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Question Negotiation

Page history last edited by PBworks 17 years, 2 months ago


Question Negotiation is a dynamic communication process between a reference librarian and a patron that is designed to clarify an initial reference question and to determine a patron's information needs. It has been defined as "a process of iterative reformulation and refinement of the initial question" (Richardson,1995,p.129), and as a communication that is structured and purposefully directed towards a specific goal (Taylor, 1979). The process of question negotiation has been called "one of the most complex acts of human communication" (Taylor, 1979,38) because it involves two people consulting each other for information to a question that may or may not be fully realized or completely articulated.


There are multiple studies dedicated to this topic. The majority of theories suggest the use of open-ended questions and closed ended questions as part of the negotiating process, combined with a formal paradigm for interviewing patrons. Nearly all studies suggest that question negotiation begin with opening reference questions and end with a closed ended question that confirms the termination of the negotiation progress (Richardson, 1999).


Theories of Question Negotiation


Robert Taylor's 1967 report “Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries” was one of the first to look at the initial reference question as “a description of an area of doubt in which the question is open-ended, negotiable and dynamic” (Taylor, 1971, p.37). Taylor suggested that the ambiguity of the initial question could be navigated by running the inquiry through five “filters” or five steps a librarian can take to solidify the patron’s need.


These steps are:


  1. Determination of subject
  2. (determination of) Objective and Motivation
  3. Personal characteristics of inquirer
  4. Relationship of inquiry description to file organization
  5. (determination of) Anticipated or acceptable answers (to the patron) (Taylor, 1971, p.183).


Taylor also identified four types of patron needs, ranging from the actual, but unexpressed need for information visceral need) to a more complex formalized need (the compromised need) (Taylor, 1971).


Future studies built upon and critiqued Taylor’s model. Scholar Marilyn Domas White outlined a model that utilized Taylor’s filters with a greater emphasis on the importance of a holistic analysis of the reference interview; “analysis based solely on the verbal content of interviews are problematic because they miss the inferred steps which take place behind these frames” ( Peterson,1997, 27). White encourages librarians to consider the structure, coherence, length and pace of a reference interview when they are negotiating a patron’s question.


The introduction of the Internet into many public libraries has yielded a greater interest in digital reference services and the changing structure of question negotiation in the digital realm. Joseph E. Straw (2000) notes a number of differences between face-to-face question negotiations and distance negotiations. Positive differences include access to a wider range of inquirers via the Internet and the lack of conventional boundaries like time and space. However in digital negotiation librarians lose “user's verbal, nonverbal, and visual cues” that indicate a patron’s satisfaction with the negotiation (Straw, 2000, section III, para. 1). Joseph James and Joanne Silverstein (2003) also note that the quality of question negotiation in online reference can vary with type of technology used by the library; it comes down to what technological tools are accessible by both librarian and patron. Therefore, the literature on digital question negotiation continues to evolve alongside the advancement of digital services.




Problems in Question Negotiation


Other studies have located particular problems in the question-negotiation process. M.J. Lynch’s 1978 study found that only 49% of inquiries were being negotiated by reference librarians, although the reason for this was not easily determined (Peterson, 1997). Lisa C. Peterson (1997) notes that a number of studies in the 1980’s discovered that a large percentage of patrons’ questions were answered incorrectly. P Hernon and C.R. McClure even created a phrase for this phenomenon; the “55 percent rule”, so named for the percentage of accuracy in reference interviews (Peterson, 1997, 29).




Ultimately, the goal of Question-Negotiation is met when “the reference librarian achieves clarification of the informational need” (Richardson,1995,130). Although many scholars suggest that the negotiation progress be structured in some form, there is also a recognition that each reference review is unique and difficult to predict. Thus Question Negotiation is a dynamic progress informed by both personal experience and theoretical insight.






James, J., & Silverstein, J. (2003). Question negotiation and the technical environment D Lib Magazine, 9(2). Retrieved November 18 2006, from http://www.dlib.org/dlib/february03/janes/02janes.html


Katz, B., Fraley, R., Rothstein, S., Farley, J., Broderick, D., & Clarke, J., et al. (1982). Ethics and reference services. Reference Librarian, (4), 1-164. bibliog.


Peterson, L. C. (Spring/Fall 1997). Effective question negotiation in the reference interview. Current Studies in Librarianship, 21(1 and 2), 22.


Richardson, J. V. (1995). Knowledge-based systems for general reference work: Applications, problems and progress. San Diego: Academic Press.


Richardson, J. V. (1999). Understanding the reference transaction: A systems analysis perspective. College and Research Libraries, 60(3), 211-222.


Ross, C. S., Nilsen, K., & Dewdney, P. (2002). Conducting the reference interview. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, INC.


Straw, J. E. (2000). A virtual understanding: The reference interview and question negotiation in the digital age. Electronic version. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 39(4), 376-9. Retrieved October 12, 2006, from HW Wilson database.


Taylor, R. S. (1971). Question negotiation and information seeking in libraries. In A. W. Elias (Ed.), (pp. 36-55) American Society for Information Science.




Jennifer S. Masunaga

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