How Can I Help You?

How Can I Help You?

Posted on Tuesday June 03, 2008 at 10:47AM

It does not matter what size your library is. Customers that come into the library will ask library staff reference questions. They will ask questions to library pages, clerks at the circulation desk and at the reference desk (if your library is large enough to have a seperate reference desk!) Every library staff member should be equipped with the knowledge to point the customer in the right direction, even if it is to another staff member in the library.

The reference services that a library provides are important because it is an essential customer service. When a patron approaches the desk with a question on their face they should be greeted by a smiling face of a staff member that is ready to help them connect with the information they need.

Reference work is not only about answering questions. It includes pointing people in the right direction (to materials in the library or elsewhere), as well as providing guidance that helps them understand their information needs.

The interaction with the customer also includes opportunities to provide reader’s advisory services (putting people in contact with materials they would like) and to provide basic instruction (we have an online catalogue, this is how you use it). 

What reference service is not:

  • Interpretation of materials (in particular legal, medical, financial)
  • Appraisal of books or artifacts.
  • Genealogical questions (we can point them in the right direction)
  • Bibliographies (we don’t compile them or check them for the patron, we can refer them to manuals)
  • Answering quizzes, class assignments (“I have to answer this question, what’s the answer?” Our response: “I can tell you where you would find the answer”)

During the reference interview, it is important to utilize open questioning such as “What would you like to know about x?” instead of closed questioning that leads to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers.

Sense-making questions such as “If you could tell me how you would be using this information I could help you find something” are also helpful.

Paraphrasing or summarizing “so what you are looking for is…”, along with verbal encouragement such as “yes, uh-hu” demonstates acknowledment that you are listening. 

At the end, it is important to confirm that they have found information that answers their question.

Try to avoid: 

  • Assuming that the information they are seeking is from a book on that topic. There are other sources, so don’t immediately transfer their search words into the catalogue as they are talking to you.
  • Interrupt at inappropriate times (this means your not listening)
  • Make assumptions or premature diagnosis (especially with children)


Some little things you can do to improve reference services: 

  • Ask people at the catalogue, “Are you finding what you are looking for?”
  • Ask people at the counter, “Did you find everything you were looking for?”
  • Roving reference on the floor. If you’re in the stacks ask people if they need help.
  • When signing up a new member, explain our library system, mention the catalogue and that they can access it from home.
  • Utilize the library website, catalogue and online databases in particular (they are a great resource—especially the new ones!)
  • Use the reference section (Mention what is available in it. Get to know it yourself by looking through it, shelf-reading)
  • Use and add to your library list of website resources and referrals.
  • Look for opportunities to teach. Many people that rely on us to do the holds for them simply don’t know that they could do it themselves, I’ve found this out!
  • Try to keep accurate reference statistics.

This is only a scratch on the surface of the topic of reference services, which also includes issues of privacy and confidentiality, disparate levels of service, overcoming barriers to service, copyright issues and the evaluation of reference resources.

Stay tuned for training opportunities on this topic in the future! In the meantime I recommend two titles available in our system

A video called “Conducting the reference interview” from the Library Video Network, 2004

A book called “Conducting the reference interview - a how-to-do-it manual for librarians by Catherine Sheldrick Ross, 2002

Author: Northern Lights Library System


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