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Unisa's Partner Public Libraries: The Reference Desk

This guides provides information and resources relevant to the Unisa Public Partner Libraries who serve Unisa students as well as members in their community

Reference and Information Service Providers

The Reference and User Services Association of the American Library Association (RUSA) is responsible for stimulating and supporting excellence in the delivery of general library services and materials, and the provision of reference and information services, collection development, readers’ advisory, and resource sharing for all ages, in every type of library.

Its Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Service Providers  are highly relevant to reference and information service providers worldwide 

Further guidelines from RUSA:

The Reference Interview

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The purpose of a reference interview is to ensure:

1. "The user gets the information they need."

2. "The user learns something about how to find information."

3. "The user learns something about how to evaluate information."

4. "The user is satisfied with the interaction"  

Sourced from: Miller, Jonathan.  Quick and Easy Reference Evaluation: Gathering Users' and Providers' Perspectives.  Reference & User Services Quarterly 47.3 (2007). 218-222.

Reference service is a way for librarians to meet the information needs of the communities they serve. Needs will vary as the public library serves a very diverse community.  Satisfying information needs requires discovering the real need behind a patron's first question.  Patrons may not clearly express real information needs or may be limited by misconceptions about libraries.  

The Reference Interview is a means of determining real information needs. 

Most importantly, finding the the underlying "gap" in knowledge or the problem to be solved behind the patron's opening question may be an ongoing reference process that includes mediation and follow-up by the librarian. 

Take a look at the following which is a detailed overview of the reference process.

1. Be Approachable. Look up when patrons approach and welcome them. Put the patron at ease. Remember, some patrons may be to approach the desk, so your body language is important. Smile !   

2. Ask an open-ended questions to get patrons to tell you what they're looking for. Probe. Listen and give your full attention. Verifying a question gives you an opportunity to make sure you understand the real questions.  This process avoids jumping to conclusions.

  • What type of resources are you looking for?  
  • Is this for a specific assignment, what is the assignment?  Is it a school or college or university assignment.
  • What have you already done and where have you found that information?  If they have used the library's resources, have them show you how they accessed those resources. For instance, if the patron says, "I used the databases but couldn't find anything."  You could counter with, "Which databases? I'm going to go there and show me what you have done and give you other pointers." 
  • What sort of materials are you hoping to find?  
  • How much information are you expecting?

This will hopefully provide the patron with a chance to state their own questions, and not have the librarian define what he/she thinks the patrons wants !.  In some cases  you will need to refocus the question.  For instance, if you as a librarian do not know anything about a particular topic, for example, electronics, don't be afraid to ask a few questions to put the question into context for yourself; this also help you learn more about the topic.

  • Are you looking for basic information or advanced?
  • Is this for university course-work and if so, does you lecturer require a specific type of resource, or year in which the information was published?
  • Do you need a book, or are you looking for a few of the latest articles?

If, for example,  a student is looking for a specific textbook, do not begin by saying, "it's unlikely that we have that book," rather, say "There are a few things we can try. Let's take a look."  

3. Paraphrase.  Once you know what the patron is looking for, verify by paraphrasing the request.

  • You are looking for resources that discuss the dangers of genetically modified food in Africa, is that correct?
  • You need information on the use of  social media such as Facebook for bullying in high schools in South Africa, is that right?  

4. Put the research into a framework should you be helping a patron who is a scholar, student or researcher. Recommend a source and explain why this resource is being used. Show them how to find those resources and navigate the pages.  This will keep the patron informed of how to search and the progress of the request. It provides a teaching moment. Remember: Avoid Jargon. Make sure the information is understood. Write down or have the patron write down the databases used, search terms, and any other relevant notes to ensure the student can replicate the process/search once they leave the desk. If the patron has a laptop, have them follow along so they can continue once your assistance is done. Invite them to pull up a chair and sit next to you at the desk.  

5. Follow-up.  Make sure that the patron's request has been fully answered.  If the request has been answered, re-cap what was done.  

Read more at: 

Do not always assume that you have answered the question or query.  After you think you have answered the patron's question, always ask follow-up questions such as: 

  • "Does this completely answer your question?"
  • "Do you have everything you need?"
  • "Is there anything else I can help you find?"

Asking the patron if they have everything they need will improve your success rate in satisfying information needs. Follow-up questions ensure that you have really provided what the patron wanted. 

Ending the interview:  "NO" is NEVER an Answer !

If the answer is"no" to your follow-up question, you will need to work on the question by:

  • letting the patron know who you are should they wish to contact you
  • getting the the patron's contact details (remember to verify this with the patron)
  • giving the patron a realistic idea of when you may be calling or emailing back - establish a definite time when the patron is available and expecting to hear from you. 

Major Point:

  • The only way to be sure you've met the need is to ask.

  • Bring each reference interview to an appropriate close

  •  Don't Say No

  •  Think Yes


Listening -  is the most important part of the reference interview. Listening to a patron without interrupting (a skill which is difficult for most of us) and asking the right questions are essential skills for reference service. 

Remember WORF:

W = welcoming, open attitude and body language

O = open-ended questions 

R = restating/rephrasing the question

F = ask follow-up questions. 

See more at:  Reference Interview 101

Sit back, relax with a cup of coffee / tea and take a look at the following on the Reference Interview.

The following resources may useful to the reference desk when assisting clients:

For further resources, please see the tab "Open" or "Free" Resources for the Reference Desk