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Advice vs. Counsel

by on June 3, 2015

I’ve been thinking a lot, lately, about the traditional old reference interview. Yes, we seldom talk about reference practices and services anymore, even though we (mostly) agree that it is still a vital and fundamental library service.

What I’ve been pondering is the difference in reference interviews. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: there are really two types of reference interviews, advising and coaching/counseling. The advising type of reference interview is when a patron comes to seek our advice and help in finding answers. Counseling interviews, on the other hand, are not where patrons come to seek answers from us, but come to get us to help them figure something out. In other words, advice is when we, librarians, tell patrons what we think; counsel is when librarians help patrons figure out what they are thinking.

While they may seem very similar, they are not, and if we use the wrong approach we can actually cause great harm (that statement may or may not be hyperbole). Let me illustrate with the same question. Let’s say both Patron A and Patron B come to your desk asking to help them find a book about becoming a veterinarian. Seems pretty straightforward doesn’t it? But through a solid reference interview you hear Patron A say, “Oh yes, I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian, even when I was a little kid,” but Patron B has a different answer, “Well, I’m guess I don’t know what I want to do with my life, but I like dogs.”

Now, in both cases we can answer the question. We can give both patrons the same book. But does Patron B really leave with the answer they are looking for? No. Patron B is really looking for help on what the heck to do with their life. What Patron B really needs to hear is that it’s OK to not have it figured out. Maybe share a little of your story, or the story of someone you know. Then you can provide them with resources on taking the next steps. And if you have the resources or training, perhaps you can help them figure out what point on the compass they should pursue.

What is really important is to know the difference between the two types of questions. Sometimes patrons are just looking for an answer, but other times patrons are looking for much bigger answers. Many times patrons seek answers that don’t address the issue behind the question. And often times, patrons are looking for someone like us to validate their feelings, doubts, and fears.

May you remember that you can give great advice or great counsel, but know when to provide it. May you remember that we all don’t have this whole life thing figured out, so give your patrons great empathy, and may you remember that sometimes the answer the patron is really seeking is the ear of someone kind, much like YOU.

Photo CreditFrancesca Launaro (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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