Module 4: Asking Experts and Providing Referrals

What do you do when an answer is not in the library’s collection?


Who Knows The Answer?

When beginning to work on a reference question, it is often more efficient and productive to ask yourself who might know the answer, rather than what book or site contains the answer. Remember, your job is to meet the patron’s information need in whatever way works best, which may mean putting a patron in touch with a knowledgeable individual. Don’t be afraid to cultivate local experts and call on them for help.

How Can You Locate Local Experts?

  • You can use your own knowledge and contacts to identify people who can help
  • Be alert to the patrons. You will come to know their strengths and areas of expertise
  • Other staff often know the community and patrons well
  • An online directory or Chamber of Commerce website may help you identify people working in various fields. Have a question on jewelry? Try a jewelry store
  • Databases (such as ReferenceUSA) can list local or regional specialty stores and agencies
  • Ask others for referrals. Even if people you know can’t help, they may know of someone who can
  • Read your local newspaper. Links may be provided to local experts via the paper’s online presence
  • If you’ve exhausted all other possibilities, perhaps a colleague on a library listserv, forum, wiki, blog, or even a social media group can help
  • Consult a museum, archive, or institute for more esoteric information

Information and Referral Services

Patrons sometimes need the services of groups or agencies (social or health issues, for example), and successful search strategies may include providing the patron with information about the group or agency that can provide needed assistance. Helping put patrons in contact with the best agency for their needs is the roles of “Information and Referral” (I&R). Libraries often use or even compile directories of social service agencies, indexed by category or accessible with keywords online.

A complex need, such as assisting a son or daughter with understanding a medical procedure that a parent has undergone, may be met by a combination of things, including:

  • Referrals to local agencies or support groups.
  • Books on coping with brain injury.
  • Articles in magazines.
  • Films on how to care for a disabled person.
  • Relevant Internet sites, online communities, or topical blogs.

Providing Referrals in Virtual Reference

Referrals in virtual reference work similarly to in-person referrals.

Major Point: Patrons often have needs that books alone will not meet and may  need the services of special groups or agencies. It is often more efficient and productive to ask yourself ‘who knows the answer?’ rather than what books or sites contain the answer.


  1. Which of the four resources you’ve been working with has information on the population of your town, your county, or the state?
  2. Is there someone in your library or in your community who would have this information?