A Delightful Reference Interview


About a month ago, I had a delightful reference interview at work. (A Reference Interview is the fancy term for working with a patron to discover the resource that best answers their need. The librarian should question the patron about how they will use the information and by working together a satisfying conclusion is reached.) The reference interview in question was delightful because of the patron. I actually never found the information for which he’d initially asked and yet I felt that the patron left the library satisfied!

After first trying to locate the information for himself, the patron approached the Reference Desk. He was an older gentleman with graying hair and a beard. The patron was patient while I finished helping someone else. When he sat down he was friendly and informative about his search.

This patron had an antique item at home; he wanted to learn its value. Unfortunately, we started from a poor position. We didn’t event know what the antique was called!

JBL Cascade (modern)

He was pretty savvy with his cell phone; he showed me a picture of the item about which he wanted information. The antique appeared to be some sort of hot water bottle. He also presented me with a summary of all the information he possessed regarding this antique. Using the information he’d written down, I began searching the internet.

After searching for about five minutes, we began to find nuggets of information. We picked and chose the pieces that seemed to fit best to narrow our search. Throughout this search, I asked the patron questions and included him in my computer work. I turned the computer screen towards him and asked his opinion about going to this or that link.

We discovered that his antique item was an original example of early 1900 quack medicine! (At least, the American Medical Association claimed that it was so in 1923.) The antique was a J.B.L. Cascade device created by Dr. Charles Tyrrell. The J.B.L. Cascade was an early do-it-yourself enema device! I must admit, every time I told the patron information about the device after I found out what it was, I lowered my voice. He certainly didn’t seem surprised or embarrassed about the private nature of the antique, but I was very aware of the proximity of other people around the reference desk and felt self-conscious.

I explained to the patron that the library couldn’t verify any of the price information about antiques online nor could we attach a value to it — we are not qualified to do so. I supplied him with the history about his device and suggested that he share what we had found with the person he asked to evaluate him — perhaps knowing the history of it would increase its value!

The whole reference interview lasted about twenty minutes. The patron was patient and engaged the whole time. Before he left, he said that he knew where to come (the library) if he ever needed a question answered! This patron had come to us hoping to learn the dollar value of his antique, but we were unable to tell him that information. Despite that, he left satisfied and excited about his next step. I think this was a successful reference interview because of the collaborative process we shared trying to find the information.

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About shortlibrarian

I am a woman working in the Twin Cities as a programming Librarian.
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