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Reference Guide for Library Staff and Students

Tip: Choosing a Database

1. Conduct the reference interview.

2. Break down the topic into components.

3. Start with a broad database first.

4. Try to refer graduate students (as well as juniors and seniors) to more specialized subject databases.

What is a reference interview?

  • A collaborative effort in which the user seeks to understand his/her information need.
  • The library staff member seeks to understand the user's question, find, and communicate the answer.

7 Steps of the Reference Interview

All students, staff, faculty, and members of the community need information. Discovering the needs of each individual who comes in to the library calls for people skills. Sometimes the first question is really just trying to find out if you are approachable and friendly. These questions may range from “Do you work here?” to “Where are the dog books?”  

Your task is to go from that initial contact with the patron to actually finding out their needs. Make yourself approachable!


-Establish eye contact

-Give a friendly greeting

-Maintain eye contact

-Make attentive comments

-Give full attention

-Speak in comfortable, relaxed tone


A good listener gives patrons a chance to tell you what they want. Try listening to a patron without interrupting or jumping to conclusions. Discover what the patron wants.

-What are the patrons' real information needs?

-A good listener does not interrupt.

-Paraphrase to demonstrate understanding (repeat back what the patron said in their own words without adding any thoughts or questions of your own. Paraphrasing can help with a patron who keeps repeating their request over and over.)

-Ask clarifying questions if you are not sure about the request (Clarifying can be used to make sure you have all the details you need. Example: “Do you need black and white photos or color photos?” )

Open-ended questions are an effective way to give your patrons the freedom to express the information needs in their own words. 

-Ask open-ended questions to probe. 

-Verify a specific question by paraphrasing and using a closed question to confirm request. Verifying avoids “jumping to conclusions.”

-Keep customer informed of progress whether over the phone or by showing the screen to the patron.

-Offer referrals if unable to gather the results.


-Speak clearly and distinctly.

-Cite the source.

-Check with the patron to be sure the information offered matches the information needed.

-Check with the patron to be sure the information is understood.

-Check with the patron to be sure that the method of access can be followed.

Ask the patron if they have everything they need.  

-Use appropriate follow-up questions or statements.