources
  • Searching
  • Teaching the patron how to navigate the library’s website, databases, etc.
  • Following up
  • Ending the interview