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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 answers the basic question: what does the patron really want to know? Listen to the patron and look for non-verbal cues. Shadowing experienced librarians can help you develop your own techniques. It takes time and a lot of practice to perfect a reference interview technique that works for you.

Questions to Consider in a Reference Interview

The following questions are those you can use to ask the patron in order to receive more information about their inquiry:

  • Could you tell me what you're working on?
  • What is it you want to know about __________?
  • What would you like to know about this topic?
  • What have you already found (or where have you already looked for information)?
  • What kind of information on __________ are you looking for?
  • What do you mean by __________?
  • What do you already know about __________?
  • Is there something specific about __________ that you are looking for?
  • I'm not familiar with __________. Can you explain it to me?
  • Where have you checked for information so far?
  • So in other words, what you'd like to find is __________, right?

The following questions are those you can ask yourself in order to find the best resources for your patron:

  • 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 I negotiate in order to find them better resources?
  • 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?

The following questions are commons ones that you may experience while working the Reference Desk:

  • I need an article on __________.
  • I need to find an article in a __________ journal.
  • I need to find a book on __________.
  • Where is this book?
  • Does the library have my textbook? (Please note: We do not MelCat or ILL textbooks.)
  • I need a specialized source on __________.
  • I need to find a reserve item.
  • I need help with APA / MLA citation.
  • I am writing a pro / con paper and I need information on __________.
  • I need information on __________, limited to Michigan.
  • Does the library have a video (or other format) on __________?
  • What printer does my printout go to?
  • Which computers have Word / PowerPoint?
  • I'm trying to bring up a document in my Desire2Learn (D2L) course and I can't open it.
  • How do I view my printing account balance?
  • How do I register for a class?

Skills & Steps

  • Paraphrasing
  • Asking open questions
  • Clarifying
  • Verifying
  • Getting all the needed information
  • Following up
  • Ending the interview