Tips for Handling Reference Questions
Be a good listener
Smile, make eye contact, make the person feel welcome.
Listen carefully and look interested as the person tells you what he/she wants. Be patient.
Try to put the person at ease during the whole time you’re working with them.
Take time to find out for sure what the person really wants; it may not be quite what they tell
you at first!
A few examples:
What they asked: What they really wanted:
Do you have any books on electronics? Statistics on sales of consumer electronics for the past
Where are your health journals? Information about health risks of the low-carb diet fad,
to use in a communications class debate.
I need to find out something about “trees” Definitions of these two terms in computer science.
and “roots.” (It sounded like a botany question, didn’t it?)
Do you have a book about “Goldilocks Studies of the structure and symbolism in the fairy tale.
and the Three Bears”?
To clarify what a person really wants, it often helps to ask questions, such as:
Can you tell me a bit more about that?
What class is this for?
How much information do you need?
Do you need the latest information?
or other questions that will help you understand.
When you think you know what the person wants, it’s a good idea to restate the question to
make sure you have it right: “So you need 3 articles from scholarly journals about how
pollutants from agricultural runoff affect marine mammals?”
If the student has a copy of the assignment, you might ask to see that.
Listen carefully to additional comments the person may make. After you show them some
information, ask if it is what they want.
Analyze the problem
Does this question require the latest information?
Does this person need an overview of the topic or information on some specific aspect?
Does this person need scholarly journals or regular magazines and newspapers?
How much information does the person need?
Is this type of information more likely to be found in a reference book, a regular book, an
Be a good teacher
Don’t just answer questions; help people understand how to find and evaluate information.
Take the person to a computer and show him/her how to look up articles or books. Give the
person time to look over the search results; let the person “own” his/her search.
Encourage the person to come to you if they have any questions while working.
When appropriate, help the person evaluate the information they have found: Is it accurate,
is the source authoritative, does it meet the requirements of the assignment or does it answer
If you have to correct behavior, take care not to humiliate or embarrass.
the problem your response
Someone is busily marking lines in a “We always ask people not to mark in the books because
reference book. that makes it hard for others to who need to use the same
A group at one of the tables is too loud. “Would you mind moving to the seminar room? That way
you can work together without disturbing anyone.”
Someone is trying desperately to force the “Let me help you with that. It can be a bit tricky at times.”
film carrier on the copier by slamming it
with his hand.
After the person has worked on the sources you gave him/her for awhile, it’s a good idea to go
by and ask:
“Are you finding what you need?”
“Do you think the articles in that database are what you need?”
“Does this book have all the information you need?”
When you send the person upstairs to get something or leave him/her working at a computer,
say something like: “If you don’t find what you need, be sure to let me know.”
NEVER tell a person that the item or information he/she needs is not available.
Ask a reference librarian for help (see page 4).
Always refer questions to a reference librarian if there’s a chance you have not found the needed
information (see page 4).
Avoid “sticky” situations
When helping a person find legal information, remember that library personnel (even professional
librarians) are not qualified to interpret the law or tell a person how to use the information :
Never, ever give any opinion about what a law means.
Never say anything to suggest that a particular law applies to a particular situation or case.
You can show a person how to use the law books and how to find a particular section, but it is up to
the user to decide what the information means to him/her.
When helping a person find medical information, you must carefully avoid giving medical advice,
or even giving the person the impression that you are giving medical advice:
Library ethics require us to respect the privacy of any person who asks for information,
especially something that might embarrass the person or subject them to ridicule.
It’s OK to talk to a librarian about finding the information to answer their question, but do so in
private if the question might be embarrassing or personal. Never discuss the question where other
people might hear.
Examples of embarrassing or personal questions:
“I need to find out if I can get a divorce from my husband because he’s having an affair.
“How can a person tell if he’s gay?”
“Where can I find out about financial aid?”
“How can I write a resume to cover up the fact that I was fired from my previous job?”
“How can an adopted person get information about his/her birth family?
Get help from Reference Librarians
Although you can answer many of the questions, some inquiries will require professional
knowledge or interpretation of reference sources. Reference librarians are research specialists with
advanced degrees in library and information science. You should always call on them whenever you
can’t find something or when you feel that the library user needs more help.
Weekdays: First check the schedule to find out which librarian is on
call during that hour. This librarian is supposed to be
available to help.
Call that librarian and say that you need help at the desk.
The on-call reference librarian will decide if the
question needs to be referred to a subject
Evenings Fill out a reference referral slip and leave it on the
and reference desk clipboard. The next reference librarian
weekends: who comes on duty will handle it.
You may have wondered . . .
What are reference librarians doing when they are not on call?
web page construction
correspondence and e-mail
professional reading and study
collaboration with classroom faculty
database testing and evaluation
. . . and much more!