Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Reference Question of the Day*

I had my first reference question at work yesterday! I was very excited. Since I work at a digital archive without physical holdings, I get very little direct patron interaction. It was kind of surprising to pick up the phone and find a real live patron on the end of the line.

I was nervous because I am not a subject specialist, and I'm still very much "learning the ropes" here. I'm not sure how the caller reached me, as he didn't seem to know who I am, but I suspect he called in on the general phone line and the receptionist (who's a friend) transferred him to me.

This patron was looking for help doing research in archives in the Ukraine. He explained that he was doing family research, specifically looking for more information about a relative who spent time in a gulag. I asked for his contact information and told him I would confer with my coworkers and get back to him shortly.

I asked around and found out that none of my coworkers has experience in Ukraine. Unfortunately, we have a very limited collection of Ukrainian documents (mostly from other countries) and don't have any strong links with archives there.

I didn't want to go back to him empty handed, so I did some quick research on our website and the web in general, and sent him the following information:

Hello Mr. Patron,

This is Laura Deal at the Cold War International History Project. I talked to my coworkers about your request, but unfortunately none of them has any experience with archives in Ukraine.

Ukraine's State Archives does have a good English website with contact information and advice for researchers: There are also many amateur genealogy sites on the web that offer suggestions for doing research in Ukraine, although I can't vouch for their accuracy.

At CWIHP itself, we don't have many Ukrainian documents, but some of them may be of interest to you, if you haven't looked already:,%20Socialist%20Soviet%20Republic,

Also, two years ago the Kennan Institute at Wilson Center launched a cooperative online exhibit with several gulag memorials/museums that might be of interest:

I wish I could be more helpful. Good luck with your search and please let me know if you have any other questions.

I wanted to analyze our interaction a bit, so I dug up my old Reference 101 notes and looked up the stages of the reference interview:

1. Welcoming
Well, I kind of failed at this one. I forgot to introduce myself until the end of our conversation, although I did explain a bit about our archive to give him some context.
2. Gathering general information from the user and getting an overview of the problem
In retrospect, I wish I'd let him talk longer and explain his query in more detail. I was a little too over-eager to interrupt and say, "Yes, I think I can help with that!"
3. Confirming the exact question
Next time, I need to remember to repeat the question back at the patron and confirm that I understood them.
4. Intervention, like giving information, advice or instructions
5. Finishing, including feedback and summary
I think I did okay at these two, giving information/advice and providing a summary of our interaction.
Anyone else doing reference at their workplace? I really enjoy helping people with research, so I hope I get more questions in the future.

*Don't know if reference questions will become a regular feature for Klub Kat, but the title is an homage to Brian Herzog's awesome Reference Question of the Week posts on Swiss Army Librarian.


  1. Great example! Thanks for sharing what types of reference questions you may encounter on the job - I had been wondering! You gave him many options to look at and I liked how you provided a summary and your opinion on each.

    I forgot about the stages of the reference interview until this post, but thinking back on the three I answered this morning I think I did OK. I feel like Confirming can be the most awkward and most students are probably like "uh yeah lady thats what I just said" but it does help to make sure you're on the right track.

  2. We often get questions that are vague and kind of broad because they assume there is one all encompassing source that will contain what they wish to find....I find myself asking questions about what they are looking for, prefaced with a "if you don't mind me asking."

    PS I'm about to teach an online genealogy resources class and have heard about a website:
    It provides links to international genealogy sites. Eastern Europe doesn't seem to have much out there.

  3. Thanks for the link, Sarah! Looks like a useful collection of sites.