The Reference Singularity

Last week, I was at my favorite watering hole with a group of my fellow librarians enjoying an evening of beer and socializing. During this gathering, Pete Bromberg was telling me about his upcoming presentation at ALA Annual, the RUSA President’s program “For the Love of Reference”. When I got home, I looked up the write-up in the online preliminary program. This passage caught my eye:

We want to explore the twin appeals of information discovery and serving users that drive the devotion to reference and readers’ advisory work.

I have written about reference before in terms out how the interviews could possibly be measured (and maybe re-labeling reference service as an “information concierge”), but I had not really considered examining the interaction itself and the implications of all of the possible outcomes. When I start to turn this idea over in my head, something really caught me. Imagine the reference interaction as this: an intersection of time and space in which you (as the librarian) have the ability to influence the resulting experience.

From the moment of inquiry, it presents a vast array of potential outcomes. We tend to think of these results in a binary fashion (the two potential endings of “Yes, we have that/Here is the answer” versus “No, we don’t have that/I cannot provide an answer.”), but the reality of outcome pathways is far more nuanced. The prevailing underlying thought that finding materials or information is good and that the opposite is bad is not just misguided, but completely wrong. I would contend that there is no such thing as a good or bad outcome; there is only good or bad reference (customer) service.

In my mind, good or bad reference experiences do not hinge on the resolution of the inquiry, but on the type of customer service a patron receives. How much does the result matter when the experience was unsavory or unpleasant versus engaging or personable? I don’t think there is much of a stretch required to prove this contention, either. There are examples within our own lives in which the overall experience of the encounter have made us more or less likely to use a service, store, contact, or material. While outcome may have bearing as to whether or not a person uses reference services in the future, I think it is a minor factor in comparison to the impressions formed from the encounter.

Even if we were to take the customer service aspect out of the experience and examine the interaction based all of the potential outcomes, I think that all but the most cynical observer would find the any potential result acceptable. For the inquiries that have their criteria met (in the form of an answer, material, or other solution), the librarian is successful in meeting the stated request. For the inquiries that do not have their criteria met, the librarian play a heavy role influencing the outcome pathways. For example, in a request for an author or book, this is where literature discovery occurs in finding other authors (ones that the patron may not have considered). In a request for research information, it turns into a search for a person or material that can answer beyond the walls of the library or the development of a new search strategy. This is the providence of serendipity, for sometimes in failure there are opportunities created for possibilities previously unknown or unconsidered.

Some might find the concept of serendipity as a convenient answer to those inquiries which are not resolved to the specifications of the patron. I would suggest that it is still an answer, just perhaps not in the form that the patron anticipated. And since all of the answers provided by reference services may not be simple and straightforward as outlined by the inquiry, it is the customer service during the transaction that matters more than the outcome itself.

For me, I know I can’t answer every item that comes across the reference desk. It’s simply not possible. However, the one thing I can control and do for each interaction is make it an exemplary experience. I treat them the way I would want to be treated if I was in their shoes: professional, personable, and completely engaged in their curiosity or need, no matter how big or small. I may not win every round of the reference desk question roulette, but I hope to win the patron over to try again in the future.

And that’s what I love reference.


(The title of the post is a play on the term mechanical singularity, in which the positions of a mechanism or machine results in subsequent behavior being unpredictable. I thought it was appropriate.)

6 thoughts on “The Reference Singularity

  1. I agree with much of what you say here Andy. The experience the community member receives can have more to do with the relationship building (or lack thereof) that happens during the transaction. So even if you don’t get the exact right response (and sometimes there isn’t one or your goal is to get the person moving in the right direction within 5 minutes of arrival – not provide an indepth research response), how you manage the experience is critical.

    But you say:

    In my mind, good or bad reference experiences do not hinge on the resolution of the inquiry, but on the type of customer service a patron receives. How much does the result matter when the experience was unsavory or unpleasant versus engaging or personable?

    Again, agreed, but I’d add to it that the reference experience is often more than just what happens at the reference desk during the transaction. Over at Designing Better Libraries I’ve written about the importance of “totality” or “high fidelity” as being crucial to the library experience. That means that even if you provide amazing customer service at the desk – and then the member goes to the stacks and gets lost – or is frustrated because a needed book isn’t there – or finds the book and then gets treated like crap at another desk or your bathroom is dirty – that is all going to detract from your great reference service. In fact – by the time that person walks out the door they might even have forgotten about you and your great service. So while you are right that it’s important to give a great reference experience – it’s even more crucial to offer a “total” library experience. Of course – that’s much harder to do and requires a more concentrated effort from the staff.

    What else do I think we could do to make it a great experience? Follow up calls. How many libraries are doing that?

    • You’re right in that there are other aspects that can add/detract to the reference interaction. I had limited my post in scope to just that encounter without consideration to the other outside influences before the reference desk. But it is no less important.

      Follow up calls are an interesting suggestion; my gut reaction is the staff time and logistics to make it work on a consistent basis. Coupled with gather people’s phone numbers (I can imagine the myriad of reactions to collecting such data), I think it could work. But to work most effectively for both staff and patron, a call should be sent out only for certain types of inquiries (such as involved research questions). I think that would be time well spent, for those people interested. (I might have to start this as my own experiment.) Email might also suffice.

      What about ‘thank you’ postcards for people who attend programs or use services at the library? While the card may be formulaic, a hand written name or short note would be the right touch.

  2. Andy,
    VERY interesting observation that appears to support my own position that the
    21st Century Library is More: Business-like
    in their approach to delivery of customer (patron) service. “Service Oriented – Customer Service Competitive Advantage: Competitive Business Solutions … What is needed is for us to go above and beyond what our competition is doing.”
    In fact, what is needed, as you point out so well, is for librarians to recognize the value of the customer (patron) interaction in the reference experience, not simply the outcome – answer/no answer. The success of that interaction is measured by whether the customer comes back, or takes their business elsewhere.
    Excellent advice. Thanks.

  3. Great post Andy, and Steven adds an interesting dimension by asking what happens *after* the initial encounter.

    If you’re not familiar with Dr. Marie Radford’s research on the relationship aspects of reference, check it out. Marie’s research reveals that there is a disconnect between how librarians judge the success of a reference interview, and how customers judge the success of a reference interaction. Librarians traditionally judge based on whether the question was “completely answered.” Customers however are much more likely to judge the interaction successful if they had a positive interaction–regardless of whether their question was completely answered.

    For starters, see and the abstract at: I’m sure you can find more on this–you’re a librarian 🙂

    My own reference theory (and the topic of the book I have to write some day) is that we’re not giving out information; we’re giving out little bits of love. Ok, maybe not a book–but my next blog! 🙂

  4. Pingback: ALA 2010 Post Game « Agnostic, Maybe

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