Competency I: use service concepts, principles, and techniques to connect individuals or groups with accurate, relevant, and appropriate information.
In early days, I tried not to give librarians any trouble, which was where I made my primary mistake. Librarians like to be given trouble; they exist for it, they are geared to it. For the location of a mislaid volume, an uncatalogued item, your good librarian has a ferret’s nose. Give her a scent and she jumps the leash, her eye bright with battle.
– Catherine Drinker Bowen
There are a number of things to consider when providing reference services, such as the context of the question, how thorough they want the answer to be, the speed in which they want the question answered, and what stage they are at in their information search process. Some prominent theories about the information search process is discussed in Competency J, and understanding how people search for information helps to improve reference services.
It is difficult to provide information assistance to people if patrons are reluctant to approach the reference desk. Some of it may be simply be a case of perception or library anxiety. If a librarian is working on other tasks while waiting for people to ask questions, this can make the the librarian look too busy. People generally don’t want to interrupt people who look busy. As Michel Atlas said, the most common phrases people say when approaching the reference desk are along the lines of, “I’m sorry to bother you…” (p. 316). One way to counteract this is by not doing any work at all while staffing the desk–but that is not a tenable course of action. Budgets and time must be spent wisely. It is important for people who staff the reference desk to be aware, look up, and greet people who approach the desk.
Another useful tactic to counteract the peoples’ reluctance to seek out help is to provide roving reference. In this model, librarians go to where the people are–in the bookstacks. Tablet devices, most particularly the iPad, have made roving reference a more viable means of providing assistance on the go without needing to locate an empty computer in order to bring up the appropriate websites to find information (Lotts & Graves, 2011).
Once librarians make contact with someone who needs assistance, they should make sure they understand the question properly by conducting a reference interview. Often, people aren’t sure how to state their question, or even exactly what they’re looking for. Asking questions helps librarians to figure out where to begin the search. It also helps to determine how much information the person wants. He or she may want only a “good enough” answer, in which case, taking a long time to find the perfect answer only serves to frustrate the information seeker. On the other hand, if the person wants the perfect answer, finding a “good enough ” answer gives the impression that the librarian doesn’t know anything or isn’t very helpful.
The Search Process
While searching for information, it is beneficial to explain the search process to the person. By pointing out useful databases, explaining how to choose keywords, and detailing some of the useful tips and tricks, librarians can help the information seeker feel more empowered. By empowering the person, it often helps to reduce library anxiety.
Finally, the reference transaction should end with some sort of follow-up, depending on the situation. The follow-up could be asking if the information seeker has any other questions, sending an email with additional resources, or simply stating that they are more than welcome to email, call, or return to the reference desk for additional assistance.
The reference transaction can present ethical dilemmas. While librarians are ethically bound to set aside personal beliefs in order to provide information without bias, they also must discern whether the person truly means to do harm to themselves or to others. Should librarians provide information about suicides to a psychologically distraught person, or should they instead focus on helping the person contact a suicide hotline? Another hypothetical situation regarding providing bomb-making information was discussed in Competency A.
Catherine Drinker Bowen’s error of not wanting to trouble librarians is extraordinarily common. Even I, after studying library science, still don’t want to intrude on the busy-looking librarians.
While people don’t want to bother the librarians, they are more willing to approach library support staff. I’ve noticed this trend during my years as support staff. Why ask a librarian when one can ask a circulation clerk? And why ask a circulation clerk when one can ask the library page shelving books in the stacks? Somehow not having a physical barrier separating the staff member from library patrons makes it easier for people to approach us staff.
So, when I first worked as a library shelver, people would ask me questions about where to find books simply because I was where they were…in the stacks. At first, I tried to direct them to the librarians, but more often than not the patrons simply continued wandering around the stacks. They did not want to bother the librarians, who looked busy. To counteract this, I began going with them to the librarians and provided the introduction: “Hi ___, this person here is looking for a book about the history of England,” and let the librarians take over from there. Just this simple extra step provided better customer service and helped connect people with information.
This lesson was further expanded after I was promoted and began working at another library where the branch manager encouraged roving reference. I noticed just how many people who normally wander around in the stacks and rarely approached the reference desk, were more willing to approach these roving librarians. Since the branch manager knew I planned to go into library science, she also encouraged me to “rove” the library periodically, and I was able to provide assistance in looking up books’ titles and call numbers.
Even when I wasn’t actually providing in-depth reference services, I still helped people find some information while working behind the circulation counter. I found it especially useful to turn the computer monitor around a little bit to show people step by step how I worked to solve their question. Taking a few extra seconds to explain each step helped to improve library users’ perception of the quality of our customer service.
One aspect of reference services that I did not learn on the job, but rather from my classes, is the importance of exploring various topics, databases, and any other useful sources of information. The more general knowledge one has about a wide variety of topics, and the more aware one is about databases, the more confident one is when providing reference services. We don’t need to know everything about everything, but it’s useful to explore so we knowwhere to find the answer to everything.
Since LibGuides are a popular way to create pathfinders on any specific subject or broad discipline, I created one of my own in order to understand what goes into creating a LibGuide. The subject of this particular LibGuide is internet memes. The link to the actual LibGuide is here, and will work so long as it is not deleted from the “sandbox.” The pathfinder’s description is provided below, under “Attachments.”
In one class, I practiced answering a wide variety of reference questions using service concepts and techniques I learned. They are provided in two documents. In each document, each question has four parts. Part ‘a’ provides the actual answer, in a conversational manner that I would use, and part ‘b’ gives my rationale for the answer given. I created similar questions and answered them in part ‘c,’ and part ‘d’ gives the approximate time it took to answer the question in part ‘a.’
In an untitled reflective essay, I addressed the ethical dilemmas that can arise from providing reference services.
Seeking reference assistance can seem overwhelming for library users, and the prospect of searching for information can be daunting for reference librarians. However, by taking several proactive steps, reference transactions will go more smoothly for all parties. Library support staff are important when helping users overcome library anxiety. Providing step-by-step explanations about the search process helps to enable library patrons and improve perception of customer service. Finally, librarians are encouraged to explore databases and other resources in order to improve their knowledge base and understand where to find information. This in turn helps them be better able to answer a wide variety of questions.
Atlas, M. (2005). “Library anxiety in the electronic era, or why won’t anybody talk to me anymore?: One librarian’s rant.” Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44(4). Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/20864407
Bowen, C. (1959). Adventures of a Biographer. New York: Little, Brown. Retrieved from: http://www.statelibraryofiowa.org/ld/t-z/tell-library-story/scpt/quotes-about-libraries
Lotts, M., & Graves, S. (2011). “Using the iPad for reference services: Librarians go mobile.” College and Research Libraries News, 72(4). Retrieved from: http://crln.acrl.org/content/72/4/217.full