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.