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Library Student Employee Guide: Reference Service Basics

Training & easy reference guide for Library Student Assistants
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Reference Service Basics

What is a reference interview?

A reference interview or reference conversation is the tool library workers use to understand what patrons need. What they need may not be what they ask for. People often try too hard to be helpful and end up disguising their real need. The reference interview is the tool we use to get to that real information need.

If you answer the question without meeting the information need, the patron will not feel they were heard, understood, or truly helped.

The Reference Interview Process

While staffing the information desk, any question you receive should get a reference interview, even if only briefly. The exception to this is directional questions.

The goal of the reference interview is to fully understand the patron’s question. In order to answer the patron's question, you must first clarify their need. Throughout the reference interview, ask questions to discover:

Five Guidelines for a Reference Interview

  • Type: what type of information do they need? A scholarly article? A newspaper article? A book?
  • Quantity: How much information is needed? How much information does the patron already have? Where have they already searched for information?
  • Purpose: How is the information going to be used? Is this for a class assignment? What class? Is this to supplement an existing paper? Personal curiosity?
  • Level: What research level is the user? First year students, upperclassmen, graduate students, and instructors all have different levels of knowledge and need. 
  • Timing: How much time do they have to find the answer? Do they need it immediately, or can they wait for an ILL request?

Don’t forget to fill out the Library Reference Statistics form for every reference question you answer!

Reference Best Practices

Here are a few things to keep in mind when conducting reference interviews:


Smile, greet, and make eye contact with the patron. Identify the patron's need. If other patrons are waiting, greet them and let them know you'll be with them shortly.

  • "Are you finding what you need?"
  • "Is there anything I can help you with?" 
  • "I'll be with you in just a moment, thanks for your patience."

If you are conducting virtual reference over chat or email, acknowledge the patron’s question as quickly as possible, even if you don’t yet have the answer. 


Be engaged with the patron's question. Face the patron while they are speaking and signal and understanding of the patron's needs through verbal and non-verbal confirmation, like a nod of the head. This may also be an expression of empathy with the patron's question.

  • "That's a great question, let's see what we can find."
  • "It sounds like you've had a tough time so far, hopefully we'll be able to get you started."
  • "You're on the right track, here are some more resources." 

These same phrases can apply when conducting virtual reference. Re-affirm your interest in the patron’s question over chat by responding to every message, even if it’s just an “okay, thanks.”


Good communication is at the heart of the reference transaction. Always allow the patron to fully state their question in their own words before responding. Never assume you know what they will ask, or how they will finish their sentence. Seek to clarify anything that is unclear, and avoid jargon. Rephrase the patron's question and repeat it back to ensure you're both on the same page. Use open-ended questions to encourage the patron to give more information about their query, and closed-ended questions to refine the query. Refrain from value judgments on the patron's query, and respect patron privacy

Open ended questions include:

  • "Can you tell me more about your topic/assignment?"
  • "Do you mind elaborating on that point?"

Closed ended questions include:

  • "What kind of information have you already found?"
  • "Where have you already looked for information?"


An effective reference transaction hinges on an effective search. Without it, the patron may be discouraged, both from their research and asking questions. Be sure to find out what the patron has already tried, and how effective it was. Construct a search strategy with the patron, and work with the patron to evaluate results, revise search terms, and identify other sources to try if the sources is unsuccessful. Help broaden or narrow the search as needed, and offer pointers so that the patron can learn to answer similar questions on their own. If you are searching for information for the patron, explain what you are doing and how you found the information they're looking for.

  • “Are you familiar with searching the library catalog?”

While in person, you can easily direct the patron in their searching, online it is important to check in regularly to ensure they’re on the right track. Ask:

  • “Did that work for you?”
  • “Are these search results looking like what you’re hoping to find?”
  • “Do any of these look good to you?”

If the answer is no, continue to work on refining the patron’s search terms and limiters until they’re on the right track. 

If you aren’t walking through the question with the patron, such as answering a question over email, tell the patron how you found the answer to their question. 

If you do not feel comfortable walking through the search process with a patron, you should refer the question to a faculty librarian. It’s our job to help with these kinds of questions, so do not be shy about asking!


Supplying information is not the end of the reference transaction. The librarian is responsible for determining if the patron is satisfied with the results of the search, and referring the patron to other sources including those not available through the local library. Patrons often have “doorknob questions” -- they’re on their way out, hand on the doorknob, and turn around with an additional question. Ask to ensure that you’ve fully answered all of their question and haven’t prematurely ended the reference interview.

  • “Is there anything else I can help you with?”
  • “Did that answer your question?”
  • “Does this look like it will get you started?”
  • “Please let us know if you have any additional questions!”

You may also follow up after the fact by email if the patron’s question was particularly challenging.

If you find that the patron’s question is time consuming or near the end of your shift, offer alternatives to you staying online with them:

  • “I’m about to head out of the day, but please email XYZ if you need any more assistance.” 
  • “I need to sign off for now, but feel free to chat again or send us an email if you have additional questions.”

Want to practice? Try our reference scavenger hunt!

Park University Library
8700 NW River Park Drive, Box 61 - Parkville, MO - 64152
Phone: (816) 584-6285
Toll-free: (800) 270-4347