7.4 Advisory services

Resource centre staff usually help people find the information they need by discussing their needs with them in a reference interview, and helping them find materials themselves or carrying out a literature search.

7.4.1 Reference interviews

A visitor to the resource centre might say: ‘Can you show me the materials on malaria.’ After discussing the user's needs with them, the resource centre staff might find that the user wants to know about new developments in malaria prevention. The user could then directed to materials specifically about malaria prevention, saving them the need to look at all the materials on malaria.

Some users ask for a specific publication, which they believe is the only one containing the information they need. However, by discussing their needs with them, it might be possible to refer them to a better source of information.

Discussions such as these are often called ‘reference interviews’. They vary in length according to the needs of the user. If a user has a query that will take a lot of time to deal with - for example, if it will require a literature search - it is usually best to book a time (see Section 7.4.2).

Resource centre staff know more about the collection than anyone else and are there to provide guidance. However, it is not practical to spend much time with every user every time they come into the resource centre. People visiting for the first time will require more advice than regular users. Regular users may need help if they are looking for information on a new subject area. Staff will need to ask them what they need the information for, whether they need particular types or formats of information, and how soon they need it.

It is best to direct users to materials that will probably be useful, but encourage them to ask for more help if they need it.

7.4.2 How to carry out a literature search

Literature searches mean searching (looking through) sources such as catalogues, databases, bibliographies, indexes, periodicals, books, newsletters, CD-ROMs, e-mail and the Internet, or contacting other organisations, to locate materials on a particular subject. Literature searches form an important part of an advisory service. It can be useful to show users how to carry out database searches themselves.

To carry out a literature search, it is important to be clear what is needed. Find out from the user:

  • what subject area(s) the material must cover
  • how the information is to be used (for example, training, health education, personal updating)
  • who the material is for (for example, health workers, students, the community)
  • what format is preferred (for example, articles, books, videos)
  • what time-span the material should cover (for example, new material for a newsletter, or both older and new material for a subject overview)
  • how soon the information is required.

Subject areas - Decide what keywords to use to describe the subject (see Section 5.3: Assigning key words). Use these keywords to search the resource centre’s catalogue or database. Use these or similar subject terms to search other bibliographies and indexes.

How the information is to be used - This will affect the type of material that is required. For example:

  • for diagnosing or treating diseases - a handbook plus recent articles
  • to present issues for discussion - videos, articles or a chapter of a book
  • to develop a training course outline - training manuals, workshop materials or curriculum guidelines.

Who the material is for - Knowing this helps staff to know, for example, whether to look for materials written in technical or non-technical language, or whether to look for illustrated materials.

What format is preferred - If the user prefers a particular format, such as books or articles, there is no point spending time looking for materials in other formats. However, if the resource centre holds very useful materials in other formats, it is worth pointing this out. The user might not know that these are available, or might not have thought of using other formats. This is an example of how it helps to include all materials in the same catalogue (see Section 5.4.4: Filing catalogue cards).

What the time-span is - This can help you know what format of materials to search for. If the user wants new information on a subject that they know about, the best sources will be newsletters, journals and current awareness bulletins. If the user needs to learn about a subject that is new to them, the main sources of information will be books and reports.

How soon the information is required - This helps you know which sources of information to search. If the information is needed quickly, you will need to limit the search to materials in the resource centre collection (excluding any on loan), or full text materials available via the Internet. If there is more time, you might be able to order new materials for the resource centre, or borrow materials from another resource centre through an inter-library loan or document delivery service. You could also ask questions on an e-mail discussion list (see Section 6.6: E-mail services).

It is useful to keep a record of literature searches, as this can be used for evaluating the services, updating needs assessment information and developing the collection.

Details of searches could be kept in a notebook. They should include the date, subject area, types of materials used (such as CD-ROM, catalogue, database or reference books), whether the required information was found, and whether the user was referred elsewhere.

TIP: Getting to know the collection
The time and effort spent on advisory services is useful to resource centre staff, as well as users. It helps staff learn about the collection and users’ needs. This is important for updating the collection policy and knowing what information services to offer.

Advisory services also help resource centre staff to review what details need to be included in the resource centre’s catalogues or databases, such as whether materials contain illustrations.

Recording the results of searches can make searching quicker. You could set up a database field (see Section 6.8.2) named ‘Useful for’, listing which materials have been useful for a particular training session, or as source material for a particular publication, or to support a particular health education activity. Next time a similar event takes place, you could do a quick search by seeing what was used the last time, and use the keywords that describe these materials to find any newly added materials that might also be useful.