Ask a librarian: help the librarian help you

Far beyond the collection, the equipment, or the building, the defining attribute of the library is the presence of librarians. You can ask a librarian how to find what you’re looking for and how to use what you find (catalog, databases, and various equipment). You do not even have to be in the library to ask a librarian a question. You can ask over the phone, by email, by chat, etc.

Over the years, librarians have learned that the first question a patron asks is seldom what they really want to know. “I’m looking for books by Mark Twain” seems like a pretty straightforward question and easily answered, but it also means “I don’t know how to use the catalog.”

When patrons want to explore a subject, their first question may be either overly broad or overly complex. And so the librarian begins what they call the reference interview in order to clarify the question. Because reference librarians learn about reference interviews as part of their education, the process is fairly straightforward in person or on the phone. It becomes more difficult by email, instant messaging, or chat. You can help the librarian help you get your answer with the least amount of time and frustration if you know in advance how to put your initial question.

  1. Say whether you need quick facts, a general overview, an in-depth account, statistics, pictures, etc. If your question is complicated and will require the librarian to spend a lot of time looking for the answer, how soon do you need? (You are not imposing on the librarian by asking hard questions. Those can be the most fun to answer!)
  2. If you have already started research, briefly mention what you have learned.
  3. Mention what you need the information for: a speech? a term paper? a major research project? just because you’re curious?
  4. Mention whether you need simple, basic information or detailed and technical information
  5. Make make your question specific:
  • Don’t just ask about the Civil War if you mean the American Civil War. Lots of other places have had civil wars.
  • If you are particularly interested in slave narratives, mention it at the start. (If you don’t know you need slave narratives, the reference interview will help you figure that out.)

While it helps both you and the librarian if you have a clear idea of what to ask, it is neither necessary nor desirable to cover all of these points at once in person or over the phone. The last one is the most important. Just know that the librarian will need to have some idea of the rest of the points in order to give you the most helpful answer.

On the other hand, if you are asking a librarian by email, compose a well-organized question that touches on all of these points. Instant messaging and chat will require more initial focus than a conversation, but are not conducive to as much detail as email.


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