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What I learned from the reference interview about solving problems

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.

Published inRandom Thoughts


  1. Martha Martha

    I would love to hear more about how this plays out in the context of an actual meeting. For example, what kinds of questions do you ask? I like the idea a lot, but am having trouble envisioning the reference interview in such a different context.

  2. Well, the main thing I try to do (and still often fail to do, but we can all have goals, right?) is remember that “compromised questions” are everywhere, and to be on the look-out for them just like I am at the reference desk. In this case they’re “compromised solutions,” but the principle is still the same. I start out assuming that the ideas people voice are meant to solve problems and that the problems are real and important (at least to the person proposing the idea) but that the proposed solutions are just options.

    And I should mention that I don’t think people jump too quickly to conclusions about ideal solutions out of ignorance or something. I think we’re all pretty bad at explaining exactly what the point of frustration is to begin with because we’re afraid of wasting each other’s time in meetings. It’s a sign of respect for everyone’s time that we to come to meetings with a proposal or at least a couple of options that we think would solve our frustrations. But usually, if we back up and really lay out the underlying frustration, point by point, people start spontaneously coming up with alternative solutions that would work for them. Generally, people really want to relieve other people’s frustrations!

    So anyway, I may ask what prompted them to propose what they proposed, what specific pieces of a problem they hope it will solve, what specific pieces of that problem they think it might not address, how important the different pieces of the problem are. Basically, I get them to talk about their motivations a little and hope to draw out as many specifics about the problem as possible. Even things like “Well, I just prefer things this way” can be pretty useful if you ask what about that way makes it preferable. And just like in a reference interview, I don’t ask all of these questions every time. I just try to get the conversation moving in that direction until we all have enough information to really flesh out a profile of the actual problem.

    And usually, this is enough to get everyone thinking about and proposing alternate solutions. If this phase doesn’t happen spontaneously, or if it hasn’t been clear why I’ve been probing for some as-yet-unstated root cause, I’ll say something like, “Ok, so if the real problem is x, and if y solution still doesn’t work for everyone, what are some other ways we could solve x?”

  3. […] had some great thoughts on how ‘compromised questions’ can teach us fascinating things about other kinds of problem solving. (Compromised reference questions are, as she explains in more detail in a footnote, what happens […]

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