I have been doing a lot of thinking about the reference interview—especially when talking to teenagers. I remember my class in library school communicating what I think is the obvious: ask open ended questions. I watched a now retired, (thank GOD!), do a reference interview just like a script—complete with disdain for the patron’s ignorance on the subject matter. This really is one of my pet peeves! You really can’t script these things; they are organic and need context. So with this in mind, I have a few tips for reference interviews with teen students.
Ask some pointed questions to get started:
· Is this for an English class or a science class?
· Is this teacher a “pain” or picky or are they pretty relaxed about topics and format?
· If I sense some reluctance or contempt for this whole project, I might ask if this is a project they want to get done quickly without a lot of fuss, or are this something they are truly interested in.
I sometimes start with these types of questions for a couple of reasons. First, ask a question that a student can answer easily. Remember, they probably were nervous approaching the reference desk. I also ask about the teacher to remind them I work for THEM, not the school. Generally, these kinds of questions can get the ball rolling and communication comes a bit more easily.
Second, from the librarian point of view, this can put the student’s project in context. If the class is a general topic for a standard English research paper, then we can guide students to a variety of sources and do some general “bib instruction” on the right tool for the job. Since papers of this nature tend to be general, I also counsel on trying to “narrow” the topic and we usually engage in a “what do you want to say about this topic” kind of discussion.
Here is an example: Student in 9th grade English is going to write a big research paper on child abuse. Teacher is picky about sources and citations. After you have established this much info, now bring on your open ended questions. This is a big topic, so what are they thinking about? Give them some ideas to start the conversation. Do they think it is a big problem? Is catching abusers an issue? What do you think causes child abuse? In my experience, you can usually get a student to hypothesize or give an opinion on an aspect. Don’t talk source materials yet, just ask what they think. Move the conversation to the basics of a thesis statement. After a student has articulated the idea, then you can move into sources and regular discussion. My real point is to lay some groundwork with a general conversation.
A reference interview is more than just asking questions on topic. It is part counseling and part information manager. Help that student ask the “right” questions that will get the job done. Think of it as helping the student solve his or her problem, not just answering questions. Remember, that student didn’t hear your reference interview lecture in library school so they might not know the script!