Reference Je Ne Sais Quoi

There was a thread on the Library Society of the World Friendfeed today that got me thinking this evening while I was driving around the area. Molly Westerman was asking for materials in regards to reference and instruction for her new job. (By the way, congratulations on getting the job, Molly!) While I stand by my initial answer to her about going into an environment ‘Bear Grylls style’ with only your training and thus avoiding certain predetermined expectations as to what to expect from the reference desk, my second thoughts on her question have lead me in a different direction.

It is my belief that one of the aspects that separates a good reference librarian from a great reference librarian is the ability to make the patron feel like they have the librarian’s undivided attention. It’s the sense that they have the full focus and engagement of the librarian at that particular point in time. I’d relate it to a first date; you want to know that the person across the table is in the present with you, not checking out other people, more interested in the menu than your small talk, or otherwise thinking about work or things they need to buy on the way home that night. It’s the ability to convey this social focus from one person to the next, whether they are asking whether a book or movie is checked in or trying to get help on a complicated genealogy or educational assignment.

A simplistic explanation would be to make the person feel special in the interaction, but I feel that it sidesteps the purpose of encounter which is to make that brief yet total social connection with the patron. I realize that there are limiting factors to such an aspect (not all question require such intense engagement nor is it always feasible when balancing a busy reference desk), but I believe that as a service occupation it represents one of the best qualities of a reference librarian.

People come to the library for all sorts of assistance. This reference je ne sais quoi is what turns a good reference interaction into a great one by giving the person what they hope for: full and undivided attention for the inquiry that they bring. It is this type of engagement between the staff and patrons that foster the relationships that will bolster the library in the coming years. I wouldn’t say that someone couldn’t learn to do it, but for some it would take more effort than others. However, I’d say it is a highly recommended skill to acquire for anyone at the reference desk.

5 thoughts on “Reference Je Ne Sais Quoi

  1. Thinking of some experiences I’ve had at library desks lately, I’d say the je ne sais quoi can at least be triangulated…

    * Do more than the minimum. Like yesterday, I was picking up a hold, and I have more books than usual out right now, so I asked if there was a limit to how many books I could check out. She said yes: 150. O_o <– my reaction. She could've just been matter-of-fact, but she joined me in the O_o. This wasn't a question that required intense engagement — literally a one-word answer! — but she still brought some rapport to the table. Similarly, when I picked up part two of a two-book series recently, and the librarian was all excited about book one, and we talked about how great it was while she checked the book out to me.

    * Don't, for heaven's sake, slight my request. Like back in May, when I was graduating, right after finals week, I wanted something trashy to read. And the librarians were all, oh, I wouldn't know anything about that kind of book. I mean, they tried to answer my question, but they were very clear that they weren’t the sort of people who would read that sort of thing. And you know what? Neither am I most of the time and yet, screw you.

    • Great points, Andromeda! There is a certain bonus to doing a little theater with reference. A little banter on my part helps smooth over the search process if I’m having trouble finding it on the computer. And, yes, treating each inquiry with importance is an excellent point. Even if it is some Harlequin bodice ripper. :)

  2. This is an important skill for all librarians – for all customer service people – for all people! (alright I’m getting a little carried away.) I think about my interactions in libraries (other than my own) and in customer service situations and attention and the appearance of your query as a priority are key. The best staff members in my library are those who have an ability to connect with the public. Even if they cannot fully satisfy the request of the person, that person knows they have given the request full attention, have not made a judgement on the relative importance of it and have given it their best shot. That person will come back.
    I know there is a tendency, in public service library situations, to mentally construct invisible walls around you; you are in an open public space nearly all the time and this exercise allows you to function on your tasks. But, those walls have to immediately disappear when another person appears.
    Another hard skill to obtain is explaining (for the skillionth time) some basic procedure or policy or fact with a fresh approach. I once observed a staff member (granted, a library assistant, because, surely a librarian would never do such a thing!) issue a new library card to an older woman and babble an entire string of do’s and don’ts. After he was done, I noticed her puzzled look and asked “Do you have any questions, ma’am?” and she said “I didn’t understand a single word he just said to me”.

    • Agreed, Cindy! Your second story reminds of another lesson: don’t speak libraryese to the patrons! Don’t toss around terms that are understood by you but perhaps not by the public in general. For myself, I tend to do that with the term ILL; so e patrons get confused by it since they think any borrowing from other libraries is ILL (my library is part of a system with multiple locations). So it can get a bit mired when I say that we could try borrowing from other libraries. Take the terminology out and get the parsimony in!

  3. I very much agree that giving the customer your focussed attention is essential. I sometimes have as many as 4 phone lines and up to 10 people lined up to ask me questions, and focussing on the person who is next in line can be VERY hard, but I struggle to do so, even as I have to pick up the phone (to keep it from ringing endlessly) to tell the caller that he has about 15 people in line ahead of him. I think library school should have a course in juggling multiple customers/mobs waiting for help.

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