Helping the reference librarian help you

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Do you need help answering a question? Ask a librarian. Specifically, ask a reference librarian. You’ll usually find at least one at the library’s reference desk. Now, some libraries are starting to do away with reference desks as a special service point. In some cases, at least, that means they have decided to have the librarians roam the library, or parts of it, looking for people who need  help. If you see a librarian at a desk who seems to be busy with paper work, go ask your question. You will not be interrupting anything important. The librarian needs something to do while waiting for you to come over.

Go ahead and ask. She’s not doing anything more important than your question!

That’s the first thing to know about reference librarians: they want to answer your question, and they make themselves visible so that you can find them to ask it. In fact, nowadays, you don’t actually need to go to the library to use the services of a reference librarian. You can call on the phone. You can send an email to the library. Many libraries also provide reference service by chat or instant messaging.

A second thing helpful to know is that the librarian knows, before you ever ask your question, that it is probably not very clear in your mind. A lot of people hold back from approaching a librarian if they can’t figure out how to put their question, but librarians have well developed skills in asking you questions to help you come to your real issue–a process called the reference interview. That should ease any reluctance you have to go to a librarian with a question, but I want to save you both some time by describing what the librarian wants to learn from the reference interview.

  • How much do you need to know? People asking about, say, the Civil War might want anything from quick facts, a definition of a term, a general overview, statistics,  pictures, etc. They may want to satisfy their curiosity, or they may need to do some serious research for a paper or presentation. (And serious research is not limited to students taking formal classes!)
  • Speaking of the Civil War, if you mean the American Civil War, say so. The library has information about lots of civil wars. For that matter, if you want to know about a particular person or slave narratives, etc., it will help you to start with as specific a question as possible.
  • You may have found a great deal of information already, or you may just be starting out. The librarian will want to know how much you already know and what information sources you have already used.
  • Equally important, what is your general level of knowledge about the subject? Would a newspaper article have as much information as you can handle, or do you need to study the professional literature?
  • What do you want to do with the information? Are you just curious? (That’s reason enough to ask!) Do you want to settle an argument with someone? Are you writing a term paper or giving a speech? Are you at some stage of a major project, like writing a book?
  • Do you intend to spend a lot of time working on your question, or do you just want quick facts.
  • If you have a complicated question that will take the librarian considerable time to find the answer, how soon do you need to know and what would be the best way for the librarian to get back to you?

These are the kinds of questions the librarian will ask in order to learn how best to answer your question. If you are talking face to face or over the phone, it is best to ask your most specific question and then let the librarian ask other questions until he or she understands your needs. You only need to know about the reference interview in advance to be prepared to answer the questions.

On the other hand, if you are sending your question  in writing–email, for example–you should include as many reference interview answers as you can in order to save time. Emailing questions and answers back and forth will merely delay the time when the librarian can actually start to work on your question. Chat and instant messaging require a more focused opening  question than an actual conversation in person or over the phone, but not as much detail and structure as email.

For some questions, the librarian will simply find the answer to your question and show you where it came from. Other times, you will suggestions for what to read to find your answer and how to find similar information. The most useful information for some questions may be freely available on the Internet. For others, it might be contained in electronic databases that you must use in the library. For still others, print sources may be the best. In the end, keep an open mind and investigate everything the librarian suggests. That way you both will have put your time to the best use.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Manchester Library

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