A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

The Technology Reference Interview

by Melanie A. Lyttle and Shawn D. Walsh on May 7, 2013

Librarians have always done reference interviews where they ask questions to ascertain what exactly the patron is looking to discover. A technology reference interview is very similar. In order to figure out what exactly a patron needs help with technology-wise, a librarian needs to ask questions like, “What device do you have?” or “What operating system do you have?” or “Do you have the passwords to access these programs?” The goal of the technology reference interview is to figure out how much the patron knows already so the librarian knows where to begin. And of course, a librarian never talks down to a patron or talks at them without listening while doing a reference interview. So naturally, in a technology interview the librarian will be talking with the patrons. Not too complicated and not too simplified.

Time management of the interview is the same whether it’s a traditional reference interview or a technology one. Sometimes a person is looking for an obscure fact or article and it takes a long time to locate exactly what that patron needs. Does the librarian have time to find it at that particular moment, or is he or she the only librarian on duty and there are three other people waiting with questions? A person needing technology help is no different. Sometimes the help they need is going to take a while to accomplish. Can this be done now or is the person going to need to schedule an appointment or simply wait until the librarian has finished with the other patrons in line? Being able to get a patron to a certain point with a technology question may be all the librarian has time for at that moment, and the person either needs to wait or to come back later if more help is needed. This is no different than the “I’ll take your information, continue to work on this, and give you a call when I have an answer,” that has been used for years with tricky or time-consuming reference questions.

One of the challenges with a technology interview is knowing when to walk away, and this is so hard for librarians because rarely do they ever walk away from a reference question. In Kenny Rogers’ song, “The Gambler” he got right when he sang, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em. Know when to walk away and know when to run.” This adage works very well for technology interviews. When is the challenge one that needs a colleague’s help? Is it a situation where you need someone with more technical skills? Or is the question one that seems to indicate that this is a problem that cannot be solved at the library because the technology involved will never operate as it should.

Like a traditional reference interview, librarians must be wary of assuming they know what the patron is going to say. In addition, be aware of sweeping generalizations such as “All baby boomers and senior citizens don’t know how to use a computer much less operate an ereader.” That can be a very dangerous assumption. It’s almost as problematic as assuming a Gen Xer is going to know how to apply for a job online.

With some flexibility, adaptability, and “old fashioned” reference skills, your staff can teach technology to patrons. It may be a matter of days before an interface changes and everything looks different, but your staff can learn to roll with these changes. This is still the reference interview everyone knows. Don’t let concern over technology obfuscate the basic reference interview foundation.


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