Module 3: Telephone and Email Reference

Model behaviors and approachability on the telephone or by email.

The Telephone Reference Transaction

Many users find it convenient, even imperative, to contact the library by phone rather than in person. Phone reference requires special skills and presents special problems:

  • You can’t see your patron’s facial expressions, and they can’t see yours.
  • The telephone distorts words, so it’s easier to make mistakes in hearing.
  • You can’t see who your patron is, so don’t assume the kind or level of information wanted. You need to ask.
  • You may feel under more time pressure if patrons become restless waiting for a reply because they can’t see what you’re doing.
  • Model Reference Behaviors and standard reference interview practice still apply!
    • Use open-ended questions and clarify when necessary
    • Verify or repeat the question back to the patron

Telephone Reference Interview Process

  • Always have reference forms or scrap paper and a pencil ready (or prepare to type if you prefer that format).
  • As soon as you pick up the receiver, focus your attention on the caller. Do not continue a conversation with someone else.
  • Identify your library and/or branch clearly.
  • Your initial greeting sets the tone for the rest of the interview. Let your voice show that you are confident and willing to help.
  • Put warmth and friendliness in your voice. Callers cannot see you smile, but they can hear it reflected in your voice.
  • Speak clearly and articulate. Rapid speech may translate to curtness.
  • Use simple, straightforward language and avoid library jargon.
  • If a patron gives their name, write it down phonetically and try to use it in the conversation.
  • If you must leave the telephone:
    • Put the patron on hold if you can. This respects the privacy of other patrons’ conversations in the library. Let the patron know so they don’t think they have been cut off.
    • Warn the patron if you plan to leave the phone for more than a few minutes. Three minutes can seem like an eternity when you’re listening to dead phone silence.
    • When you return to the phone, alert the patron by saying, “Sir” or “Ma’am,” or simply an interrogative “Hello?” to recapture their attention.
  • Giving the Answer
    • Start by saying, “I have it here when you are ready” or something similar
    • Offer to spell difficult words or names and check to make sure the patron heard what you said using “Did you get that?” or “Would you like me to repeat that?”
    • Always identify the source of the information first: title and date are necessary for the patron to evaluate the currency and accuracy of the information
    • Use a standard follow-up question to end the interview, such as “Does that completely answer your question?”
      If you DO NOT have the answer:

      • Do not panic!
      • Offer to refer the question to a source outside of your library
      • Never let a question drop because you can’t find an answer right away
      • If a patron has time to wait, offer to call back after working on it further

The Email Reference Transaction

When you can’t see the user, can’t use your voice to convey meaning, and are putting answers in writing, special care is required!.

Recommended Policies and Procedures

A well-defined email reference policy is critical. Pertinent parts of the policy should be made clear to patrons, both in the library and on the website, so that they will know what to expect. When establishing library policies for email, consider the following tips:

  • Make sure your emails have a generic address that patrons can send information and responses back to the email. No one person should be the “email librarian” unless your library has assigned this service to a specific staff person.
  • Create an effective email reference form that prompts the patron to give you the five pieces of evidence needed for a complete reference interview.
  • It is helpful if the form requests email address, telephone, and mailing address in case you need to contact the patron for more information or send information that will not fit in one email response.
  • Give your patrons clear directions and expectations for turnaround time and the type of answer and materials that are available.
  • State whether the documents will be sent electronically, by mail, or if the patron must pick them up in the library.
  • Create a Frequently Asked Questions section for patrons so they can get information on what to expect from the service and how to use the service effectively.

Tips for Email Responses

  • Check email responses for consistency when multiple librarians work on different emails to ensure patrons are being served equally.
  • Use clear and descriptive subject line entries.
  • Begin with a greeting to the user, and identify the sender.
  • Library jargon and abbreviations should be avoided (e.g. ILL or ADA).
  • Spell out dates and commonly used words, avoiding web acronyms such as BTW or IMHO.
  • Provide complete citations for both print and Internet resources.
  • Set off titles, URL’s, etc. on lines by themselves to make them stand out.
  • Avoid using capital letters unnecessarily.
  • Keep instructions simple and easy to follow.
  • Check your responses carefully for spelling and other errors, and make sure they are complete and understandable.
  • If possible, identify the librarian who worked on a specific request with initials or another coding system, but do not use full names.

Setting the Tone for Emails

In email communication the patron cannot hear your tone of voice or see your facial expressions.

  • The tone of emails should be more business than personal, depending on the patron.
  • Remarks that may be witty or appropriate in person or even over the telephone can easily be mistaken in email.
  • Don’t write anything that you would not want forwarded to a third party.

Major Point: For telephone and email reference, use your voice or words to smile, emphasize the reference interview behaviors, and speak or write clearly.


  1. What is your library’s policy/procedure for telephone reference, callbacks, priority of in-person versus phone patrons, or other telephone situations?
  2. Does your library use email for reference and/or as follow-up for other forms of reference? What are the guidelines? Are privacy and confidentiality covered in the guidelines?
  3. Look at the policies or guidelines, observe what others do. Have you ever called or emailed your own library with a reference question? This can be a very enlightening experience. You can also have a friend or family member call you at the library with a question and ask them if they can easily understand you.