Never answer the question

A great reference interview can help you get exactly the right information to your clients. Sara Batts shares some hints and techniques.

Never answer the question: that's not advice you'd expect to hear addressed to a researcher.  It's less to do with politician-like evasiveness and more about making sure clients have what they need, not what they ask for.

That's why the reference interview  - or conversation about what exactly the client needs - is key. Here are some ideas to help with those conversations.

First and foremost, don't be afraid to ask for clarification. Asking questions in return is not a sign of weakness.

What assumptions do you need to test? They're probably being made on both sides, yours and your client's. Your clients may decide that you're either not already busy, or you are completely snowed under and will tailor their questions accordingly. Or that you will know who they are and what they're working on. Yours might be that the enquirer is an expert in the topic, rather than the beginner they really are.

At other times there may be a mismatch of expectations. Some enquirers might approach your service with the expectation that if they ask you to jump, you'll ask them 'how high?'.  In many situations a better, more efficient and focused response might be different. For instance, there might be a lower-cost option you can consider. More than once I've been asked for copies of articles that were found via a Google search. Directly supplying the requested item would cost money, but I've have been able to source equivalent articles from our existing resources at no cost.

Last thing on a Friday, I sometimes do wish I could just give simple yes or no answers. (Q: Do you have any books on shareholders' duties? A: Yes.) Most of the time I'm full of supplementary queries, sometimes much to the surprise of people who want a quick answer to their 'quick question.' There are going to be some that really are quick but there may be others that are deceptive.  Recently a query that looked like a request for old legislation turned out to be a training opportunity around the content of books on a database.

So a list of supplementary questions might look something like this.

Where have you looked already? (Be prepared for the answer to be ‘I Googled and couldn't find it...' regardless of what they're looking for!)

What's your timescale and how much time do you want me to spend ? My assumption is always that you need things as soon as possible. But your ASAP may be that you need an answer in ten minutes, and someone else's might be tomorrow afternoon.

Do you want me to spend any money in finding the answer? That could limit where I look.

Do you have a specific question to answer?  Are you looking for something you know exists or general items on a topic? Particularly if it's a ‘do you have any resources on...' kind of question.

How do you want results - email, paper, telephone call?

Put simply,  if you have time for a conversation about what is actually behind the query, more context can help arrive at different answers to different questions: but happy clients.

Sara Batts is senior research librarian in the London office of international law firm Reed Smith LLP and a part-time research student at Loughborough University. Sara is currently president of SLA Europe. She blogs on professional life and related issues at

Photo courtesy of Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas via Flickr.