Thursday, February 9, 2012

Reference Services: Asking the Right Questions

Thus far, my roles in the heritage field have typically been collection or research based, I enjoy both of these roles and all that goes with them.  However, recently my job has expanded into providing some reference services and assisting patrons with research requests.  The nature of the reference questions that have come across my desk have included: genealogy research, help navigating the online database, help finding photographs, image use requests, and general research questions. 

This foray into the world of reference has made me think about how historical researchers approach reference services and how to ask the right questions when you need assistance.  As a result, I've come up with this list of items that can help researchers ask good questions when undertaking research.

  • If there is an online research request form use it.  Chances are this form will be automatically directed to the correct staff member, which will safe you time looking for the correct person to ask. 
    • If there isn't a form look at the staff listing to see if it list someone as reference staff or if there is a department which is relevant to your inquiry.  
  • Similarly, if you are leaving a voicemail on a machine that service multiple staff members be explicit about your area of interest.  And don't forget to leave your phone number! 
  • If you are interested in something you saw online include links to the material.
  • If inquiring about material that has reference numbers (accession numbers, finding aid title, photograph number, etc) cite this information in your inquiry. 
  • When requesting use of images or information in a project or publication include all pertinent details 
    • What are you going to use the images for? Is it a commercial or a non-commercial use? What quality of images would you require?  Is there a time constraint on your request?
  • If you are asking a more topical question or doing genealogy research be very clear about what information you are looking for and what type of help you need. 
    • Asking pointed and specific questions makes reference staff happy and makes it much easier for them to help you. 
Reference staff are there to help you.  However, it is much easier to help someone who is clear about their needs -- especially when corresponding via email. 

Photo credit:  ACPL

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