The Reference Interview: Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers

| April 15, 2013

In my current role as a Library Services Associate, I wished to discuss the Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Information Services Providers by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA). In reference services, the success of the transaction is measured not only by the information conveyed, but also by the positive or negative impact of the patron/staff interaction. According to RUSA:

The positive or negative behavior of the reference staff member (as observed by the patron) becomes a significant factor in perceived success or failure. This connection has been born out in the work of researchers like Gers and Seward (1985), who found that “behaviors have a strong influence on performance”, and Whitlatch (1990), who stated “Librarian courtesy, interest, and helpfulness are crucial in providing successful reference service. Libraries must select and retain staff who have these service orientations toward users.” Matthew Saxton (2002) put the Guidelines to a statistical test, and found that they did indeed correlate highly to a successful reference transaction.

The RUSA Guidelines cover different forms of reference interactions. Without a doubt, the face of Reference Services has changed significantly since the original RUSA Guidelines for Behavioral Performance were first published in 1996. Nowadays, in addition to in person interviews, there is also remote services such as telephone, email and chat service interactions. The Guidelines deconstruct the reference interview by Approachability, Interest, Listening/Inquiring, Searching, and Follow Up and, within each of these areas, address the specific needs of general, in person and remote patron interactions. For the purposes of this blog post, I will share the recommendations for in person interviews as they appear in the original document. If you are interested in reading the full document, I will provide a link to the source below.

Be Approachable:

Establish initial eye contact with patrons, and acknowledge the presence of patrons through smiling and attentive and welcoming body language.

Acknowledge patrons through the use of a friendly greeting to initiate conversation, and by standing up, moving forward, or moving closer to them.

Remain visible to patrons as much as possible.

Rove through the reference area offering assistance whenever possible. Librarians should make themselves available to patrons by offering assistance at their point-of-need rather than waiting for patrons to come to the reference desk. To rove successfully, the librarian should:

  • Be mobile. Get the patrons started on the initial steps of their search, then move on to other patrons.
  • Address the patrons before addressing their computer screen. Patrons are more likely to confide in librarians and discuss their needs if they do not perceive the librarians as “policing” the area.
  • Approach patrons and offer assistance with lines such as, “Are you finding what you need?” “Can I help you with anything?” or “How is your search going?”
  • Check back on the patron’s progress after helping them start a search.

If the reference desk has been left unattended, check back periodically to see if there are patrons waiting for assistance there.

Show Interest:

Face patrons when speaking and listening.

Maintain or re-establish eye contact with patrons throughout the transaction.

Signal an understanding of patrons’ needs through verbal or non-verbal confirmation, such as nodding of the head or brief comments or questions.

Listen / Inquire:

Communicate in a receptive, cordial, and encouraging manner.

Use a tone of voice and/or written language appropriate to the nature of the transaction.

Allow the patrons to state fully their information need in their own words before responding.

Identify the goals or objectives of the user’s research, when appropriate.

Rephrase the question or request and ask for confirmation to ensure that it is understood.

Seek to clarify confusing terminology and avoid excessive jargon.

Use open-ended questioning techniques to encourage patrons to expand on the request or present additional information. Some examples of such questions include:

  • Please tell me more about your topic.
  • What additional information can you give me?
  • How much information do you need?

Use closed and/or clarifying questions to refine the search query. Some examples of clarifying questions are:

  • What have you already found?
  • What type of information do you need (books, articles, etc.)?
  • Do you need current or historical information?

Maintain objectivity and do not interject value judgments about subject matter or the nature of the question into the transaction.


Accompany the patrons in the search (at least in the initial stages of the search process).

Follow Up:

Ask patrons if their questions have been completely answered.

Encourage the patrons to return if they have further questions by making a statement such as “If you don’t find what you are looking for, please come back and we’ll try something else.”

Roving  is an excellent technique for follow-up.

Consult other librarians or experts in the field when additional subject expertise is needed.

Make patrons aware of other appropriate reference services (email, etc.).

Make arrangements, when appropriate, with the patrons to research a question even after the reference transaction has been completed.

Refer the patrons to other sources or institutions when the query cannot be answered to the satisfaction of the patron.

Facilitate the process of referring patrons to another library or information agency through activities such as calling ahead, providing direction and instructions, and providing the library and the patrons with as much information as possible about the amount of information required, and sources already consulted.

Take care not to end the reference interview prematurely.

Note: The term librarian in this document applies to all who provide reference and informational services directly to library users.

I hope the Guidelines are useful in your reference interviews. Good luck!



RUSA. “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Services Professionals.” RQ, 36 (Winter 1996) 200-3.