The reference interview is the greatest skill that a public service librarian can develop. It is our diagnostic, our consultation. Each reference interaction is a mystery and it is the key mystery that will determine our work. What is the true question that the patron needs us to set our shoulder to the wheel on?
Like all complex skills it is easy to do poorly and incredibly hard and complicated to do well. I love this aspect of our work and try and approach every enquiry with the same balance of skills and abilities. These are the four key factors in the reference interview.
Enquiry – the librarian is curious and interested in seeking solutions. They should be able to look at a puzzle from different angles and be asking questions about it from those different directions. What is really being said here? How does that connect to this other thing we have on the shelf? Who would be an expert on this and where do we access them?
Empathy – the librarian needs to care that the patron gets the information that they are looking for. It’s time consuming and can be exhausting to run down the right answer and if it was something the librarian cared about they would probably already know it. Empathy is the quality that motivates the librarian to keep digging into a topic area they really care nothing about. They may not care about the topic but they can understand that the person in front of them does and that is enough to make them pore over a database searching for that one elusive reference.
Engagement – this is similar to both Enquiry and Empathy but is more active than either. Engagement is being in the moment of that query. Is the librarian looking at other windows on their computer while they are speaking to the patron? Are they thinking about lunch or the meeting they just had or are going to? These distractions will impair the librarian’s ability to catch and process nuance and subtle clues that could make all the difference. Engagement also tends to lead to shorter, more effective, more pleasant reference interviews as the patron really feels like the librarian is present in the discussion along with them.
Experience – can a librarian who is early in their career do a good reference interview? Of course they can, but that same librarian will do an even better one in a year’s time and even better five years after that. Experience gives the librarian perspective. While no two questions are ever exactly alike some of them are fairly similar and a good librarian will be able to make those associations and reach for them in the midst of the enquiry.
Can you do a reference interview with only one or two of these traits, sure you can. Can you do it with none? No, you can’t, and you shouldn’t even try.