There are distinct differences between a reference interview with an adult and with a child. Adults are often better able to articulate their needs and are more confident in their right to information. Reference interviews can be a challenge with children but here are some tips to make each encounter one in which you help children find the books they’re interested in.
1. Make the reference desk inviting.
The most important step is getting the child to come to the reference desk or wherever staff is located to get help! Passive programming throughout the library in which the child has to come to the reference desk to receive a prize can help lay the foundation for them to become comfortable approaching a librarian. Having an item such as a sticker or bookmark available may also be a good icebreaker to start a conversation.
2. Listen. Be patient and positive.
It is important to listen -- really listen -- and not assume you know what is being asked for after only listening briefly. While some days it may feel like it takes a long time, it is important to take the time to understand exactly what the child is requesting. Be patient and stay positive with each encounter.
3. Be conscious of your body language.
Approaching an adult to ask a question can be intimidating to some children. To look approachable, smile, and say hi. Gently lean forward to express interest. Keep your legs and arms uncrossed. Avoid aggressive or unapproachable postures -- who wouldn’t be intimidated by a frown, a stare, or an invasion of personal space! If sitting at the reference desk, consider staying seated for the first part of the reference interview. You’ll be at the same eye level as the child and may not feel so threatening.
4. The first request may not actually be what children need or want.
Keep your expectations about the initial information low. Children rarely initially ask for what they really want. For example, a child may say, “I want a book about animals.” After more conversation, you determine that she got a new puppy and needs nonfiction books about puppy care. With fiction or entertainment requests, a child might only have a small (and, quite possibly, inaccurate) piece of information. For example, a child recently asked for “The Garfield movie called Twin Kitties.” Searching the library catalog did not retrieve any hits. However, after Googling, I learned that the actual title was Tale of Two Kitties. Success! The child was able to get the movie she wanted.
5. Keep asking questions.
It’s essential to gather more information. With children, this means narrowing the scope of a very broad request. While it can feel awkward to ask questions, if done in a friendly, nonjudgmental tone, it will ensure a successful outcome. For example, a child says he needs to find a book for a book report. Some questions I would ask are: “Does it have to be about a particular topic or genre? For example, does it need to be historical fiction or fantasy? Or can this book be about anything you want?” After we have determined what type of book report, then I ask “What grade are you in? Do you like to read? Have you read a book recently that you liked?” I also like to check “Is there is a page requirement? Do you need to walk out of the library with a book in hand or do you have time to put a book on hold?” Of course, I do not ask these questions in rapid-fire but I use them to guide the conversation.
6. Involve children as you search.
Children often enjoy seeing what the librarian is doing as she searches. At many libraries each reference computer has an outward-facing monitor so when turned on the patron can follow along. Many times the child has already seen the cover of the book she wants but cannot recall exact information. Using Google images the child can visually point out the desired book. I may say “I am going to turn on my monitor. Have you seen the book before? OK, will you tell me if you see it?” This technique is often all that is needed to find the material the child wants.
7. Including parents…or not.
Frequently children come to the reference desk with their parents and what the child wants may not be what the parent wants for the child. This can be challenging. I direct my questions and attempt to have a dialogue with the child rather than the parents. Particularly with recreational reading, I encourage the children to choose what they want to read. This might lead to a conversation with parents along the lines of, “Reading is reading. Let your child read what they want to read and as long as they are reading that is what is important.” It is important to be tactful and find that delicate balance between the parent’s concerns and the child’s needs.
8. Walk with them to find the item.
Just having a call number in hand is usually not enough information for a child (or even an adult) to find the library item. Walking to the stacks is a good time to engage in small talk. If the destination is a fiction book, then a conversation about that particular book or genre might be effective. This is also a good time to share one brief piece of knowledge. For example, “Books have call numbers on the spine. Books in the 500s are about science and here are the books about dinosaurs that you wanted.”
At the stacks, you might find that what you thought they wanted is not correct. Because you have walked with them to the stacks you can try again, continuing the dialogue with more questions and ultimately find what they desire.
9. Let them know that your suggestions are only suggestions.
Let children know that any suggestions given or books shown are just that - suggestions. I like for children to feel that the library is never a place to feel pressured. Many libraries have a cart on which to put unwanted items. This is good to point out to children. If they are hesitant about actually saying no about an item in front of me, they now have an easy out and can later place the book they do not want on a cart.
10. Stay current with what children are reading and watching.
Although it is not necessary (or possible!) to read or watch every piece of material that children are currently interested in, it is helpful to have a general idea of what is going on. Librarians receive requests from children for many of the same items over and over. Since you’ve gathered information, you’ll immediately be able to recognize what they are talking about and build on that to help them find what they’re interested in.
Working with children is both enjoyable and rewarding. It is a wonderful experience to help children find the books they want. A friendly, helpful librarian has the potential to positively influence a child’s life. Be that librarian!
Tami Austin is a youth services librarian for the Salt Lake County library system in Herriman, Utah. She is an avid reader and loves presenting storytimes at her library.