6 Jul 2012

Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time – Tim Buckley Owen (Review)

That Tim Buckley Owen’s classic text Success at the Enquiry Desk has been reincarnated as Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time, is perhaps reflective of the shift away from face-to-face reference encounters, towards handling remote queries. It is thus particularly welcome that this latest 6th edition embraces these new and emerging challenges so wholeheartedly.

The book primarily addresses the issues and practicalities involved in the various stages of the reference query process, from introducing readers to basic questioning strategies and techniques, through to the factors to consider when presenting and packaging the final information product to users. Owen structures his approach around the simple yet effective tenet of “imagining the final answer”, illustrating how by identifying the ultimate purpose of the information, it will help to clarify the detail, complexity and nature of the answer required. In this respect the author emphasises the crucial need for staff to be cognisant of the often covert differences between users and their needs (hobbyist versus practitioner; a researcher compared to a student), in analysing the context of the query.

As one of the primary changes to this latest edition, Owen outlines the unique challenges presented by juggling remote queries. Service quality has become increasingly important due to the minimal effort involved for the user in resubmitting a query to an alternative service or source if they are dissatisfied with the quality of your answer. Remote queries are also typically more labour intensive, as you can’t simply show your customer a selection of suitable print titles or search results for them to browse by themselves. Instead, you are solely responsible for filtering the information effectively, and distilling it into the key answer that your user needs. However, perhaps the most salient emerging issue that reference staff must be mindful of is the growing expectation that 24/7 web and online technologies, including social media, imply that a 24/7 reference service is also available. Reorienting user expectations in this respect is a tricky challenge.

Thankfully the book also includes some useful suggestions and strategies for those occasions when you can’t find an answer or are running out of time to deal with a query, to help turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one. Owen includes one which I tend to use frequently in practice myself, that is, providing “a compromise answer” when you are unable to source the exact information required (e.g. try to source an alternative article on the same topic if you can’t source the particular one the individual is looking for).

As a relatively slim ‘one-stop’ solution, the book is perhaps best suited to those with little or no experience in the reference field, particularly prospective or current LIS students or very recent graduates. The breadth of contexts that the book manages to cover, suggests that it may also be of particular value in the public library setting where the range of queries faced by reference staff is potentially infinite. More experienced professionals, or those working solely within a narrow discipline or subject area, may need to consult a more advanced or specialised text if seeking an in-depth treatment of search strategies or detailed guidance on subject-specific resources. Successful Enquiry Answering is essentially a book about reference skills and not reference sources, yet this is not a shortcoming. As readers won't get weighed down by lengthy lists of books and websites, and instead can quickly grasp the skills they need to help them do their job more effectively, it results in a much more valuable proposition for the majority of needs.

Successful Enquiry Answering Every Time by Tim Buckley Owen is published by Facet, June 2012; 176pp; paperback; 978-1-85604-811-8; £39.95


  1. Great review, Michelle. Indeed, in many cases library users seek instant gratification when interacting with reference staff (not matter what the question may be). I have learnt that "setting the scene" from the outset helps immensely. That is, a rational explanation as to what can be "instantly" sorted/provided/fixed (whether it'd be through IM or face-to-face etc.)helps all parties involved.

  2. Thanks Alex. Yes I agree - managing expectations from the very beginning is a handy skill to have :)