Revamping Reference

Our profession has known for a long time that the traditional reference model is flawed. Constance Mellon coined the term library anxiety in 1986, reporting that students literally felt shame when approaching librarians for help. Yikes. That’s a strong feeling, one we don’t want librarians to evoke.

Nonetheless, the typical effort to improve the reference user experience has been meager. While many of us have been through customer sensitivity training, reminding people about how they should behave is no replacement for strategic hiring practices and considered design. Even genuinely friendly and caring librarians will be approached less if they’re hidden behind the typical imposing and unfriendly reference desk. The library literature is filled with articles about roving reference, yet at the majority of libraries I visit I still find reference librarians sitting behind hulking desks peering into computer screens, essentially ignoring what’s going on around them.

Prized possessions
Of course, big desks that create an antagonistic dynamic aren’t the only problem; people conducting research in libraries are less mobile than they once were. Not only do they have their papers, library items, and a coffee carefully positioned, they also often have a laptop, a phone, and a music device on display as well. While it’s one thing to leave a pile of index cards unattended, it’s a much riskier proposition to abandon an expensive piece of hardware.

Reference librarians can help these anchored folks by doing what they should be doing for all library patrons: finding them when they need help. Why don’t they?

The hard sell
Some librarians are afraid that pro­active reference is bothersome to patrons—too aggressive, a crass retail approach. If done badly, it can be all of those things. Quality reference work takes more than just being able to construct a complicated Boolean search; it takes social intelligence, too. Just the way librarians develop a command of information resources, they should also develop a greater understanding of people. Though some people are naturals, it is possible to develop the skills it takes to know whether a patron wants to be approached and how to engage a variety of patrons.

Some librarians also think an emphasis on collaboration diminishes the librarian’s expertise. However, every good interaction already features a collaborative reference interview. We should embrace this, and our furniture should support it.

Experiment with alternatives
Reference desks don’t have to be antagonistic. Boomerang-shaped desks with a computer monitor and an easily shared keyboard between two chairs set the stage for a collaborative interaction. Folding patrons into the research process acknowledges their contribution. This respectful gesture—and the other ways to consciously consider your reference setup—can ameliorate library anxiety and foster an engaging experience.

With the easy-to-use mobile computing options now available, roving reference makes more sense than ever. I spoke with Katherine Penner (Univ. of Manitoba’s Dafoe Lib.) and Martha Flotten (Multnomah Cty. Lib. [MCL]) about how they’ve experimented with Apple iPhones and iPads to deliver ­reference.

Flotten reports that they’re answering different types of questions away from the reference desk and that “librarians have mind-blowing reference tran­sactions weekly,” as when one MCL librarian was able to engage a patron deeply by putting her in charge of navigating library resources through an iPhone. Penner notes that their mobile reference project has changed the way students communicate with librarians: they’re now more comfortable approaching librarians in the stacks. These devices signal cultural relevance, and we shouldn’t ignore the benefits of using tools that impress patrons.

Designing reference service
There’s no need for your library to rob reference librarians of their desks immediately. Instead, first examine your current reference service. How did it get the way it is? Was it deliberately designed, or just the result of a series of small default decisions? Next, determine what sorts of information needs your patrons have. What do they want to know? What’s the best way for them to get help? You’ll probably find that you’re doing some stuff right and that there are things you could improve.

Brainstorm some solutions and make a plan to try out the most promising ideas. In this prototyping phase, ask people to get comfortable and learn about the new things they’re trying before they pass judgment. Afterward, everyone should report back, determine what worked/what didn’t, and put the good stuff into practice. Finally, consider these same questions anew in a few months, in light of what you’ve learned, and keep innovating.

This first appeared in my LJ column The User Experience.

Conversation Request: Non-Traditional Reference Service

Hey, I need some help.

I’d like to talk with a few folks that have experimented with and/or have implemented non-traditional reference scenarios for a LJ column I’m writing.

Let me know if you have experience with doing away with reference desks, roving reference, or merged service points. Or let me know if you know of libraries doing this stuff well.

Leave a comment or mail me at [email protected]

First Impressions and Rethinking Restroom Questions

From an editorial in RUSQ:

Put yourself on the other side of the desk and rethink why someone might be asking a particular question. In the case of questions such as “where’s the restroom?” most likely the person has never been in the building before. Yes, you’ve answered the question a bazillion times, but most people only ask the question on their first visit. Despite many efforts to the contrary, we are still fighting librarian stereotypes of cantankerous old ladies who shush people. Here is a golden opportunity to make a positive first impression, be welcoming, and influence a new person about the helpfulness of library staff. These interactions, in turn, affect the eagerness of visitors to return in the future.

Patrons frequently ask for directions even when the person they are asking is standing right next to a sign that gives the answer. Clearly, some people prefer to ask a human being rather than take the time to read building signs. Habits of people in a new environment often include asking directional questions first because they are less threatening. If they do okay, and feel comfortable, they work their way up to more complicated questions later on. Directional questions may seem mundane, but they can be the first step toward answering future needs and instilling confidence in the person asking the question.

It took some restraint to not copy and paste the entire thing. Go read First Impressions and Rethinking Restroom Questions by Lorraine J. Pellack.

Everything we do in libraries adds up to form the overall experience we give people. Pellack makes the case for treating even small interpersonal interactions with care not only for their own sake, but because of possible underlying importance.

via Stephen Francoeur

librarian call buttons

One of the things we’re doing in the class I’m teaching right now for the iSchool at the University of Washington is reconsidering how libraries do Reference work. I asked students to brainstorm about the topic and thought this idea from Lianne Ho was pretty neat. I’d link to her class blog but it is behind UW authentication.

What about the service expectations at places like restaurants? Restaurant patrons don’t just prefer to be approached by the wait staff–they expect it! Especially in more formal establishments, it’s expected that wait staff will monitor patrons to provide immediate or even preemptive service (ex. refilling water glasses before they’re empty).

Some establishments (generally more casual ones) have the equivalent of an attendant call button at tables. Patrons will signal that they need something and (ideally) someone will come by within a minute or two.

I’m intrigued with the idea of using a similar model at the library. What if there was a way for patrons to page the librarian and get near-immediate assistance where they are? Perhaps there could be an icon on the computer desktop, for patrons who need assistance at one of the workstations. There could also be “call” buttons at the end of the stacks.

new blog: No Shelf Required

Do you have a list of people you wish would blog about what they’re doing in their libraries? Sue Polenka, Head of Reference at Wright State University’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Library was on my such list. She emailed to tell me I can erase her name. She’s started a blog called No Shelf Required. She calls it a “moderated discussion of the issues surrounding eBooks, for librarians and publishers.”

I hope that Sue fills us in on the eBook scene at her library because I understand that she’s transformed their reference collection and increased library usage. I also wouldn’t mind if she got a bit off topic and told us about how the library has been called a “hero” by students because of their gaming events. And they’re way into IM. Yay.

Thanks, Sue!

library gameshow!

Scott Jeffries, Reference Librarian at Dallas Baptist University writes,

For four afternoons in November, the Dallas Baptist University Vance Memorial Library hosted their Are You As Smart As A Freshman? event. Patterned after the popular game show Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?, this event had 2nd-4th year students competing for prizes by answering questions that university freshman should be familiar with. They were able to use a panel of Freshmen as part of their “lifelines” as well as one of the library’s reference librarians …The intent of the event was to raise awareness of the library and its resources and to offer a fun outlet for students within the library’s facilities.

Gaming in libraries does not just mean video/computer games! Nice work!

what is this houseplant (and how do I not kill it)?

In my presentations I like to say that people using social software sites like to do library type work for fun. LibraryThing might be the most glaring example of this, but there’s also AskMe. And there’s organizing and adding metadata on del.icio.ius and flickr.

Speaking of flickr, I’ve now another example. There’s a group called ID Please in which members post all sorts of insects, plants and animals for others to identify. Birders I know might like it.

I’d love to see a report on the accuracy and speed of things identified by the ID Please group and Reference Librarians. Fair comparison? Who would you bet on?