things i heard at the library: an occasional series: # 9, or why this new librarian found the reference desk a little scary

In this post, I described doing reference as "a bit scary," and Impudent Strumpet asked why.

I started to write an answer, ran out of time, then found myself on my first real shift at the reference desk!

During my training and orientation weeks, I did two half-shifts at the desk during non-busy hours - a second chair, so to speak, when there is normally only one person working. But this week I had my first proper evening shift, during peak hours.

It is also exam week for high schools, so every available space in the entire library is filled with groups of teenagers studying (or not studying, as the case may be). The library actually opens up meeting rooms to accommodate them all.

So I did it: I got through my first real reference shift, and I really enjoyed it.

* * * *

But first, why reference is scary.

In the general sense, it's scary because I take the job seriously and want to do well. As a page and a circulation clerk, I observed library staff doing reference every day, and I've seen skills from the truly excellent to the truly awful. I want to use those role models, both positive and negative. I want to give customers good service and good information.

Specifically, doing reference is not necessarily intuitive. It's a learned skill. Customers often can't or don't articulate their real information needs. In other words, what they ask for is often not what they want. If you simply listen to their question, then march off to get a book, or start typing in the catalogue, chances are high that you will not find what they need, because you haven't yet established what that need is.

Instead, you must engage with the customers. You must perform a "reference interview," where you ask pointed, specific, open-ended questions, to discover what the customer is looking for. There are very specific ways of doing this that work beautifully, and a whole lot of ways that work very poorly.

Plus, the reference interview alone is not enough. There's a whole set of customer-service behaviours that go should surround it: appearing approachable in facial expression and body language, showing interest in the customer's question, giving your answer in plain, non-jargon words, taking the customer to the resource they need, or, if you're sending them elsewhere, calling ahead to that branch or department, and following up when you can.

I know all this very well, and in much greater depth than I can write about here. But I know it in theory, not in practice. There are so many things to remember, and when it's busy, I have a tendency to feel pressured and rush. That's a pitfall I must always be conscious of and work against (on every job I've ever held). No one is actually pressuring me, the pressure is entirely internal. I must remember to take a breath, take the extra few moments to do the job correctly. I don't want to rush customer A to get to customer B - that's unfair, and it provides poor service.

So, there are many pieces to put together. I want to get into good habits. I want to do a good job, for the customer, for our department, and for myself.

* * * *

On my first true reference shift in the Central Children's Library, here are some of the questions I was asked, and here's what I did.

From a mom: Do you have any books to help children learn how to use the toilet?

We have lots of great books on toilet training, but none of them were on our shelves at that moment. I took the customer's card, found five or six books in the system, and put them on hold for her.

This reference interview involved asking... Does she want books to read together with her child? Is it a boy or girl? (Many of the potty books are gendered.) Would she like me to put some books on hold for her? Where would she like to pick them up, here at our library, or is there another location that's more convenient?

From a girl, probable age 11: I want some good books to read over the summer.

This involved asking... What kinds of books she likes to read? What are some of the books she has read and enjoyed? To my delight, she said, "I like adventure stories, also animals. Animal adventures. None of that princess stuff!"

We went to the stacks together and I gave her several choices. As I selected them, she told me her brother read and loved those same books. I asked, and learned that he's an older brother, and she's excited to read what he liked. So my choices had the stamp of approval!

It turned out she didn't have her library card with her. So I wrote down all the titles, and suggested she come back soon with the list. She left very happy! I also used the opportunity to promote Summer Reading Club, so hopefully I'll see her again.

From a boy, probable age 7: When is Summer Reading Club? I heard about it at my school! (That's from our department doing outreach! Yay us!)

From a mom: Do you have any books on how to teach children what to do, for parents on how to teach?

This woman spoke very little English, and had trouble expressing her needs. After asking several questions, I thought she wanted books on parenting - although she was not familiar with the word. I wrote down the general call number for parenting books, and suggested she go to a different floor and ask at the desk there.

From a newcomer family - a mom, dad, and three children, including a baby - at the library for the first time: We are new here. What do we do? What do you have for our children?

This is a very typical question in our department, and a hugely important one. I gave them a newsletter with all our children's programming, showing them how to find programs at our branch. I showed them how to log on to the catalogue from home; they were thrilled with this. I found some Star Wars books for one of their boys. I gave them a list of all our branch libraries, which has the opening hours and a map, and explained that they can use any branch at any time. And later I found another Star Wars book and brought it over to them. They were very happy.

* * * *

In addition: I gave out puzzles for parents to do with their kids, gave out headphones for the computer, gave out many program schedules, and answered many questions about Summer Reading Club. I took a brother and sister to where Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries would be if there were any copies the shelf, and told them, to their great joy, that we were expecting many new copies for the summer. And every so often, I did a walkabout to see if anyone needed help and to check on the teen groups.

When the closing announcement came on, there were still more than 50 people in our department. There are always a few stragglers who stay until the last minute, but that night, we could have used a crowbar to get some of the teens out of their chairs.

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