Nov 02

Reference skills – beyond the basics

Its amazing how you can view your work processes differently, when fresh eyes asks you to examine it.Recently, we had a librarianship student come to our library to learn more about the reference inquiries we receive.Β  Myself, my local history colleague (Heather) and the student (Liz) ended having a great chat and exploration of reference in the here and now. Thanks to both Heather and Liz for an interesting and eye-opening exploration. πŸ™‚

So what did we decide were beyond the basics?Β  To start with, a comprehensive knowledge of your collection. Is the item being requested, something that your library would hold? I know that we don’t collect tertiary textbooks, so save both myself and the library user time when I can say that straight away. Having said that, there have been times when I was sure we wouldn’t have something, but the enquirer pushed and I searched and we did have it. So being aware that I am not omnipotent about everything our library has, I usually take a moment to do at least a quick search just to confirm. That search can also help me to determine if we have something else, which although not asked for, could be useful.

What’s the difference, if I’m going to search anyway? If I am reasonably sure we won’t have something, my search will be relatively quick and cursory (but thorough). If I think we may have something, I’ll spend more time trying to find it.

Leading on from that, is knowing where to refer people to when you can’t help them with their inquiry. On one day at our library, I referred different library users to a university library, local historical society, the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the local community information centre and their local Council.Β  That day combined two sets of knowledge, that come with experience.

The first is particularly important in public libraries, that being local knowledge. Who are the information/service providers in your area, where are things located etc. If you don’t know, you should at least need to know where you can find out – eg. Council Community Directories are an invaluable source, or who on your staffΒ  to ask, as they have that knowledge.

The second comes with experience. One of the questions asked that day related to data about a particular health condition and its prevalence in Australia. Having worked with Australian Bureau of Statistics data for many years, I was able to match the enquirer with this resource, for which he was extremely grateful.Β  Our experience, both within libraries and outside them, is invaluable in our roles as information seekers on our own behalf, or for others.

It also helps to have a bit of general knowledge about absolutely everything!Β  I know it seems like a bit much, but if you have a general idea that C is a computer programming language and not just a letter of the alphabet or that flashing is to do with building and not just a criminal offence, it can make finding the information your enquirer seeks, much quicker and more accurate. And if you don’t know or are vague about what they are talking about, do a quick background search for context (Wikipedia is often great for this), so that you are least looking in the right area when you do go searching.

Unfortunately, the enquirer does not always know what they are seeking, or know how to best articulate it.Β  So although the basic reference interview is requisite, a few more savvy questions that get down to the nitty gritty (with skills again picked up from experience – both life and library), can make all the difference in getting to a successful result.

And finally, refine, recheck and refine, recheck. Really ask the questions about whether the enquiry has been satisfied. Or at least, use your people skills to figure out if they have had enough of you and would you please go away, lol.


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  1. I have heard people behind the desk give Dewey numbers off the top of their head, point and say “but we don’t have much – low demand” – and be entirely wrong on all counts.

    Sometimes we are our own worst enemies.

  2. Very true. I tend to keep an ear open when on desk with less experienced staff and then try to tactfully intercede when I know they are giving out the wrong information. Not always easy on all counts.

  1. […] to demonstrate how to search, rather than looking i up on the desk PC) Β  Β I really like the way Michelle McLean gets down to an important tenet of the reference interview: Β  “And finally, refine, recheck […]

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