According to, communication is “the imparting or interchange of thoughts, opinions, or information by speech, writing, or signs.” That sounds pretty simple, but wait, can a word with that many syllables and so many modes of connectivity really be that simple? In the library world we know that if communication were easy, straightforward and not prone to misinterpretation, a lot of our time would be saved. Library school was all about the “reference interview”, and if I’ve learned anything since then, it is that the art of understanding and deconstructing someone else’s question is one of the most difficult skills to master. Basically, it involves listening without judgment or preconceived notions on one level, while thinking about all the other concurrent issues the question might spark in your brain, the foremost being, is what they are asking for what they want or need. Asking me if I have any information on securities laws is very different from asking about National Instrument 45-106 which deals with Prospectus and Registration Exemptions – oh and when did it come into force?

In their own way, the multiple modern communication tools available make this process simultaneously easier and more complicated. My favourite example of the unforeseen complexity of an answer to a straightforward question is saying to my friend; meet you on the corner of X Street and Y Avenue. Which corner: NW, NE, SW or SE? What if it rains, will you be in the lobby or under the awning slightly adjacent to that corner? What if it’s not a friend who might be able to anticipate your impulse; what if you are meeting someone for the first time? Email, fax, voice mail message, telephone call or person to person, each can bring immediacy, clarity, or confusion to such a simple direction. My library’s reference questions come in any one of those forms, from regulars or lawyers with whom we’ve never interacted. Each presents its own positives and negatives.

The legal field isn’t the only one that has to know how to ask the right questions. I have borrowed the list below from Health Canada’s Talking Tools II — Putting Communication Skills to Work. If there is any other profession that needs to listen constructively and perceptively, it is medicine. I find it informative that there is a recognition that doctors need help to better communicate with their patients.

Breaking It Down — The Skills 

1. Skill: Showing Empathy

2. Skill: Open and Closed Questions

3. Skill: Active Listening

4. Skill: Non-Verbal Cues

5. Skill: Timing

6. Skill: Silence

7. Skill: Summarizing

8. Skill: Plain Language

9. Skill: Clarifying Responsibilities

10. Skill: Action Planning

11. Skill: Checking with the Patient

12. Skill: Following the Patient’s Lead

Of the reference “opportunities” we receive, the “walk-in” is one of the rarest. A lawyer will present him or herself, ask their question and then be available for an interactive discussion (reference interview) where we can get clarification on the question: We get the chance to colour verbal information with layers of physical or vocal hues; look at texts together to narrow terminology, seminars to see if the issue has been addressed. Or do we? In reality, it is usually a lawyer on a break from court or who’s double parked, and doesn’t have time or the focus to sit down and get involved in a long discussion. Frequently, the librarian is herself in the middle of other research or library task and is required to immediately switch focus. What should be an optimum circumstance for a good, old-fashioned reference conversation is instead a hurried, frantic affair, grabbing at search terms and situations as they fly through the lawyer’s brain, out his mouth and into the ether. And then he flies out the door saying he’ll be back in an hour or in 2 days. Do we limit to jurisdiction, court level and timeframe? Common law, legislation or secondary source material? Do we throw everything at the wall and see what sticks? All common questions when we are asked to research, but unless you have the presence of mind to ask when he sitting across from you, you’ll have to try and infer from your quick conversation and the few words you’ve managed to scribble on the scrap piece of paper you were able to grab. If only there was some way of asking subsequent questions.

A telephone call may be fraught with the same sort of panic, although in most cases, a lawyer will call when it is convenient for them and therefore more able to talk. Of course we have none of those visual cues, no body language, hand gestures or facial expressions that can subconsciously assist us through the reference interview. Also, it is difficult to pull out a stack of books for them to peruse. In this instance, while you might able to get more background information, and they might be available for further consultation, you do have to rely on what you’ve heard, just as they have to assume you understand their issue.

An email or voice mail may be more forthcoming with lots of valuable information to assist us in the research task. After all, if there is one thing a lawyer can generally do, it is expound, using all that legal jargon that is invaluable when searching full text document databases, and book indices. All you have to do is follow the twists and turns of a long complicated legal story to ferret out the Question. Then again, if typed quickly on a BlackBerry or iPhone, shortcuts might have been taken and important details omitted. While you can respond to an email immediately hitting “Reply”, or giving a quick call, you may not reach the sender. Chances are the message was sent the night before at 10:30 pm because the next day is a court day and the lawyer knew s/he would be unavailable for what constitutes your work day. An email looking for more direction may elicit a response in a reasonable amount of time, or you may not be able to get in touch, and the finishing note of “I need this on a rush basis” means you have to work with what you have.

No one has to tell us that digital communication is a way of life. With the world is getting smaller and faster, the only consistency is change. We must become adaptive to a myriad style of voices, mechanical and vocal, while recognizing some things remain the same. When being asked for our expertise, the first, most important thing is to listen quietly to the question. Take from our experience to ask relevant questions and be open enough to listen to the whole answer. You never know when a question might teach you something.

I would love to hear your feedback, your experiences. Feel free to add or expand upon the Skills list, and use those stated to get the creative juices flowing.

With thanks to my Editor and Reference Librarian extraordinaire, Linda Zardo.


  1. Thanks Joan. I like the links to the ‘reference’ interview that health care professionals use.

    I think there is a persistent problem for law librarians (or maybe just me) and that is ‘anticipating’ requests. There is a balance between anticipating what the user likely wants because you have heard the question before from others and not over-anticipating and therefore missing the nuances of the askers unique situation.

    Anticipating is particularly tricky with digital communication because a three paragraph email may seem to be all the information you need to get someone exactly what they want so there is more potential for misinterpretation.