The properly executed reference interview can be a successful process to alleviate many communication problems that occur at the reference desk. The situation involving the patron looking for "books on Spain" illustrates two common problems known as "bypassing the reference interview" and "the unmonitored referral". The staff member hears "where are the books on Spain" and promptly sends the patron in the wrong direction and does not follow up to determine if the patron has found the requested information. Distracted by the barriers of phone noise, deadline stress, tiredness, possible hunger and the need for a break influences the reference librarian to neglect the proper reference interview steps. Other problems that may occur are "failure to respond with feedback" in which the librarian immediately starts to work solving the problem without telling the patron what they are doing and "speaking in library language" using terms that the patron may not understand.(Ross)The Reference and User Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, established guidelines for providing better reference services. These guidelines are valuable communication tools for all areas of the library and not just the reference desk. These guidelines address many of Wilbur Schramm's theories about communication and those that apply are explained here.
The RUSA Guidelines state that “In all forms of reference services, the success of the transaction is measured not only by the information conveyed, but also by the positive or negative impact of the patron/staff interaction. The positive or negative behavior of the reference staff member (as observed by the patron) becomes a significant factor in perceived success or failure.”
The following is a summary of the guidelines pertaining to positive feedback:
Librarian stops all other activities when patron approaches, has initial eye contact with the patron, acknowledges the patron with welcoming body language, and addresses the patron before the computer screen.
Librarian should show substantial interest in the reference question whether or not it is interesting or challenging. Librarian shows interest by continuously facing the patron, by providing continued eye contact and by providing confirmation of patrons’ needs through verbal or non-verbal communication. For remote interviews, the librarian shows interest by responding promptly and sending written or prepared messages.
As a good communicator, the librarian should provide feedback in a “receptive, cordial, and encouraging manner.” This is done by responding with the appropriate tone of voice or writing as related to the question, by rephrasing the question, clarifying any confusing terminology, and by using open-ended questions such as “What additional information can you give me?” and using closed and/or clarifying questions to refine the search, such as “Do you need current or historical information?”
RUSA addresses the noise factor:
Under guideline 1.3, the librarian acknowledges others waiting for service, and under 1.3.1 employs a system of question triage to weed out brief informational and directional questions and referrals, in order to devote more time to the involved reference question.
RUSA addresses searching and follow-up:
4.0 Searching: “The search process is the portion of the transaction in which behavior and accuracy intersect.” The librarian asks patron what has already been tried and encourages patron to contribute ideas, s/he creates a complete search strategy that is communicated to the patron, conducts the search within the allotted time, explains how to use any relevant sources, broadens or narrows the topic when necessary, asks patron if they need additional information, refers patrons to other resources/libraries/librarians if necessary, and offers detailed information so that patron learns to answer similar questions on their own.
5.0 Follow-up: “ The reference transaction does not end when the librarian leaves the patrons.” The librarian makes sure the question was answered thoroughly and encourages patron to return if necessary. Librarian also roves through the reference area, consults other librarians or experts when subject expertise is needed, makes patrons aware of other services and refers them if they are not able to answer question completely and provides instructions or directions to these sources when needed, and most importantly makes sure not to end the interview prematurely.
The complete list of RUSA guidelines can be found at the website of the American Library Association at this link:
Biography of Wilbur Schramm