Reference Observation

Professional resources offer librarians guidelines and direction in providing reference services to patrons.  When speaking directly of reference work, the Reference and User Services Association’s guidelines focus on behavioral performance.  However, Cassell and Hiremath, in their text, provide practical steps for the reference librarian to use to work through the reference interaction with the patron.  Yet, there is an argument to be made that traditional reference work, if it continues to exist in libraries at all, has taken a backseat to other forms of information service in the library.

Seeking to understand the relevance of the suggestions these resources provide, this paper will examine their application in the real-world environment by observing reference work at three library locations.  Location A is a small urban branch of a large, county-wide system serving a mostly urban population.  Location B is a somewhat larger suburban branch of the same system.  Location C is comparable to Location B is size and is situated in an adjacent suburb of the adjacent county, where the library system serves a more rural population overall.  The differences between the reference work provided at these three locations were surprising, especially between the two branches that were part of the same system.  The skills and application of guidelines varied significantly between each.

As stated, Location A served an urban population.  The building was small, old, ornate, and sat well above the street.  A very large and steep staircase provided the first obstacle to the approachability recommended by RUSA.  Upon entering the library, other physical barriers impeded interactions between patrons and the staff behind the desk.  While the semi-circular desk faced the door, the staff sat at each end, facing out into the wings of the building.  This arrangement makes a certain amount of sense, in that the staff is easily observed by patrons in the areas of the room that are in use, and could be directly approached.  However, various tables, shelves, racks, and other items were placed directly in front of the desk, directly in front of each staff member.  This forced patrons to walk around the desk to the unused portion and to approach staff from the side.  This physical arrangement left the impression that staff were busy with other things, and not available for help.

Additionally, there was a second desk behind the first, spanning the room horizontally.  It appeared to be taller than the first, elevating the staff-person who sat behind it, and removing him further from interaction with patrons.  Rather than face outward toward the rear portion of the room, he faced the center of the semi-circle, with his back toward patrons.  This staff person was dressed more professionally, as well, giving the impression that the two before him were clerks, and that he was the “real” librarian, unapproachable without first passing through his staff.

During the observation, there was no reference work performed as defined by RUSA as excluding “formal instruction or exchanges that provide assistance with locations, schedules, equipment, supplies, or policy statements.”  Though the library was busy that morning, with patrons in every quarter of the room and nearly every computer and table in use, only seven interactions between staff and patrons occurred over the course of an hour.  Two of these were simple requests for computer passes, receiving nothing but a physical response from staff, handing the pass to patrons.  There was one request of an interlibrary loan for a book the patron had first sought out herself.  Though the woman who processed the request was friendly, she did not acknowledge the patron until the patron addressed her first.  The next patron to approach her seemed to feel the need to qualify his question.  “I’m not ready to check out.  But this isn’t BluRay.”  To which she simply replied, “It is.”

The next interaction came closest to a reference interview, as a patron sought computer help from the young man behind the desk.  When providing tech help, it can often be useful to categorize an answer, as Cassell and Hiremath recommend for reference questions.  “Sorting an answer into ready reference versus time-consuming is of immense help….Simplicity allows the librarian to think ‘within the box’ and allot relatively little time to finding an answer.”(36-37)  As he approached the computer, the staff person tried to categorize and visualize the answer by asking an open question, “Were you trying to…?” letting his question hang.  This allowed the patron state his need, and allowed the staff person to sort the need as simple or complex.  He then tested the waters, by stating, “You’re going to print.” Another interaction with the young woman required directions to the cookbooks, and included a discussion of planned library renovations and an elevator installation.  Finally, the young man helped a patron pay his fines and check out. Despite the fact that no reference work was performed during this observation, a few reference skills were observed in use with the technology question.  However, on the whole, staff at this library were not approachable and did not express interest while interacting with patrons.

Location B was part of the same system as Location A, but one would not be able to tell.  The library was full and patrons were engaged in their activities.  The staff at the reference desk were older than at Location A and behaved more professionally. They had no problem interrupting their other work to engage with patrons.  When one librarian was busy with a patron, she directed waiting patrons to her coworker. Thirteen interactions occurred throughout this hour-long observation.  Even the simple requests for passes and directional questions were given engaged responses including additional information.  Processes and procedures were explained at length, including several open and closed questions intended to gauge how much information the patron needed to know, beyond what the patron had indicated a desire to know.  These librarians were very approachable, and visible.  They expressed interest in patrons’ needs, and utilized the tools at their disposal to find quick and easy answers to questions such as, “What time does the game start?” (“Today, 1:00 pm, CBS.”)  The only lack of professionalism observed was a lengthy conversation between the two librarians about staffing and management issues at the location and within the library system.  However, as far as patron interaction is concerned, these librarians seemed to take professional recommendations to heart.

Location C was similar to B in many ways, in terms of size and patron population served, and the observation occurred immediately after the one at B.  However, this library was nearly empty.  A steady stream of patrons entered and exited the library, doing most of their business at the circulation desk, asking policy questions, returning books, placing holds, and requesting interlibrary loans.

The information desk sat apart from the circulation desk, in the stacks and near the computers, rather than in front of the door.  Again, no reference or reader’s advisory questions were asked.  Despite sitting directly behind the librarian at the information desk, she spoke so low that her remarks could not be heard.  Two patrons asked for computer assistance.  In the first instance, the patron went on at the length about the issues he was having and what he was trying to do.  During this, the librarian did little more than listen and nod.  She did eventually walk with him to the computer, but did not appear to question or explain as she worked through the problem.

The second request came from a teenage with a tablet.  Again, the patron explained the problem with little-to-no prompting from the librarian.  And when finished talking, the librarian took the tablet from the patron, worked out the problem on her own, then handed it back.  As she worked, her head was down over the tablet, and she did not appear to explain what she was doing.

As there was so little interaction with the reference desk during this hour, I approached and asked a reference question myself.  I wanted to know if there was any place in Indianapolis to watch Asian films.  Though the librarian’s voice was still almost inaudible, she did ask clarifying questions, at first asking, “Are you looking to rent?”  I went on to explain that I’d like to find theaters to watch them in, preferably with English subtitles.  She searched the computer, and though she was unable to find any resources for sure, she was able to refer me to theaters that might be likely to offer the content I was seeking.  She seemed interested in my question, and I walked away more than satisfied with the information I was provided.  Although, I did wish she talked me through her search as she did it, or was able to turn her monitor around so that I could see the results she was seeing.

Although the application of professional guidelines and skillsets varied from location to location, the one thing that seemed to be consistently missing from the interactions was actual reference questions.  Brian Kenny argues that patrons have other needs from libraries and that librarians should just let go of reference as a defining role.  “Clinging to an outdated reference mission has left many libraries struggling to meet these new expectations.”  However, many of the guidelines and skills used for answering reference questions can be applied as well to other roles within the library.  Librarians should be approachable, appear interested and engaged, and listen to patrons needs, no matter what those needs are, whether directing someone to the men’s room or assisting with specialized research.

This fact was most demonstrated by the librarians at location B, where every inquiry was treated with equal importance.  These librarians weren’t simply answering questions, applying guidelines, or fulfilling roles.  They interacted with each patron in a manner which suggested they were there to meet the patron’s needs, whatever those needs might be.  That is the sort of service I hope to provide and skillset I hope to employ when interacting with patrons throughout my career.

Though guidelines and practical advice can help new librarians work through reference interactions, patron needs must always come first.  And when approaching patrons with that mindset, meeting those guidelines, applying that skillset is almost a given.  Despite the lack of actual reference requests in everyday situations, those same skills can be applied across various roles.


Works Cited

Cassell, Kay Ann. Hiremath, Uma. Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century. New York:Neal-Schuman P, 2011. Print.

Kenney, Brian. “Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library.” Publisher’s Weekly. 11 Sept. 2015. Web. 14 Sept. 2015.

RUSA. “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers.” ALA 28 May 2015. Web. 14 Sept. 2015



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