Reference Questions Via Email

One of the more common topics discussed in Library School is "the reference question." For many of our patrons this still fits in nicely to the librarian stereotypes and what they expect when they enter a library:  the tall foreboding desk with an old maid sitting behind it that you only go to ask questions of as a last resort.

Of course, more often than not, the stereotype is not true but it is still true that the reference desk is a familiar aspect of libraries, and answering questions and providing information is a core part of the librarian's duties. As such, a lot of emphasis is placed on how to navigate a reference interview during library studies.

Many times when a patron asks a question they tend to ask a very general one which might not be exactly what they are searching for. The question, "Do you have any books on butterflies?" might seem like a simple question request but if the librarian simply answers "yes" and delves no further she will not know if the patron needed a children's non-fiction book for a school project or a field guide for a nature hike. Hence the practice of the reference interview in which the librarian asks relevant questions in order to discover what source will best fit the patron's needs.

I work as a librarian in a law office. Although we have a physical space most of our sources are electronic and we field most of our reference questions via email . Although it is convenient for the lawyers to not have to come into the library physically, especially since nine times out of ten the source they want is electronic; it can be confusing for the reference interview process.

First, though email is fast, it is not instantaneous like face to face conversations, especially if the email is buried under the lawyer's other correspondence. The lawyer may think his or her request is being taken care of when in reality there is a clarifying question from the librarian sitting in his or her email box.

A second obstacle I have come across in email reference is one that is found sometimes in physical reference services as well. Sometimes a patron may be asking a question for someone else, generally a parent for a child, and the information is coming second hand, making it difficult to pin down the exact needs. In a law office this seems to be intensified. Many times a lawyer will pass something onto a paralegal or a law student who, after having no luck, will bring the information to a librarian.

Last week I received an email from a paralegal asking for the "code book." When I asked her if she could clarify or give me the full title she responded that she didn't know, the lawyer she was working for had only told her that much. Yet instead of giving me the lawyer's name she said she would ask him and get back to me. This meant I had to wait for the lawyer to reply to her and her to reply to me before any progress could be made on the request. In many ways, face to face would have been quicker because conducting a reference interview over email one question at a time is not very efficient and can be frustrating for both parties.

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