Reference Questions and Search Strategies

Note: This is appropriate for library school students.

by Moya K. Mason


The reference interview is the most important aspect of a reference librarian's job because it establishes rapport and clarifies what the patron is actually interested in finding out, and how the librarian can assist in the process. As a result, proper reference interview skills must be developed from the onset of one's career and fine-tuned as more experience and on the job training courses are acquired. As library school students, one way to get some practice is by role playing the reference interview with a classmate. In this case, the exercise was conducted between friends, and it was decided that to the best of our ability we would carry out the interview using the five microskills, with emphasis on the use of open-ended questioning and paraphrasing. We also made the decision to challenge each other with queries that were personally interesting, despite the difficulty. What follows is a reconstruction of the process.

Section One: My Question

The reference question that I really wanted to have answered was a legal question. Legal questions, as well as medical questions have long been problematic for librarians because ethically, they are ultimately responsible for the quality and accuracy of the information provided, and therefore, must be very careful about giving patrons advise about areas in which they have no expertise. As much as I hesitated to ask a legal question, I also knew that my classmate worked in the law library on campus and did have an interest in the area. My question concerned the extent of my rights as a custodial parent to leave the country if I decided to move to the United States and work in my chosen field, without my ex-husband's permission. I really was unsure about the quality of the information I would receive from my classmate because I had no idea if there was any specific law written for the circumstances or if it could only be found on a provincial basis. I decided to call my brother, who is a lawyer, and ask him. He told me that there was a special term used for this kind of law and it is "parental mobility rights." To make it more challenging for Pamela, I did not divulge this to her, and honestly did not expect any indepth analysis on family law, just a synopsis on what to expect and where I could get further information.

Initially, I was very vague and asked for information on Family Law, without elaborating any further than that. My classmate used a series of open-ended questions to draw out that my interest was actually child custody law, and more specifically, my concerns over whether or not I could leave Canada with my son, if his father disagreed with the move. The reference interview really did clarify what I wanted to find out, and helped my classmate understand my information needs enough so that she could look for appropriate information. In addition, the information provided was voluminous and very helpful to me concerning my rights as a parent in today's legal climate, which focuses more on what is best for the child in the long-term, than on the financial opportunities open to either parent.

Section Two: My Classmate's Question

My partner gave me a question which ended up being very difficult to search and one that required a great deal of time to figure out how to proceed. Initially, my classmate told me she was interested in French dictionaries, and by using a couple of open-ended questions, I found out that she was interested in French translations for some very specific computer terms that are currently popular. In particular, she wanted to know what words French Canadian people commonly use for "spamming" and "chatting" or "to chat."

A tour of the dictionaries in Weldon Library brought me to French technical dictionaries which I did not know existed. The latest one available was Routledge French Technical Dictionary (PC2640.R687) and was published in 1994, but it did not include the words my classmate was interested in. I found out from a friend that there is something called the French Internet Dictionary, so I next consulted the Weldon OPAC, and could find no reference to the book. By doing some research, I found that the Translation Bureau of the Canadian federal government releases a bulletin called Terminology Update or L'actualite terminologique, and the last issue of every year contains an index to new words. I used the latest index available in the periodical section at Weldon and checked the Lexique Internet Glossary but could only find spamming.

Subsequently, I realized that my classmate was specifically interested in having the terminology that French-speaking Canadians use, and not necessarily those interpretations published by the federal government. I searched the Internet for a site issued by the French Language Office, and found Office de la langue francaise at This is an excellent website for anyone interested in the French language and I included the URL so that my classmate could use the online version, which is available free. It was at this point that I found the answer to the question posed to me, and interestingly, by cross checking the words given by the federal government for spamming and those acceptable to the Quebec office, I found a difference. The federal government has allocated the word inondation for spamming, while the Quebec office provides arrosage, postage tous atimuts, and multipostage abusif, along with inondation. There is also a series of nouns and verbs to go with chatting.

I believe my classmate was really impressed with the information I provided, and the time and effort I spent searching for the appropriate information. She was also quite excited about the federal government publication and the website. Although the question was a difficult one to answer, I was glad to have the opportunity to test out my searching capabilities.

Section Three: What Did I Learn?

From this exercise, I learned that good interviewing skills can only come in time, with much practice, and by watching experienced librarians in action. The hardest thing about undergoing a reference interview with a friend is using the physical components of eye contact and body language with someone you know quite well; it seems that these skills are more easily employed when confronting strangers in a library setting. The other thing I learned was to resist the temptation to jump the gun and assume you know what the person is going to ask you. I certainly would never have guessed the question she ultimately asked.

I also learned that searching can be an extensive process that takes a lot of time and energy, if you are really interested in provided good quality information to the patron. The other lesson I learned was that if you cannot find what you are looking for in one place, then you can try other avenues of searching. With the Internet and the explosion in available sources, librarians can make a great difference to the public if they try their best to clarify what is needed.

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