A nice technique to implement in reference services

It is quite interesting for me to read these posts about librarian careers and reflections on ILS experience written by everyone from multiple perspectives. As an international student who received my bachelor’s degree in library and information science in Taiwan, I would like to share some knowledge and techniques that I don’t see many discussions about in the ILS department but that I gained and was really interested in when I was an undergraduate student. I have been interested in information seeking behavior and information psychology for a few years. In ILS, many courses mention accessibility and usability of resources for library patrons, but I haven’t noticed any of them that provides particular knowledge or discussions on user’s information seeking behavior and their mental models. Although it sounds somewhat boring because there’re too many theories in this field, I still think it’s crucially important for us, especially as a PSA or reference librarian, to have a further understanding on why patrons need information, what they really need, and why they try to gain information through specific ways and not others.

I am sharing an old technique, but it still works nicely and effectively in a reference interview. I benefit a lot from the “Neutral Questioning” technique when providing reference services. Neutral Questioning is a reference interview technique based on Brenda Dervin’s sense-making theory. This technique enables library patrons to freely express their information needs, but at the same time it also allows reference librarians to remain in control of the conversation by focusing on three important elements in seeking information and information use: “situation”, “gap”, and “use”.

In short, “Neutral Questioning” encourages interviewers (reference librarians) to ask as many neutral questions as possible, not just closed questions (YES/NO questions) nor open questions that can be freely answered. In many cases, patrons come to the desk without a clear understanding of their questions and need, and might not be able to give certain answers to questions asked by reference librarians. Therefore, at this point, we should ask neutral questions that allow patrons to freely express detailed clues to the questions rather than closed questions that might block patrons from explaining their need in another way.

For example, instead of asking a closed question like “Are you looking for books or journal articles?”, a neutral question like “What types of resources are you interested in?” might be a better choice to let patrons express more detailed information about their need. For my personal experience, it was a little bit difficult to implement Neutral Questioning technique at the beginning, because I normally wanted to get exact answers from patrons for judging what’s the next step I need to do. Should I search OPAC or article-based databases? Should I search a multi-discipline full-text platform like OneSearch@IU or A&I databases in a certain discipline like ERIC or PubMed? A closed question might help me make the judgement but at the same time keep patrons from saying what they would like to say, because they were answering the questions among the choices I gave them based on my personal assumption, not their real need. However, after I had consciously reminded myself to ask more neutral questions when doing a reference interview for a few months, I found it actually helped me a lot in understanding patron’s questions effectively and efficiently. It not only significantly decreased the misunderstanding between patrons and me, but also saved time for me to precisely locate resources that can really benefit patrons in their research.

This was my personal experience to implement what I had learned in class into a practical work environment, and it succeeded in enhancing the performance of reference services. I remembered that when I was taught this technique in Taiwan, our instructor had several interactive cases in class for students like me to practice it practically, and then we implemented this knowledge and experience in our field internship. I believe that it might be interesting if we have this kind of courses in ILS in the future.

I listed several useful articles below for anyone who would like to learn more about this technique and information seeking behavior. The references in blue can link to full-text articles directly. The first reference in bold was the main article that I referred to when writing this post. Since this is a casual post, the references are ordered by the importance and interest I think rather than formal APA style.

Here are some examples that Dervin and Dewdney (1986) created in their articles.

To assess the situation:

  1. Tell me how this problem arose.
  2. What are you trying to do in this situation?
  3. What happened that got you stopped?

To assess the gaps:

  1. What would you like to know about X?
  2. What seems to be missing in your understanding of X?
  3. What are you trying to understand?

To assess the uses:

  1. How are you planning to use this information?
  2. If you could have exactly the help you wanted, what would it be?
  3. How will this help you? What will it help you do?


Dervin, B., & Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference interview. RQ, 25(4), 506-513

Ross, C. S. (1987). How to find out what people really want to know. Reference Librarian, 6(16), 19-30

Dervin, B., & Nilan, M. S. (1986). Information needs and uses. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 21, 3-33.

De Souza, Y. (1996). Reference work with international students: Making the most use of the neutral question. Reference Services Review, 24(4), 41-48.

Dewdney, P. (1988). The effective reference interview. Canadian Library Journal, 45(3), 183-184.

– Yu-Chen Huang