Open-Ended Questions

The inquiry phase is your opportunity to learn more about the patron's request--to conduct a conversation that will give you the information you need to answer the question.

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You can ask open-ended questions, which will allow a patron to respond in his or her own words, expanding on the initial request with more information. Alternatively, you can ask closed questions, which require a short answer--often "yes or no" or a choice from two or three options.

Examples of closed questions are: "Are you writing a paper for school?" and "Do you need this for a trip you are planning?" These questions will not get you much closer to the patron's real need. You feel as if you have to keep guessing what the patron is doing. If you offer choices, the patron may choose one of them, even if that choice isn't what is needed. They may be trying to be agreeable or may think the choices represent all that is available. When you offer leading questions, you are putting words in your patron's mouth and asking him or her to pick one of your choices. If you have not guessed right, you may never find out the real question.

It's much more efficient to invite the patron to talk to you about their information need by asking an open-ended question such as, "What kind of information on ______ are you looking for?" Such a question, which requires more than a "yes" or "no" answer, is also known as probing--digging beneath the initial request to determine the real information needed.

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Using open-ended questions also saves you from having to know about the topic. You have to know something about a subject in order to ask a leading question. With open-ended questions, you don't have to know anything about the subject. You just need to ask a question like, "Can you tell me more about that?"

Cartoon of a scrambled mess of question marks.

Some other examples of open-ended questions are:

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