San José State University MLIS E-Portfolio

Erica Krimmel, May 2014

Core Competency I: Service

“Use service concepts, principles, and techniques to connect individuals or groups with accurate, relevant, and appropriate information.”

Connecting users to accurate, relevant, and appropriate information is a foundational skill for Library & Information Science (LIS) professionals. Not only must we be able to organize information for our own sake, we have a duty to interact with other people and share information resources. Many concepts, principles, and techniques have been developed to help LIS professionals do just this, but here we will focus on just two: reference interviews and sense-making.

A reference interview helps LIS professionals (often the librarian at a reference desk) clarify and answer a patron’s question. Ross (2003) reports that only 40% of patrons know what questions to ask when they first approach a library reference desk, therefore it is essential that librarians work with patrons to fully understand their information needs. As Ross says, “the user is the expert in the question itself… the staff member is the expert on the library system and the organization and retrieval of information.” Failing to work with the patron will result in irrelevant or inappropriate information.

Ross (2008) continues with some common mistakes that detract from patrons’ information assistance experiences. Often, she notes, the reference librarian will automatically begin doing mysterious tasks and asking system-based questions (e.g. typing and asking “Did you do a catalog search?”), leaving the patron confused as to their role in the reference desk process. The librarian may also make the mistake of ending the interaction with no avenue for further support or feedback, leaving the patron feeling unwanted and potentially unsatisfied.

In contrast, Cowgill, Feldmann, and Bowles (2008) offer advice on successful reference interview techniques, including the use of neutral questioning. Neutral questioning helps librarians avoid interpreting the patron’s need incorrectly by asking open ended questions (e.g. “Please tell me more about your topic”), and clarifying questions (e.g. “What have you already found?”). This fits into Dervin’s (1998) constructivist “sense-making” theory of information seeking behavior, in which people try to bridge their own knowledge gaps by concurrently fitting a frame around data, and data into a frame. LIS professionals can assist by helping patrons understand available data options and their contexts.

To do this effectively, LIS professionals need to elicit answers about the user’s situation, his knowledge gaps, and how he expects to fill these gaps (Cowgill, Feldmann, & Bowles, 2008). Cassell and Hiremath (2011) go over this process in detail with their reference interview steps, and stress the importance of maintaining a balance between doing the research yourself, and instructing the patron. Because the former does not support sense-making, it may not actually result in appropriate information if the patron does not understand how they reached it.


Although only one of my courses at SLIS, LIBR 210 – Reference Services, was designed around this competency, I feel that connecting people to information is such a core skill that I have applied in in nearly all of my courses, as well as at my field station job. In the evidence below, I intend to present the diversity of my experience.

EVIDENCE 1. One of the most enlightening assignments in LIBR 210 – Reference Services was writing out the transcript for an imagined reference interview. I set my interview at an herbarium between a staff member and a student who dropped by needing resources for a botany course project. Although the herbarium is a nontraditional library, it fits better with my experience, and I see reference interviews here being just as useful.

Using the steps outlined by Cassell and Hiremath (2011) and imagining the staff and student perspectives, I worked through the reference interview while writing it. Initially, the student seemed unsure if the herbarium was even the right place to look for resources, so one of my first steps was to elicit enough information from the student to form an information need statement. I also had the staff member establish a rapport with the student, as Cassell and Hiremath recommend. Next, the staff showed the student different types of resources to help her narrow down what information sources would be helpful. My reference interview didn’t wrap up neatly, because I wanted to simulate the real-life time constraint that most reference interactions occur in; however, I did have the staff person set the stage for continued interactions with the student.

EVIDENCE 2. Reference interviews are an excellent strategy for person-to-person interactions, but sometimes it is necessary to connect people to information asynchronously. In the course of my job as collections curator at Sagehen Creek Field Station, I encounter this problem frequently. We often see visitors that need to use the herbarium, and would appreciate guidance, but unfortunately I am rarely at the physical herbarium location.

Last summer I created several documents in an effort to improve this situation; one such document, the Sagehen Database User Guide, is presented here. In this guide I use visuals and text to address basic features for using our digitized herbarium collection. When creating the guide, I asked for feedback from both experienced and inexperienced herbarium database users to compensate for the lack of feedback I would receive from an asynchronous product. Once complete, I made the document available on our website, and as a laminated copy on site.

EVIDENCE 3. While thinking about this competency I began to wonder about more complicated, multivariate information needs, and how connecting users to these might require a different approach. Less so in libraries, and more so in the business world, LIS professionals are called on to compile different data sources into a single “answer” to the patron’s information need. For example, an online retailer may want to know which segments of its marketing plan are reaching which customers, and a LIS staff member could organize the data to answer this question.

From my experience in LIBR 246 – Information Visualization, I learned that images can be a very effective tool for displaying answers to multivariate research questions. One of the projects from this class required us to think of a research question, find appropriate data, and design a multivariate representation to answer the question. My research question was threefold: 1) How are the total global CO2 emissions distributed amongst the top 100 countries? 2) Which of these countries have noticeably increased or decreased their emissions over the timespan of the data (2000-2008)? and 3) Does the level of urbanization in a country affect its CO2 emissions?

My final visual representation has very little written commentary, which allows the viewers to make their own, informed decisions on the answers to my research questions. I believe being able to present accurate, relevant, and appropriate information resources in a visual format such as this is an important skill for 21st century LIS professionals.

CO2 visualizaton


As technology evolves and media change, it will remain essential that LIS professionals update their strategies and techniques for connecting individuals and groups to their information needs. That said, I believe reference interviewing and sense-making are timeless approaches that remind us to consider the user first, and that can be adapted for whatever the future of information brings.


Cassell, K. & Hiremath, U. (2011). Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century, 2nd ed. Chicago, IL: Neal-Schuman.

Cowgill, A., Feldmann, L., & Bowles, A.R. (2008). Virtual reference interviewing and neutral questioning. Technology in Libraries: Essays in Honor of Anna Grodzins Lipow, ed. Roy Tennant. Retrieved from

Dervin, B. (1998). Sense-making theory and practice: An overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use. Journal of Knowledge Management, 2(2): 36-46.

Ross, C. (2003). The reference interview: Why it needs to be used in every (well almost every) reference transaction. Reference User Services , 43(1).