Module 1: Real Information Needs

Providing answers to unasked questions

Why Is It Difficult for Patrons to Express Real Information Needs?

If the patron’s first question is often just a way to find out if you are approachable or reflects a lack of understanding of what your library has to offer, will the next question reveal the real need?

Perhaps not. Many people have difficulty recognizing that information will help, what information is needed, how to find it, or how to apply it once they have it. The ability to identify, find and use needed or wanted information is information literacy, and many people who use your library are not information literate.

There are many other reasons why a patron might not be capable of expressing a real need or be uncomfortable doing so. Consider how difficult it is to discuss a serious personal problem with a complete stranger, perhaps with very little privacy, or to ask questions that make you feel silly for not knowing the answers already. If a question is difficult to share in person, how difficult is it for a patron to put it in email or on the web?

Steps in Discovering the Real Information Need

One reason patrons may not express their information need is that the request may be of a highly personal nature, perhaps a medical or legal problem, and the patron may be embarrassed to share it, or simply feel that it’s none of your business. On the other hand, the patron may consider a question for recreation or entertainment “unworthy” and not serious enough to ask for help.

To do that, you need to be tactful to convey the idea that your job requires you to discover a person’s information need following RUSA guidelines. Try to communicate the idea that the more information you have, the better job you can do in getting the patron the material that will be the most help. To do that, you need to:

  • Be approachable
  • Make the patron feel comfortable
  • Be sensitive. You may need to go with the patron to a quiet place away from other patrons
  • Assure confidentiality of remote reference. Let patrons know the measures taken to ensure confidentiality for virtual reference

Even when patrons are not reluctant to share their questions, they may be poorly equipped to articulate their requests for several reasons:

  • Education Level
  • Physical Limitations
  • Lack of understanding of the English language
  • Lack of knowledge of subject
  • Lack of skills or resources necessary to participate in virtual reference services.

Major Point: People Often Don’t Clearly Express Their Real Information Needs.


Answer the following questions about your library. If you don’t know the answers, ask your supervisor or reference staff.

  1. Is it possible to allow some privacy for working with a patron with a very personal question?
  2. What do you do, or see others doing, to make patrons feel comfortable when working to find answers to information needs?