Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Phrasing Reference Questions

Do you ever wonder how to ask a question or phrase it so that you will be understood?  Growing up it terrified me to talk to people on the phone.  I did not know how to say what I needed to say.  Actually, if I pause a moment, it seems that my terror or "deer in the headlights" experiences were mostly involving talking with an adult or asking an adult for something. 

Moments like these were tough, and my mom came to my rescue, prompting me with just the words I would need to supply while holding that rotary phone to my ear.  (I'm not sure when we switched to a cordless phone, but I look back on the rotary phone with fondness and nostalgia.  My dad still has one out in his shop.)

Anyway, Mary W. George serves or functions as the mom/mentor for college students who need to approach the reference desk.  It can be intimidating to approach strangers behind an imposing desk.  Knowing how to phrase some questions or which words to supply in order to obtain the desired result can be quite useful.  In her book The Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know, she dedicates two or three pages to this endeavor.

One column contains the title "What You'd Like to Know (and can't figure out on your own)," and the second column reads "Example of How to Ask a Reference Librarian about It (Be ready to explain what you have already tried.)"  Let me provide just a few questions:

-Background information on your general topic
  • Can you recommend a subject encyclopedia that deals with [your topic]?
-Where to identify articles on your topic
  • What database would you suggest for popular and scholarly articles about [your topic]?  Does it include newspaper articles, or is there a different database for those?
-What other sources the library may have related to your topic
  • I have already explored the online catalog and [name of article databases(s)].  What other approaches would you suggest for sources on [my topic]?  Are there relevant materials in special collections or in nonprint formats that the library owns? (118-20)
ISU Library Reference Desk
Granted, a good reference librarian ought to be able to ask follow-up questions if a patron does not phrase a question just right (in library speak should we say?), but trying out some of the suggestions George offers might really yield some great results. 

Idaho Health Sciences Library: Reference Desk

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