What is a reference question, anyway?

I’ve had a couple of interesting responses to my Ask This Librarian project (all in other spaces, not directly here): in both cases, the people asking (neither of whom are library staff of any type) were interested in what I’d call the liminal space between the reference question and the information literacy/instruction experience.

What is a reference question?

Think of it like a classic fantasy novel quest story. The reference question is the journey to the Quest Object (Grail, ring, spear, mystical statue. Whatever.) An arc of story and narrative. It’s not:

  • the worldbuilding behind the setting.
  • (nor created languages, as nifty as they can be.)
  • the deep dark secrets of every secondary character who wanders into a scene.
  • even necessarily about what happen *after* you find the Quest Object. That might be the next book.

It’s not that the worldbuilding, or the secondary characters, or the ‘what happens after’ aren’t important to the overall situation. They’re just not the focus right now.

People on a Quest can get cranky if you try and halt their quest so you can dump a long speech in their lap. Tolkien could get away with inserting long speeches and council sessions and all manner of other things into his quests while holding many people’s attention. But even with the ability to edit and revise, he still lost people.

Most of us are not Tolkien. (And dropping substantial information into a conversation on the fly, with no editing or chance for revision is even harder than doing it in writing.)

So, what do we do?

When I am being Reference Librarian (as opposed to Instruction Librarian, or Regular Human Being, or whatever), my main roles are these:

  • to help this person, in front of me, find information they’re asking about
  • to avoid infodumping on them.
  • to avoid wasting their time with stuff they don’t need or aren’t able to make use of right now.

I need, in all of this, to remember the story. They, the Protagonist, are on a Quest for a specific Quest Object. They’ll learn stuff on that quest, but they need to be the ones making choices about how to move forward. Otherwise, they won’t retain much.

I am not the Protagonist. I am the Useful Quest Guide, the person pointing the way to the next stop, the piece of information that tells them what to do next. It is not my job to do the Quest for them. I should not dictate what they do with the information. I can (and often should) ask for clarification, but I shouldn’t assume I know what’s best for them, or what they already know.

I’m also not Great And Wise Sorceress of Information training her apprentice. It’s not that that doesn’t happen too. Just not in the middle of the quest narrative. In other words, the reference question is not the time for an extended information literacy lesson.

The question of scope:

When I am in Useful Quest Guide mode, I know that I need to be efficient about how we use our time together. I don’t want to waste their time (that’s neither helpful nor respectful), and I also probably have other things that need to be done (other people with questions, the printer jamming, and probably at least ten more things.) So, we don’t have infinite time and resources handy. The Quest, as important as it is, is not the only thing going on in the world.

Reference questions come in a wide range. Sometimes people don’t ask the question they really mean – for example, they ask for the encyclopedias, but a different source might be much more useful for them, or they’re embarrassed to ask for something specific (say, a health issue) and ask for something much more general (non-fiction, science, whatever). This is where what’s called the reference interview comes in: asking a little bit about what they’re looking for, so you can point them at the resources that really will help.

Beyond that, there’s a range of complexity in questions. Some questions asked at the reference desk are really more locational or policy related. These are quick to handle.

  • Where’s the bathroom?
  • Can you help me with the copier?
  • Where do I check out this book?
  • Do you have a paperclip/stapler/pair of scissors/USB drive/water fountain?

Some are pretty simple – they can be answered quite thoroughly in a few minutes.

  • Can you help me find this book, [title]?
  • I’m working on an assignment about [topic] and need three articles from a database. What’s a good place to start with?
  • Can you help me find a place to start learning about [topic]? (in other words, very general information.)
  • You don’t seem to have this book: can I get it through interlibrary loan?

But some questions are longer: more detailed discussions of how to use a database, or do a specific search limit. Discussions of the differences between primary and secondary sources (and where to find them.) At the outer edge of the longer question curve, you have the kind of questions I’ve been answering in my Ask This Librarian project. They take some more directed research, but they’re not, in their own right, a research project.

Remember: the librarian’s job is not to Be The Hero(ine) of the Quest. The librarian’s job is to be the Useful Quest Guide. You point and suggest and give ideas, and then you’re there if there are more questions, and you repeat as needed until they hopefully find the Quest Item.

But there’s the other situation, the one that’s come up in the questions from friends, which is “how do you address the bigger question of information literacy?”

Information literacy:

Information literacy is where we come to back to the Great and Wise Sorceress of Information and Her Apprentice. It is attempting to share what you know about finding stuff – about questing yourself (because, in your time, you have been the Protagonist of the Quest), but also about sharing the things that people who are not you will find helpful.

Doing good instruction – by which I mean instruction with a clear goal, with specific experiences and conversation to help someone learn the skills and practice them – takes time. I’m about as good as anyone I know at doing off-the-top-of-my-head instruction (I do a lot of it in non-work parts of my life), and I *still* don’t want to do it that way when I have a choice. It’s too easy to misjudge what’s helpful, and the best way to cover the material, without a little preparation.

That doesn’t mean I can’t mention other resources (“If you’re interested in genealogy research, the historical society library has a series of workshops.” or “Are you familiar with using databases? No? [brief – 1-2 minute – intro to databases]. You can learn more [wherever].”) But they shouldn’t be the focus of the conversation. Again: Quest Guide, not Rambling Person In the Inn Who Provides Distraction and Five Pages Of Solid Monologue.

The other problem is that you can come across as incredibly condescending. I’ve done it once or twice accidentally, and I really don’t ever want to do it again. I try to avoid that now.

Instead, I do my best to ask open questions (“Are you familiar with our catalog?” “What have you tried so far?”) that will give me an idea of what to suggest (and where to start to avoid duplicating effort) . Likewise, while I might suggest a particular resource, I try to do it more in the “Hey, have you seen, isn’t it cool?” way, rather than “You Should Improve Your Information Literacy Skills”. A “I’m sure you know, but had you considered?”

Because if they’re On A Quest and you’re sitting there talking their ear off, chances are, it’s not going to do a lot of good anyway. They’re too focused on The Quest to notice anything else. Better off for everyone if you let them get on with it, and go help someone else, until they’re ready for the slower, longer, Apprenticeship stage.

The trick, of course, is how you get people to that point, and give them information in a framework that will work for them. And also, about how you let them make the choice to do that, rather than forcing it on them.

How to make the information literacy stuff work:

It’s pretty clear that the most reliable way is making learning the informational literacy skills central to success on the Quest. Some teachers have this down to a fine science: they create assignments that build each skill piece by piece, so that by the time the person gets to the Assigned Quest Object, they’ve done all the little side quests and minigames and whatever other metaphor you want to add here that have built long-term skills.

There’s lots of resources out there about how to do this better, but the simplest one is just to think through what you want the end results to be (what should they know, what should they be comfortable using?) and then to work backwards, creating assignments and things for them to do that encourage those skills and experiences.

The other part is to figure out how to break it into small enough chunks that you *can* drop a small piece into a particular question naturally and easily while you’re doing other things. So that when you’re walking over to the bookshelves, you can talk about how books are arranged, or when you’re bringing up the catalog search, you’re talking about what the catalog holds.

This works great for some topics – but it doesn’t work as well for more complicated ones, like how to evaluate sources that initially look reliable, but might not be. Those, you need to either point people to further resources, or have more time with them. Again, Sorceress And Her Apprentice, not a momentary pause on the Quest. Knowing which you’re in – and who the Protagonist is – are essential.

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Hi, I’m Jen

Librarian, infovore, and general geek, likely to write comments about books, link collections, and other thoughts related to how we find, use, and take joy in information.

I'm the Research Librarian at the Perkins School for the Blind

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