Need for a Reference Process
Finding and filling real information needs is an ongoing process.
More Than Answering Questions
Reference work is more than answering questions. Discovering and meeting information needs is a process that involves finding the real information need behind the questions. The reference process involves open communication between you and the patron, working until the need is met.
Filling the Knowledge Gap
You can think of reference work as assisting people in filling gaps in their knowledge and solving problems. The "gap" represents the real information need. Patrons may have trouble expressing the real information need, or may be reluctant to do so, and may ask a question that they think will help fill the gap. However, the answer to their question as first stated may fill only a part of the gap, and not meet the entire need. You need to discover the underlying need so you can help patrons completely fill their information gap.
Suppose a man comes into a public library asking for recipes for tomato sauce. It would be relatively easy to provide him with recipes. Would we then meet his information need? Suppose this man had just harvested his garden tomatoes and is overwhelmed by the amount he collected. His "information gap" is what to do with all those tomatoes!
While the man sees his problem as being solved by recipes for tomato sauce, if you discover this "information gap" you may be able to really help him by providing him with ideas of other things he might do with the tomatoes: drying, freezing or canning them; making ketchup or salsa; giving them to food shelters; or composting them. You would have done a much better job of meeting the information need that brought him to the library, even if he didn't clearly express his need in his opening question to you.
Major Point: Finding the underlying "gap" in knowledge or problem to be solved behind the patron's opening question is an ongoing process.
How far should the library go in meeting users' online needs?
To determine and fill real information needs, a consistent, multi-step process is required.
The fun part of the reference process is working with people. Look at the funny side of patron reference questions in Libraries Can Be Funny Places.
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