This article has also been published in the journal Biblioletra, published by The National and University Library of Kosova.
* I need some information on breast cancer
* I'm writing a paper on colonialism in Shakespeare's The Tempest
* Do you have Time magazine?
* How do clouds form? Which clouds produce rain?
These are examples of the questions librarians receive at the reference desk. Sometimes questions are quickly resolved, while other questions seem easy but are actually quite detailed. These questions can be difficult for the new librarian to answer but become easier with time and experience. The reference librarian's fundamental task is to translate the patron's question into one that can be answered with the library's resources. I provide reference service to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Connecticut Libraries, supporting the department of Communication Sciences; I also teach the introductory reference class to library school students at Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science at their South Hadley, Massachusetts campus. Librarians can use several strategies to best help patrons with their questions; I use these in practice and teach them in the classroom. The key element is to know what the patron wants, which can be more difficult than it sounds; the second element is to know what resources the library has and how to use them. Learning how to use the library's resources, and which other resources might be available is very important, but it is beyond the scope of this article. In my introductory reference class, I teach both how to provide good reference service and I also demonstrate over 300 essential reference resources. Students beginning to learn these resources in class, but the learning process continues throughout their career, both because new resources become available, but also because patrons present questions requiring new resources. This article will focus on how to determine what kind of information the patron needs through the reference interview.
About the Patron
First we have to know who "the patron" is. You will probably be familiar with the patrons in your library, but they could vary from library to library, and even within your library. For instance, you could work with a university or graduate student, or you could see a high school student. You could also see a neighbor or a governmental official. This could be in a public library, open to patrons of all kinds, or it could be in a school or university library. In the United States, you could also work in a special library (hospital, newspaper, Fortune 500 corporation). Regardless of patron or library type, you would approach each patron the same way, although you would provide them with different kinds of material. Let's think about the first question in this article: the patron requests "information on breast cancer."
The answer to that question will differ greatly depending upon who the patron is. For instance, if the patron is a biology graduate student studying cancer, his needs would be scholarly, scientific, current, and very detailed, while if the patron were a high school student writing a paper on various types of cancer, she would probably require less detailed material. You would take a completely different approach if the patron were the sister of a survivor, or if the patron herself had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. In that second situation, you would need to be more sensitive than the businesslike approach you might take with students, and you would likely provide less scholarly and more consumer-oriented health materials. Alternatively, you might be assisting a government official who wants to know the latest statistics about the disease: how many people are diagnosed each year, what is the survival rate, and what is the cost of treatment. From this one example, you can see how tricky it might be to help a patron with a question that sounds simple at the start.
The next element to consider is the time of the request in the patron's research process. In the United States, it is common for students to come to the reference desk the day before a paper is due and request detailed information to support their topic (colonialism in Shakespeare's play The Tempest, for instance); while we can help these students at the last minute, we cannot provide them with the most appropriate material. At the University of Connecticut, we have some full-text databases which are "good enough" and will help students find articles with enough information to write their paper. However, if we were assisting a graduate student writing a dissertation on the same topic, "good enough" would not be sufficient. Ideally, we would work with the graduate student early in his research process and to teach him all of the sources which would be useful for his research, including databases and indexes on his topic, finding print material in our library, and requesting books from other libraries. Public librarians and archivists in the United States often work with patrons researching their family history. The genealogy patron often spends years on her research; she would not be satisfied with a resource that's "good enough."
The Patron's Real Question
We have just discussed two elements to consider about patrons when helping them answer their questions. This provides good background, but we also need to determine the patron's real information need. As we have seen, there are several different kinds of material a patron might want if she asked for "information about breast cancer." Let's consider another situation: a high school student asks the reference librarian at a public library for the most current issue of Time magazine. The librarian could simply point "over there" and give the patron what he explicitly asked for.
What if the student's underlying question were different? What if the student was doing a paper on the war in Iraq and wanted articles describing the United States' presence in Iraq, the participation of other countries in the war effort, and current opinion (both domestic and international) of the war? In the student's mind, magazines like Time publish articles about such issues and would have articles on the topic. But in the library reality, browsing through the current issue of Time would not necessarily yield useful articles. In fact, browsing through current issues of magazines is not...