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Reference interviews – time and cost expensive or not?

The reference interview is neither a new concept nor a rarely applied process. It is a valuable tool in the research specialist’s skill set to ensure they understand exactly what information their customer requires. But, sometimes the “interview” is undervalued by those who seek the research specialist’s assistance. Many find the “barrage” of questions asked of them to be time expensive. However, the benefits of a reference interview are significant. The relatively short amount of time required to answer some targeted questions reduces the time a researcher needs to find and retrieve the right information.

So what is a reference interview?

In simple terms, a reference interview is a series of questions asked by a researcher to ascertain exactly what information it is a customer wants.

As noted in point 8 of Marcus Banks’ article, ‘Ten Reasons Libraries Are Still Better Than the Internet’, librarians will locate exactly what is required efficiently based on the information gleaned from a reference interview. It reduces the locating and use of unacceptable, inaccurate, or compromised information by users.

Why is it an important service?

While there are many people who know exactly what information they need, giving a concise and accurate explanation of what it is they want is not so straight forward for many of us. This could be due to different terminology, language restrictions, or as is common with the English language, any number of words that are pronounced the same but have different spellings and meanings.

Then there are the times where the information seeker can’t remember the term and tries to provide a long hand explanation; they may even employ a type of mime routine! While that all might be frightfully amusing, it is not conducive to a research specialist actually understanding what information is required. Enter the reference interview!

A library customer seeks the help of a researcher. The library research specialist asks a seemingly logical question to ensure they have understood what information they require. However, based on their customer’s response it becomes evident that several more questions must be asked before it becomes clear just what information is required. Clarification and context is everything.

Mr Library Dude provides a couple of amusing examples of how presumptions on his part based on a mispronounced word meant he went off on the wrong tangent, but by asking several more questions, and listening to the answers, he eventually understood what information his client wanted. He also helpfully notes the Reference and User Services Association has a post of guidelines on conducting a reference interview and lists several of those guidelines.

Just use Google®. It’s cheaper and easy, right?

For many people, finding the correct information is not as straight forward as it may seem. As author Neil Gaiman stated, “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you back the right one”.

Using the wrong term will return nothing that applies! Using a general search term will not necessarily return applicable information; many may not be valid or are sourced from websites with a particular bias that may not be obvious unless searchers know what to look for. Google is a great tool but it is a “horses for courses” one and depending on how well it is used, an inefficient one. Inefficient invariably equals less cost effective in more ways than one.

Your staff could use the ‘Advanced Search’ feature, assuming they know how, to refine a large list of results. While that will reduce the number of results, if the initial search results were less than applicable, refining it is yet a further waste of time! If the initial results do contain the information required it is often behind a paywall or has restricted access.

Librarians/research specialists who conduct a reference interview service will find exactly the information needed based on the answers they get. They know the most efficient search terms to use and know where to search for the required information. They know which databases contain the information, may already have created a knowledge base of applicable information or created a list of already curated material on the subject. What may seem time costly is, in the end, time saving and most importantly of all, ensures the organisation’s staff receive the right information.

Return on Investment (ROI) Benefit

The cost of employing librarians/research specialists is always a factor for decision-makers. While evaluating the cost of any department with an organisation is necessary, it might be wiser to reframe the question of cost to be, “can the organisation afford not to have research staff?” This could be answered by considering what is the cost to the business if employees, without efficient and effective research skills, have to find appropriate information themselves? What are the stakes if any information, used by a business, is not valid or appropriate? What is the return on the investment in research staff?

While it may not be within the purview of librarians/research staff to estimate the cost to business of the use of incorrect information, they can estimate return on investment research staff provide to their organisations. The 2013 report by ALIA, Health Libraries Inc., ALIA Health Libraries and the Australian Law Librarians’ Association, makes for interesting reading. Based on their investigation into the return on investment special libraries and information services in Australia provided to their organisations, it estimated the return was a significant $5.43 for every dollar spent! It could be argued that part of that ROI is due in some measure to reference interviews.

Many of an organisation’s staff are not skilled at the effective searching and finding the validated information required. Their skills lie elsewhere. Provide them with skilled research staff who employ the reference interview. Researchers know it provides a real cost benefit to their organisation.