We spent about one day in library school talking about The Reference Interview. I remember writing an exam essay on the topic of Compromised Questions.* I remember not reading the assigned chapter from Katz’s seminal Introduction to Reference Work** and not feeling like I’d missed much. I remember doodling in my notebook. After all, how much theory do you need when your goal is to figure out what a student needs when the student approaches the reference desk? Not a whole lot, I figured. You just ask them.
It wasn’t until I’d worked at a reference desk for a while that I gained any appreciation at all for the thing. Time and time again, the mostly idle chit chat that filled the time while we walked to the stacks to get the book the student had asked for resulted in us going back up to the desk and starting down new paths. Time and time again, it turned out that the book the student wanted wasn’t the best way to get at the real question, it was just the thing the student had felt was the right thing to ask about. As it turns out, “the reference interview” is really code for “figure out what the person really needs, especially when they ask for something else.”
And then I started joining committees and task forces in the library and on campus. And as it turns out, we all suggest changes to policies and procedures and practices and tools all the time, changes that sometimes can’t be accommodated or don’t go over well. But often, if we back up and really lay out the actual problem that we want to solve, the actual root of frustration, we could come up with a change that would address that and that can be accommodated, or that will go over well. Sometimes the actual problem is nothing like the problem we thought we were solving. Sometimes recognizing the actual problem means that those of us who were against the change now see the need for it. Nearly always, if we solve that actual problem, everyone comes away satisfied rather than chafing at compromises. So now, when meetings start heading toward stalemate, I try to remember the reference interview, remind myself that any question can be a compromised question, and start probing for the real problem.
It’s an odd thing when one of the topics I most consciously blew off in school turns out to be the thing I rely on most heavily, day in and day out.
*Compromised questions are those questions where patrons have assumed too much, are trying to help you out by asking for something that they think you can answer rather than burdening you with all their cares and concerns. Things like “Where do you keep your directories” are classic compromised questions because often the asker thinks that what they need is in a directory but is probably actually a much bigger, much more interesting information need. “Where are your directories” can usually lead to “Well, I was looking for how well NGOs in South Africa interact with each other” in no time at all, given a good reference interview.
**Katz, William A. Introduction to Reference Work. Vol. 2. 2 vols. 8th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2002.