When I went through my library & information science graduate program, I took the required reference classes and I learned the basics of how to conduct a reference interview. The idea behind a reference interview is pretty simple:
People don’t always know how to ask for what they really need.
We all frequently struggle to voice our needs properly—we say things badly, misunderstand ourselves, head down misleading paths, etc. Also, library patrons often aren’t aware of all the options and resources that are available to meet their needs—but they usually think they know what the best option is, and so come in asking for something specific without realizing that there may be much better resources for them.
When it comes to digital library services, the issue tends to be that patrons don’t understand how these systems work, aren’t fully aware of what they can and can’t do, so when a service doesn’t behave the way they expect it to, they assume that it’s broken.
As librarians, it’s our job to connect our patrons to the best resources to answer their needs. The purpose of the reference interview is to make sure we know what their need really is, so we can find the best resources for them, or teach them how to get the most out of the services we provide.