The String Theory of Reference Interviews

Quite frankly, most of the reference desk interactions I have with patrons are pretty rote: material requests, program registration, basic library policy questions, and assistance with whatever piece of technology that is currently misbehaving. But it is the minority of questions and requests that keep my librarian heart warm, for they invoke the exchange known simply as “the reference interview”. This question and answer dialogue is what I live for in this profession; a chance to unravel a mystery, to make the highly unlikely possible, and to make the connection between a patron and their inquiry. Even then, the process is generally short lived. The majority of patrons offer enough clues so you can determine what they are looking for and either be able to deliver or inform them of alternatives.

In the past, I’ve taken a bunch of different approaches in explaining the art of reference interview to a non-librarian. The most common was likening it to a game of 20 Questions. While it has been a somewhat satisfactory explanation to me, all the exceptions and variations I inevitably end up throwing in make it feel clunky. Then, when I was out getting lunch today, I had a quasi-science nerd moment: the reference interview operates in five distinct dimensions. This immediately reminded me of string theory, a scientific concept which describes the universe in roughly ten dimensions. (Yes, this is an oversimplification, so read the Wikipedia article if you really want to know more specifics.) Within this theory, there are four observable dimensions: length, width, height, and time; the remaining six cannot be detected directly. With my idea of a five dimensional reference interview, there are similar four observable dimensions and one subjective dimension. As I enjoying likening concepts to one another, please indulge me as I use some of the same names to explain what I mean.

Photo by Rainer Ebert/Flickr

Length in a reference interview is the number of places searched. This can be both physical (different book sections & stacks) and virtual (online catalog, websites, databases, etc.). This can be a single place or numerous locations based on the obscurity of the inquiry and the success of the search. This is where our experience and expertise in accessing the best resource are put to the test; it can also be a learning experience as we find new tools to answer questions.

Width in a reference interview is the number of types of searches made. While most inquiries can be satisfied via author or title search, reference librarians know that subject topic questions can create multiple searches in order to attempt to check all potential resources. It is a test of our recollection of indexing and subject terms, pseudonyms and alternate spellings, and multiple ways of labeling the same thing that guide us through the different search types. It is an exercise in thinking laterally (no pun intended); some searches require us to approach the inquiry from multiple direction.

Height (or depth) in a reference interview is how specific the patron inquiry or end result is. Whether it is the temperature at a town at a specific date and time in 1956 (true story) or all of the books written by Jonathan Kellerman (another true story), it is the degree of detail required to completely answer the inquiry. Listening skills are forefront as the question is analyzed for specificity; interview (questioning) skills can gauge the level of detail in that the patron is expecting. This sort of “zeroing in” is necessary to tell us how far we need to go in our journey for the answer.

Time in a reference interview is the most straightforward concept; it is how much time is spent satisfying the patron inquiry. The duration of the search is highly mutable as it is directly influenced by outside factors (e.g. waiting patrons in person, on the phone, or online; time engagements like programs; other appointments). It requires a good sense of time management as to avoid making the patron feel rushed off with a seemingly incomplete answer or over aggravating patrons in line as they wait their turn. This fine sense of timing assures the patron that we have given their inquiry our full attention while not monopolizing our own time in face of waiting demands.

The fifth dimension of a reference interview is an intangible that I am simply labeling “X factor”; it is the overall patron experience. The best way I can visualize this dimension is through the use of color; specifically, how would a patron describe their experience on a color scale? Would it be a vibrant red, a chilly blue, an affable yellow, or perhaps a growing green? The patron experience of how their inquiries are handled shapes their attitude towards the library. Whether they are treated like an old friend, a troublesome interloper, or a valued customer, patrons take away a distinctive experience that will dictate future library use, the word of mouth to their immediate social circle, and overall sympathy or apathy towards the library. This important subjective aspect is what can turn library users into library advocates. We have the power to turn average and good interactions into excellent ones; we should always seize on these opportunities when presented.

Like string theory, I’m fairly certain there are other dimensions that could be surmised to exist based on this presented concept. (Perhaps it will show up in a future post.) But these five dimensions are a good start in providing a quantifiable means to measure the outcomes of a reference interview. Alone, one could think about how much (or how little) was performed within a dimension and how it related to the end result. Combined, they create a picture in full of the reference interview experience, a mosaic of our knowledge, tools, resources, and people skills. From here, the evolution of the modern reference experience begins.

And to think it only took some theoretical physics to find a more satisfying explanation of the reference interview. =P

Photo by the mad LOLscientist/Flickr

3 thoughts on “The String Theory of Reference Interviews

  1. Interesting post! Thanks for sharing it. It can be hard to quantify the how/what/why of a reference interview, as well as how effective reference services are; maybe these five dimensions could be used in that way?

    • I think it could be. They are certainly measurable in all aspects, including the patron impression (done after the fact). It really could be a model of analysis for how reference questions pan out, although it would be a very non-traditional layout. Length and width could be plotted just like their Cartesian counterparts, whereas height could be plotted in general terms such as general, specific, very specific. This would actually created a 3D object of what a reference interview looks like. Plotting this along the time line could show how it changes shape over time (based on number of places looked, searches done, etc. over time.) And, as suggested in the post, color could be used to describe positive/negative impressions from the patron.

      Of course, this feels overcomplicated for this, but nothing math can’t solve, right? =D

  2. Pingback: The Reference Singularity « Agnostic, Maybe

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