This week’s posts come from truly gifted professionals of the SLA North Carolina chapter. While each representative has made an effort to keep their topics inline with the central theme of SLA Future Ready 365 blog, you will notice that each post provides a unique perspective and is intended to help a variety of readers that visit the blog. For more information about our members and the North Carolina chapter, be sure to visit ncarolina.sla.org.
by Karin Shank, North Carolina Chapter, Food, Agriculture & Nutrition Division
We recently hosted a class of library school students at our non-profit/corporate library. One student asked, “What is the most valuable thing you learned in library school? My answer to this question was simple: the reference interview.
It may seem strange to emphasize something as basic as the reference interview in a “future-ready” blog. However, in my interactions with clients – mostly start-up entrepreneurs in the pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device sectors – the reference interview is key to our mutual success.
To tell you the truth, I don’t actually remember what I was taught about the reference interview, other than a basic caution to make sure that you fully understand a client’s information needs before you start answering their question. It was taught in the general context of a university reference desk, not as a special librarian’s tool. At the time, something like this crossed my mind – “Well, duh…. of course I want to make sure the patron gets their question answered.” And I’m certain that if there were specific steps to the process, I considered those to be as inane as the pre-scripted dialog of a telemarketer.
But after 6 years of working with entrepreneurial clients, I have realized the true power of the reference interview when it is conducted in a manner appropriate to my setting. Fully understanding a client’s needs is especially crucial in a business environment where inaccurate or incomplete answers are a waste of time and money. Our clients come to us with varied expectations, and especially after seeing our very small print collection, some are skeptical about what we can do for them. These skeptical ones will ask a brief question and expect you to say, “no, I can’t answer that,” then move on. They don’t know our library…yet!
It’s extremely useful to sit down with these clients to discuss their underlying information needs. As we chat, they start sharing about their projects and I can step in to offer possible solutions. When they bring up questions that may be impossible to answer directly with their minimal budgets and our limited resources (we are a non-profit, after all!), I can advise them about alternative data and sources that they may not have considered. As opposed to most reference desk interactions, I usually have a longer-term conversation with my clients by phone or email, and I can continue to help reframe their questions and refine their needs. Whether they pay us to do research for them, or they carry on with the research themselves, the outcome has been improved by our discussion of the problem. I also learn a lot from my clients about how their world works, and what strategies they use to build their business. Educating myself through our discussions helps me to be more effective in dealing with all of my clients, because I understand their perspectives that much better.
Delivery preferences can also be determined in a reference interview. Some of my clients are scientists-turned-entrepreneurs, and they want to see every detail that I can dig up. Others are business folk and just want to see the bottom line, executive-summary style. Learning from my clients not only what they need, but how they want it delivered, means that they will be more satisfied with the results. That makes them more likely to come back for additional research and refer us to their colleagues. It also makes their business more successful, giving them a higher chance of obtaining funding and growing jobs in North Carolina, which is our main goal at the Biotechnology Center.
In his keynote presentation at the last SLA conference, Thomas Friedman told us that in the new economy jobs that can be outsourced, will be. Therefore, a big part of being “future-ready” means that librarians need to find our strengths and ways to distinguish ourselves not only from offshore workforces, but also from online tools like search engines. I find the reference interview to be an invaluable tool in training my clients not to treat me like another search engine – but to respect me, their librarian, as a valued partner in their work. Maybe that leads to repeat business for our library, maybe it keeps me crucial to my organization…. and just maybe it begins to change their perceptions about what a librarian is and does.
Karin Shank is a Research Librarian at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park, and active in the North Carolina chapter of SLA. She holds an M.S. dual degree in Crop Science and Botany from NC State University as well as a Masters in Library Science from North Carolina Central University.