Module 1: Misconceptions

Misconceptions about libraries may prevent patrons from stating real information needs.

Lack of Understanding Limits Questions

Successful reference work requires finding the real information need of an individual, although it’s often not the first question asked. Patrons may ask for what they think the library has rather than what they really need, or they may ask for something easy because they “don’t want to bother you.”

Patrons may also believe that “what you see is what you get” and be unaware of non-book resources or information services such as Interlibrary Loan.

Patrons Want to Help

Patrons usually try to be helpful and they tend to ask questions in a way they think will help you answer them easily. If they can get a book on the subject, they will look it up themselves. This leads to a very common phenomenon — questions that are too broadly stated. Patrons don’t realize that information on any one subject can be found in many different forms (books, websites, magazines, videos, and microfilm) and in many different locations in the library.

Although patrons often ask you for the book on [insert subject here], if you knew the specific question, it might be answered by another source — the World Almanac or a magazine for example.

Libraries Can Be Confusing Places

Patrons may also be confused by the arrangement of the library, reflecting the many different forms of materials. For example, they may not understand the reasons behind separating fiction and nonfiction, setting apart audiovisuals from other materials, or having indexes that only point to other materials. Patrons may be unaware of special collections, online resources to which the library subscribes, or local materials such as pamphlet and map files that aren’t as obviously displayed as books on the shelves, and only ask for what they can see is available.

Difficulties in Virtual Reference Services

Patrons may have difficulties with virtual reference services. They may be confused by the layout of the library website, unsure of what virtual reference really is, unaware of services being offered, or mistrustful of confidentiality when using virtual reference services. Patrons may also be unwilling to admit needing a little help using the remote technology or in locating quality websites.

Major Point: Patrons don’t realize how libraries are organized and shouldn’t have to when asking questions!


  1. If you were looking for information about your town, how many different places in your library could you find that information? “Places” can be departments, special collections, fiction, non-fiction, A/V material, online material, etc.
  2. Do you think a new library user would think of all the places? How about a regular library user?