The Reference Interview

A Comparative Study of Reference Interviews

for  GSLIS 702, Professor Ned Wall


How well do libraries conduct reference interviews in the various formats they now offer?  The author formulates a sample reference question and funnels it though four different library channels: a walk-in interview, a live chat, an e-mail exchange and a telephone call.  Descriptions of each interview highlight problem areas, and provide opportunities for comparison.  This four-interview study tries to come to terms with the low success rates of reference interviews and bases its conclusions on personal experience and academic study.


A Comparative Study of Reference Interviews


Cassell and Hiremath note the six steps in a successful reference interview: (1) establishing rapport, (2) negotiating the query, (3) agreeing on a strategy, (4) locating and evaluating the resources available, (5) following up to ensure satisfaction, and (6) ending the interview (p. 17).  How does such a breakdown play out in a real library?  Is each of these factors relevant in the various formats library reference desks now offer?  This paper describes my personal experiences when requesting information from the reference desk.  Four interview methods will be examined: in-person, e-mail, live chat, and telephone.  Obviously such a small sampling is statistically insignificant, but hopefully this study will highlight the various factors at play in reference interviews, and help me understand why reference interviews have such a low success rate.

The Question

It was difficult to decide on a suitable question.  I wanted one that could be readily answered and one which was sounded reasonable.  I decided on a cover story – I was a student and needed information for a paper I was writing.  I needed a list of the environmental disasters in the last twenty-five years.  A good list is not immediately found in a standard Google search.  But it is also not a question that seemed extraordinarily difficult.  Such a list may be found in the Cambridge FactFinder or The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2006.

The In-Person Interview

I asked my question in-person at a large, suburban public library on a Sunday afternoon.  The reference desk had been busy earlier, but was fairly quiet when strolled up to the counter to ask for help.  The librarian smiled warmly, thought for a second and then started typing.  She was seated behind the counter, and I was standing there in the uncomfortable silence.  She did not look up for awhile.  At this initial stage she neither asked me to clarify my question, nor did she try to restate it in her own words.  I surmised that she was searching the library’s catalog, maybe first looking up environmental disasters and then disasters – environmental.  But there was no communication as to her search methodology.  Finally, she looked up and shook her head.  “There is a book, but it’s not in this library,” she said. “Are you looking for a book about the environment?”

I responded negatively to this closed question.  “What I really need is a list.  I looked on-line, but I didn’t find what I was looking for.”

I didn’t get the sense that she’d looked on the internet at all, but I may have been wrong.  She seemed focused on finding me a book.

“Something like this may be found in an encyclopedia.  Come with me.”  She paused to help another patron with some books on how to write a resume, and then walked me over to the encyclopedias.  She selected a couple volumes each of the Encyclopedia Britannica and the World Book , but was unable to find an answer.  She did the searching and again I stood there uncomfortably, with nothing to do.  I would have liked to participate more actively in the search.

“We don’t use these much anymore,” she said.

I nodded.  “Everybody probably uses the internet.”

“Something like this may be found in an almanac, but the trouble with that is that they are just for one year.”

I nodded.  We were twenty feet away from where the almanacs were shelved, and where I knew was the library’s copy of Cambridge FactFinder.  We were so close…

“Maybe there’s an article on something like that.”  She went back to the desk and sat down and started typing again.  This time it was for at least five minutes.  I stood there feeling a little guilty about wasting so much of her time.  Fortunately there was nobody else waiting in line.

Finally I broke the silence.  “Maybe I should go to a bigger library, maybe in the city?” I said.

She didn’t respond directly to this suggestion.  “You might try the Greenpeace website,” she suggested.  But she was still looking, and I didn’t disturb her any further.  Finally, she asked me, in a very friendly manner:  “So what do you need this for?  Is it just something you want to know?”

It was a good, open question that served to both establish rapport and help understand the need.  But it was curious that it was asked a full fifteen minutes into the search.

“It’s for a paper I have to write,” I said.

She nodded understandingly.  “Let me look one more place.”

After a while of no success, she seemed to give up.  “So what do you want to do?” she said. She seemed tired.  I didn’t know what to say, but as it turned out, I didn’t have to say anything, because suddenly, she found a way out: “Here’s a book.”  She wrote down a call number. “Fourth Floor .”

And with this slip of paper I marched upstairs to the fourth floor and found the book, by Lee Davis, entitled Environmental Disasters, published in 1998 which, had it been more recent, would have adequately answered the question.  I’m sure she was aware of its obvious short-comings, but nevertheless she sent me upstairs.

I did not resent being gotten rid of in such a manner.  Maybe if I had more invested in the results, rather than the search itself, I would have felt differently.  But I liked the librarian.  She had made an effort to respond to my question.  She was friendly and hard-working, and she went out of her way to try to find a resource for me.  (The other side of me says, well that’s her job.)  There was no follow up to determine if I was satisfied with the book.  Even if I hadn’t been relocated to another floor, I got the sense that she probably would not have followed me into the stacks to see how I was doing.  We had reached our limit for the day.

The Telephone Interview

My telephone interview was in the evening, so I selected a large public library on the West Coast.  After navigating my way through their answering service, I was answered by a very friendly woman.  I told her my question.  She asked me if I had internet access and I said yes.  After a short pause, she said she had found something on Wikipedia that might answer my questions.  But she said she could also transfer me to the Science and Technology Department.

“That would be great,” I said.  “I’m looking for a more academic resource.”  I was also interested to see what this referral would be like.

The woman who answered was not so nice.  She seemed overwhelmed or just in a bad mood.  The library apparently had caller id.  “Where are you calling from?” she asked.

I didn’t know what to say.  At first I was going to lie.  “New York,” I said.

“Why are you calling here?”  And then she answered herself.  “Oh, it’s because they’re closed there.”  There was a very long pause – more than six or seven minutes.  In the telephone interview, Cassell and Hiremath write “it is doubly important that the user be kept informed as to how the search process is proceeding and that silent time be kept to a minimum” (p. 24).  This librarian could not care less about silent time.  Finally she came back:  “I don’t want to keep you on the line.  Google ‘environmental disaster list’ and put together a list from the resources there.”

And that was it.  I hung up and googled as she suggested, and got the very same Wikipedia site the first woman had suggested.

This experience was not at all satisfying.  I was made to feel more like an annoyance than a patron.  There was no attempt to determine the nature of my question, or how I was going to use the information.  I was greeted with resentment and given no choice to evaluate possible sources.  She did not ask me to clarify the question at all.  It was pretty clear the information was going to come from the internet.  Perhaps the librarian did not approve of the telephone approach, or felt I was being lazy, or taking advantage of the time zones to contact a librarian outside my own city.  But if the library advertises such a service and does not want to extend it to people outside the city’s limits, it should state this policy on their website.  And the answer I was given was not satisfactory.

The Live Chat Interview

For my Live Chat interview, I picked at random from a list I found on the internet.  It was a public library in a Western state.  I was asked to enter my name, my e-mail address and my question.  Each field was optional.  There was no additional software to add.  It was seamless and took only a couple minutes to connect. I was informed the librarian had joined the session and was given some preliminary information about the service.  In Live Chat there are a lot of long pauses.

“Hi, I am a reference librarian with the QuestionPoint chat service.  Our librarians staff this 24-hour service when your local librarians are unavailable.  I’m reading your question right now to see how I can help you.”  The library seemed to have outsourced their Live Chat functionality to an external vendor called QuestionPoint.        At the outset the librarian asked if I could provide an example of what I meant by environmental disaster.  I typed back “Katrina, Chernobyl, Dhopal in India, Hiroshima.”

Simultaneously librarian typed “Some thing like Three Mile Island?”  And then: “Katrina is more of a natural disaster, while all others are man made, that why I asked for examples. So you are including Hurricanes, Tsunamis, Earthquakes?”

“Yes, you are right. Actually I am looking for man-made disasters – although with Katrina you could argue that global warming contributed. But mostly man-made…”

There was a long pause of over five minutes.  I was getting more and more skeptical.  And then the librarian typed back. “Here is a pretty good list. Some occurred before 1981, but it’s a good start.”  The information was sent to me as a URL and when I clicked it open, it was exactly what I wanted.

“Wow. This is great. Thanks.”

“Is this enough to get you started?”  I said I thought so.  “Great.  Thanks for using our service.  Good night.”

The information I got was definitely the best of all the interviews.  I was curious where it was obtained.  QuestionPoint is a collaborative project of the Library of Congress and OCLC (Online Computer library Center) in Dublin, OH.

There was clarification of the question immediately, and in a way that made me feel more a part of the search process.  There was a follow-up, a pause, and then it was done.  I helped define what I wanted.  And the service was clearly staffed with dedicated professionals who were interested in making the process work.  Questions were not being fielded by librarians who were busy doing a thousand and one other things at the reference desk.

The E-mail Interview

“There are several print sources you can consult for this type of information (e.g. World Almanac). I recommend that you visit your local public library or one of the […] college libraries and work with a librarian to further refine your research question (e.g. how you define disaster — in terms of money or people injured or mortality). Thank you for using our e-mail reference service.”

With a response like this, one wonders why this library even offers an e-mail reference service.  But in many ways, it’s marginally correct. The World Almanac actually does not have the information, but The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2006 does.  This could be a very frustrating detail to a patron.  And while it certainly is desirable for the librarian and the user to “refine” the question, negotiation is a two-way street.  E-mail provides a great opportunity for such a give and take, but in this instance at least, no such correspondence occurred.  Maybe this is the library’s e-mail reference policy.  Perhaps it is a way the university thinks it can get its students to come into the library and learn about the research process.  But rather than negotiating the query, the e-mail librarian imposed his or her interpretation of the question, confusing financial and human disasters with environmental disasters.  And the tone of the e-mail feels snappish and arrogant.

This interview was conducted at an academic library selected at random.  I received an e-mail back within an hour confirming that my question had been received and would be processed in the next forty-eight hours.  This was the only interview that actually made me angry.  I feel the question was clear enough to be answered, if indeed such reference service was really provided at this library.  The best thing was the response time.  In less than 20 hours I was assured they couldn’t really help me unless I come in.


This paper has described my personal experience of asking the same reference question in four different formats.  As was said at the outset, such a four-interview study is obviously statistically insignificant, but it has highlighted some the problem areas which both Ross, Nielson and Dewdney and Cassell and Hiremath note in their studies.  The most interesting, and in my mind the most important is the need to negotiate the query at the very beginning of the interview.

There is no question in my mind that all four librarians I encountered in this study were competent enough to find my list of environmental disasters.  It is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback and note what each could have done better.   But what is striking in three out of the four interviews was the disregard for initial clarification of the question.  Dervin and Dewdney illustrate the situation best when they say that the user’s real query is “hidden inside a room to which the user has the only key: to find the key, the librarian must use communication techniques” (p. 511).   The librarians who I spoke with via e-mail and telephone showed no interest in finding this key.  And during the walk-in interview, a full fifteen minutes elapsed before I was asked some open and neutral questions.  Much time can be saved by initially understanding what the patron is really looking for and how they are going to use it.  In many cases, the patron may not know his or her exact needs until such a reference interview is conducted.

It is not an easy task for a librarian to sit at the reference desk all day answering reference questions.  To be in command of all the resources available in a library is a daunting task.  Collections change quickly, and it is difficult to stay current with what is available.  It is easy to get focused on the library catalog, for example, and forget other avenues, such as the internet or the various periodicals.  Cassell and Hiremath are certainly correct when they emphasize how librarians need to develop their search skills along with their interview skills (p. 42).

The sheer number of questions is likely to affect a librarian’s performance.  And though each question should be treated equitably, librarians are human beings and are not impervious to conscious or subconscious judgments based on the content of the question, and by the race, age, gender and general appearance of the patron.  These preconceptions may dramatically affect the way they handle a question.

Few people like being put on the spot.  A reference interview seems to range widely, from an intimate experience with a patron, to an intense, confrontational bout in which both participants figuratively slug it out, each questioning the other’s intelligence, motivations, and industriousness.  Surely most interviews fall somewhere in between these two extremes.  The question is posed, and the reference librarian must field it.  Some librarians think on their feet better than others.  Some have more experience.  Some formats are better for some individuals than others.

How do the various formats compare?  At the outset, I thought that e-mail would be the most likely format for success.  Universally used, flexible, offering time to formulate an answer and consult with others – but I was wrong.[1] The e-mail interview I experienced was the worst.  I also thought the walk-in interview would provide good results, though I worried about long lines and hurried service, both of which I did not experience.  While not especially successful, the walk-in experience was delightful.  I was very skeptical of live-chat, but ironically found this the most successful of my interview experiences.

Certainly the variables in such studies should not be underestimated.  Things such as the complexity of the question, availability of an answer, the expertise and experience of the librarian, the mood of the librarian, the patron’s query style, time of day, race, age, gender and number of questions fielded already that day immediately come to mind.  But Ross, Nilsen and Dewdney unfortunately seem to ignore such variables, and focus instead on librarians’ need to learn “micro-skills” to salve their shortcomings.  But what really causes almost half of all reference interviews to go sour?  Neither Conducting the Reference Interview nor Reference andIinformation Services in the 21St Century: An Introduction seem to address this question.

It is beyond the scope here, and certainly not the place, at the very end of a paper, to begin to conjecture.  But I would be interested in studying how the library reference desk compares with other service-oriented professions, and how attitudes, performance and work ethics relate to salary-levels.  For essentially, I feel we are trying to find ways to stretch the altruism of librarians without fully understanding all the reasons why some may feel resentful and exploited.

This paper does not deny that librarians can greatly benefit from learning micro-skills.  Every interview that I conducted shows how these skills significantly increase librarians’ chances of meeting the informational needs of patrons.  But I’m also sure that making salaries commensurate with their educational and professional levels would also greatly improve librarians’ attitudes, work ethics and reference interview success rates.  For surely a worker who does not feel exploited will have one more reason to go the extra yard.

Evaluation Sheet

(Ratings mark by “X”)


The information/referral/guidance I received was accurate/what I asked for.

Not at all accurate or responsive. |__1__|__2__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__X__|__8__|__9__| Yes, both accurate and responsive.

The information I received was useful/helpful.

Not at all. |__1__|__2__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__X__|__7__|__8__|__9__| Yes, extremely.

I would return to this librarian.

Under no circumstances. |__1__|__2__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__X__|__9__| Without hesitation.


The information/referral/guidance I received was accurate/what I asked for.

Not at all accurate or responsive. |__1__|__X__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__9__| Yes, both accurate and responsive.

The information I received was useful/helpful.

Not at all. |__1__|__X__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__9__| Yes, extremely.

I would return to this librarian.

Under no circumstances. |__X__|__2__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__9__| Without hesitation.


The information/referral/guidance I received was accurate/what I asked for.

Not at all accurate or responsive. |__1__|__X__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__9__| Yes, both accurate and responsive.

The information I received was useful/helpful.

Not at all. |__1__|__X__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__9__| Yes, extremely.

I would return to this librarian.

Under no circumstances. |__1__|__X__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__9__| Without hesitation.


The information/referral/guidance I received was accurate/what I asked for.

Not at all accurate or responsive. |__1__|__2__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__X__| Yes, both accurate and responsive.

The information I received was useful/helpful.

Not at all. |__1__|__2__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__X__| Yes, extremely.

I would return to this librarian.

Under no circumstances. |__1__|__2__|__3__|__4__|__5__|__6__|__7__|__8__|__X__| Without hesitation.


Cassell, K.A. & Hiremath, U. (2004).  Reference and information services in the 21St century: An introduction.  New York, N.Y.: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Crystal, D (Ed.).(2000).  Cambridge factfinder. New York, N.Y.: Cambridge University Press.

Dervin, B & Dewdney, P. (1986).  Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview.  Research Quarterly, 25(4), 506-513.

Park, K. (Ed.). (2005) The world almanac and book of facts 2006. New York, N.Y.: World Almanac Books.

QuestionPoint. (2006). QuestionPoint 24/7 reference services.  Retrieved September 28, 2006.

Ross, C.S., Nilsen, K. & Dewdney, P. (2002).  Conducting the reference interview: A how-to manual for librarians. New York, N.Y.: Neal Schuman Publishers, Inc.


[1] I must admit that, after speaking to members of our class, I was worried that I would not get a timely response, so I sent three e-mail requests to three different sources – the first I have described, the second (a state library) merely suggested looking in a newspaper, and the third did not respond at all.  [Addendum: after finishing this paper, I finally received a response back from the third e-mail request.  Though it took six days and was promised in forty-eight hours, it was an extraordinarily helpful and detailed synopsis of resources, which even took the time to locate resources at my local library, and gave me page numbers to consult.]