Module 2: Open-Ended Questions

Reference is a conversation.

Give Patrons a Chance to Tell You

Always give your patrons a chance to tell you what their questions are, rather than telling them what their question ought to be.

Why Use Open Questions?

An open question is one that can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.” If you offer close-ended options, the patron may feel obligated or persuaded to choose one of them.

Using open-ended questions also saves you from having to know about the topic. You have to know something about a subject to begin with to ask a leading question. With open questions, you don’t have to know anything about the subject. You can ask a simple question like, “Can you tell me more about that?”

Example: Close-Ended Question

Patron: “I need information on the state of Michigan.”

Staff Member: “Do you need this for a school report?”

Patron: “No.”

Example: Open-Ended Question

Patron: “I need information on the state of Michigan.”

Staff Member: “Okay. What kind of information on the state of Michigan are you looking for?”

Patron: “Travel books. We’re taking a trip to Mount Pleasant.”

In this example, the open-ended question has given the patron the opportunity to give more specific information on their request, revealing their true information need. The close-ended question leads to a guessing game, which makes the transaction laborious for both of you.

Additional Examples of Ways to Ask an Open-Ended Question:

Following are examples of open-ended questions. Practice using these so you will feel comfortable with them and incorporate them into your reference interactions.

  • What kind of information on ________ are you looking for?
  • Would you tell me more about ___________?
  • Is there something specific about _____________ that you are looking for?
  • Would you explain that to me in more detail?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • What would you like to know about ______________?
  • When you say ____________, what do you mean?
  • Can you describe the kind of information you would like to find?
  • If I could find the perfect resource to help you, what would be in it?

Open Questions in Virtual Reference

These techniques are also valuable in virtual reference. No changes are necessary for interactions with virtual patrons.

Major Point: Open-ended questions are more efficient and effective than closed-ended questions for discovering a patron’s information need.


Give examples of open-ended questions that you could ask in response to the following queries:

  1. I need information on a ’57 Chevy.
  2. Do you have any material on Turkey?
  3. Where’s the small business section?