Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Reference Interview

In my first term of library school, I took a mandatory class entitled "Introduction to Information Services". We spent a great deal of time discussing that familiar and vital topic: The Reference Interview. We learned there was a true craft to determining a person's specific information needs, which may in fact be quite different from the question initially posed.

At the time, I was planning a career in which I would conduct reference interviews at a library reference desk. It amazes and delights me that I now find myself with over 15 years experience conducting reference interviews in which the enquirers are librarians and library technology experts!

Take an example from a Client Care case about a year ago. A school librarian called up asking rather technical questions about how zip codes are stored in a SirsiDynix Symphony system. Is it stored as short integer, long integer, or a string? Was is different for countries that used alpha-numeric postal codes (e.g., Canada) as opposed to all numbers (as in the USA)? If so, what role might the system's locale play in it?

After a back-and-forth discussion (reference interview), we realized that he was trying to understand why he wasn't seeing zip codes in their Address2 data. And it turned out to have dual causes: mistakes in the data provided by their district in the patron load data, and a change he'd made to the User Address2 format policy. The answers to the initial questions did not end up figuring into his actual information need.

Whether you're talking with Client Care, Product Management, or Implementation, you may hear similar questions during the "reference interview" to begin exploring the problem. In case you want to know in advance, the following are some of the details they may ask you. (They're also great questions to ask staff at your organization when they come to you for troubleshooting on any software product.)

  • What are the basic facts? In Client Care, this typically means product version, patch cluster, server OS and database type (ISAM, Oracle, MSsql, Sybase). Are we talking about an issue affecting all logins or some? All libraries or some? Is the problem in both the OPAC and the staff client?

  • What is the severity? Is this problem critical to the day-to-day operations of the library? Does the problem affect many users or few users? Is there a deadline for completion of a project?

  • What are you trying to accomplish? This seems like an obvious question, but if skipped, misunderstandings could occur. Often, just clarifying the inquiry will get you halfway to the answer.

  • Precisely what steps are you using? It's easy to assume that we all take the exact same route to create an item, place a hold, run a report, etc. But we all know what happens when we ASSUME, right?

  • What happens when you try? This is my personal favorite, and I probably ask one of my colleagues this question every day. Pertinent questions might include: Is there an error message? What outcome did you expect and what outcome did you get?

Bearing these details in mind will help anyone better deal with almost any service professional, be it a library technology vendor, car mechanic or physician! We hope it helps you get to root of problems quickly and effectively.

Until next time,

Mark Witteman
Senior Technical Advisor, Client Care

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