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Module Module 2
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Paraphrase Questions

Getting from the opening question
to the real need.


     Paraphrasing is a useful technique that will help you discover a patron's real information need. You repeat back what the patron said in their words without adding any thoughts or questions of your own. You mirror the patron's thoughts, showing the patron what the question "looks like" to you.

     These are statements, not a question. If you make it a question, it may sound like you are incredulous that the person would ask such a question! You want to know the state flower of Ohio? You want to know the names of your representatives in Congress? You want information on abortion?

Paraphrasing has three outcomes.

  1. It reassures the patron that you are listening to them.
  2. It reassures you that you have heard correctly.
  3. The patron may clarify or amplify their original request with more information.

     Paraphrasing is also useful when you have a very talkative patron. Sometimes people will tell you their story, then tell you again, then again. They might want to be sure you heard them. If you paraphrase after the first telling, they will know you understand and will continue with the rest of their story.


     The patron says, "I really need information on Ohio. I've looked all over the place and haven't found what I want. I tried those books over there and they didn't help, and I'm still looking. I just can't seem to find what I need."

     You can say, "You need information on Ohio" or "You're looking for information about Ohio."

Remote interviewing

     What is virtual reference? IFLA defines virtual reference, digital reference, e-reference, Internet information services, live reference and real-time reference as terms sometimes used interchangeably to describe reference services that utilize computer technology in some way.

[IFLA Digital Reference Guidelines]

     Do you still need to follow the steps in the reference process and use paraphrasing, open questions, clarifying, verifying, etc.? YES! When you are not face-to-face with a library user, getting to the real information need requires skillful interviewing using all the steps of the reference process.

Major Point: Paraphrasing is a useful technique to discover more information.



     Many of the ORE Module pages will ask you to work with the reference collection and with your local staff. Sometimes the best reference resources are the "human resources." Ask!

     Write down the answers to the exercise questions in this module and keep them to review with your supervisor at the end of the module.

     How would you paraphrase the following questions?

  1. Do you have the owner's manual for this model washing machine? Mine needs repair.
  2. I'd like to get some ideas on building a chair.

Answer Key


Open questions



Paraphrasing lets the patron know you are listening and have heard correctly.

Ohio Libraries

London Public Library Staff paraphrase questions.

Example Question: "Do you have anything about Ohio plants?"

Paraphrase: "You need information about Ohio plants."

Response: "Yes," means you've heard correctly.

[Sue Pascual and Father Tom Timmons]

Ohio Stories

A patron was trying to recall a particular episode of The Wonderful World of Disney he had seen as a child. He wanted to know if it was available on video, but he didn't know the title of the episode, just a description of the plot. He was pretty vague about what he wanted so I asked him a lot of questions in the reference interview to clarify.

After I had quizzed him on the plot details, I repeated it back to him to make sure I had it right. "So it was about a South Sea islands boy who is shipwrecked on an unfamiliar island with his dog, and he has to find his way back home." The patron's face lit up and he said, "You've seen it!

He didn't realize I was repeating back to him what he had just told me. From his description I still wasn't able to find the answer in the library, so I e-mailed the official Disney web site. They responded that the title of the episode was "Call It Courage." Once we had the title, we were able to find more information in library materials. We even had the video!

Margaret Peters, Wright Memorial Public Library.

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