Help Me Help You – Or, “What do you want?”
Archives Researcher: “Do you have any photographs of ships?”
NARA Employee: “Why yes, we do. You’ll find a card catalog of hull numbers right over there.” *points*
Did you want pictures of ships, or were you really hoping to find a collection of WWII-era U.S. Navy photographs containing a picture of your father who served on the USS Missouri?
In archives-speak, a reference interview is a type of interview whose purpose is to find out what you really want to know so that we can match your question to our halls of information. It may include follow-up questions used to get a clearer picture of what you want to know. In the above exchange, there was no reference interview, and the employee took the researcher’s question at face value. As a result, the researcher didn’t get what he came to the archives for – a picture of his father.
Who is at fault here? Should the researcher have been more forthcoming about what he or she really wanted, or should the NARA employee have conducted a proper reference interview? I would argue both would have helped solve the problem, although no archive should expect its patrons to have the same level of research skills or know how to express what they want on their first try. The fact is researchers and research room staff often look for information in opposite ways: the researcher begins from general and goes to the specific, and the information professional begins with the specific. A sign of a good information professional is knowing when and how to conduct a reference interview, and specifically the types of questions that get to what the researcher is really after.
What is the lesson here? If you are a researcher, you can help us and yourself by thinking, “what do I really want to find here today?” It is also extremely useful to NARA staff to be thoroughly familiar with the subject matter, because often little bits of information you have acquired about your subject can be major clues and help lead us to identify the right records. If you are a NARA employee, the lesson is what you already know: that it is up to you to as a member of a service-oriented institution to do all in your power to link our researchers to the information they (really) seek.