Communication theory applied to the reference encounter: An analysis of critical incidents

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Dimensions of interpersonal communication perceived to be integral to success or failure in academic reference interactions are identified through the use of the critical incident technique. Forty-seven critical incidents recalled by twenty-seven library users and nine librarians are analyzed from the theoretical perspective of interpersonal communication developed by Paul Watzlawick, Janet Beavin, and Don Jackson. This study is the first to be published that applies the heuristically rich relational theory from the communication field to library interactions. Content and relational dimensions that have an impact on librarian and user critical incidents are identified, such as attitude, relationship quality, information, knowledge base, and approachability. Interpersonal relationships are major themes in incidents recalled by library users. Librarians give relatively more weight to content dimensions dealing with quality of information given but also perceive relationship qualities to be important. The value of applying communication theory to study of the reference interaction is demonstrated. In addition, this research also illustrates the importance of incorporating the user's point of view. Evidence presented argues for a new model of the librarian-user reference interaction that recognizes the vital importance of relational messages that are communicated in the reference encounters along with the information transfered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)123-137
Number of pages15
JournalLibrary Quarterly
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1996
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Library and Information Sciences

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