Reference: Life on the Desk

(If I write a memoir, I’m using that as the title. -A)

One part of my new job duties is collection development and one of the sections that I cover is the true crime area. This past weekend I was thinking of the David Simon book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets”, which was the inspiration for two excellent TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. I only got part of the way through the book; I stopped reading it because I got caught up in other things and found it hard to pick up again.

One of the things I remember from the book is the “Homicide Lexicon”, a detective created set of informal rules that apply to murder investigations. I started to think about a Reference Lexicon, a set of informal rules that apply to most reference transactions. Here’s what I would say are the rules and why.

1. Patrons are (sometimes) wrong. They can be wrong about the title, author, actor, musician, where they saw it, what the cover looks like, and any other detail that might be helpful.

Human memory is a tricky thing. Human thinking is a mess as well. I once had a person swear up and down that the book they were looking for was called ‘The Maids’ and it had a certain cover to it; as it turned out, it was ‘The Help’ and looked nothing like that. I tend to take what people say at face value, but the higher their degree of certainty about specific details is when I can’t find anything tends to throw up a red flag now. I’ve been proven wrong on this, but that’s a tiny number compared finding the right results that have completely different characteristics.

2. A question is asked once, but it can takes many searches to find an answer.

When someone asks me to look up a title for them, my preference is to ask for the title. If the title is very common, then I ask for the author. I check alternate spellings (e.g. Louis vs. Lewis vs. a mispronounced Lois) and ask about what else they remember about the material (such as plot, characters, genre, etc.). From there I head out to the internet or databases like Novelist, depending on the parameters. I also keep Rule 1 in mind.

3. The initial few reference interview questions are the most critical to an efficient interaction.

Ambiguous subjects require some follow up questions to figure out where you are going. Do they want birds as pets, birds as animals species, or birds in mythology? The first few questions are vital to narrowing it down to the right circumstances. Don’t assume, just ask.

4. Sick people with colds, flu, and other communicable diseases will cough, sneeze, and touch everything on the desk. Healthy people will make little or no contact.

Unless someone is really icky, I don’t generally feel the need to sanitize my hands after someone sick is at the reference desk. I like to imagine that I’m building up a more robust immune system that will allow me to survive the world’s next plague. I’ve had people cough on their library cards when they were handing them to me, sneeze on the desk, and touch every single pamphlet, flyer, and other publicity material before putting it back. If you can’t handle germs or get easily grossed out, then a service desk is not in your future.

5. It’s good to be good; it’s better to be lucky; it’s even better when it becomes a part of you.

It’s one thing to be familiar with a genre, topic, or series because it’s a personal interest. It’s another thing to be able to make an educated guess on what people are asking for based on hunches. It’s still yet another thing when you can answer a question on a subject to which you have no personal interest because you remember it from a previous reference interaction that you had six months ago. People might disagree on this one, but I have found that being able to accurately retain and recall things from previous reference interactions is an invaluable skill. It saves time and it makes you look like a genius and/or freak. Personally, I’m just lucky that my brain is built for this kind of trivia.

6. Every person who needs help will have a certain look to them, but they may not come up to the desk and ask.

Sometimes it will be obvious, other times it will not, but getting a feel for it comes with time and practice. It may mean getting up from the desk and approaching the person to ask if they need help. Even if they don’t, they will be thankful that you asked (with a tiny percentage being annoyed, but forget about them). They might even ask you a question unrelated to what they are looking for at the library. It doesn’t hurt to ask and it can be the best customer service. And it’s nice to stretch your legs every now and again.

7. First, check Amazon. Then check WorldCat. Then check Google.

You can swap the first two based on personal preferences, but they are excellent resources for identifying materials that are not in your collection. They also provide all the details necessary for an interlibrary loan request. If they don’t have what you are looking for, then Google becomes the search of last resort. Good luck. *makes the sign of the cross*

8. When you don’t think the library owns something, it will be the only result in your search as well as being checked-in on the shelf. When you are certain that the library owns something, it will take multiple searches to find it and the all of the copies will be checked out/on hold/missing/lost/in mending.

Pretty self explanatory. It’s a bit of Murphy’s Law at work.

9. To a patron, all searches are easy. The more straightforward they thing their request is, the easier they think it is. Finding a patron who appreciates the size of the collection (be it 10,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000 items) is a rare feat.

Perhaps this is why people question what a librarian does; all they see is that I type a bunch of things into a computer and come up with an answer. It’s partially true since there isn’t much magic involved in knowing subject headings and being able to type words into a search box. As the most visual part of the job, it’s not hard to see why people don’t recognize it as a skill.

Where the magic happens is translating the gobbledygook of their request into actual results. Yes, there are a number of easy ones (“I want the next Alex Cross novel” isn’t rocket science), but getting to the root of research requests and connecting them to the right information is the magic of librarianship. I’ll put it another way: anyone can draw a duck; but if they want a drawing that looks like a real life duck, they can go to an artist and hire them to draw it. Librarians are the artists of information; people can certainly do their own research but this is our livelihood, profession, and passion.

10. There is such a thing as the perfect reference interview. It’s a skill, an art, and it can be mastered.

For me, the perfect reference interview is the one that makes someone’s day. It doesn’t have to be important or big, but just right to make them leave feeling good. It means I have them more than they expected, whether it is materials, information, time, and/or patience. The last two can overshadow all others because it shows a level of care and concern that translates at the human level. Many people cross through our lives on a daily basis, but how many of those people give us a sincere kind word? It’s a small act but it can change a life. Making someone’s day at the desk is my idea of a perfect reference interview outcome.


What do you think?

A Reference Dilemma

A few months back, I was doing my shift at the reference desk when this gentleman approached me with a question for which helping him has kept me pondering to this day. He asked me for assistance in locating a program that he had heard about which gave free cell phones to low income people. I had never heard of such a program and offered to show him how to do an online search in the course of trying to find this program. (Sometimes people want to learn how to find it themselves online, so I always make that offer when it is appropriate.) He agreed and off we went to the library computer he was using.

In typing out what we knew into a Google search, he had enough information to get the website he was looking at the top of the results list. However, in glancing down the rest of the list, I couldn’t help but notice that they were all websites which proclaimed the program as a scam, rip-off, and other terms that fired off alarms in my head. I pointed out these other results and told him that he might want to do some research before giving any information to this program. He ignored me, clicking on that dubious program’s website, and then started searching the visually intense welcome screen for the sign up link. When I repeated my concerns in extremely unambiguous terms, he looked at me and gave me a reply that I will paraphrase:

“I don’t care. I just want a phone. I don’t have anything, so what can they can they steal from me?”

At this point, I walked away. It was clear that he had made up his mind and was going to sign up for this program even if it wasn’t clear as to whether it really existed, how it worked, or what problems other people had with it. To this extent, at the time I decided that I wasn’t going to help him any further because I could not do so with a clear conscience. Since that day, it’s been one of those puzzlers to me as to where my fiduciary duty begins and ends (or if it even exists), the limits to which people can be helped or stopped from putting themselves in harm’s way, and what my role is as a public librarian as it relates to educating people about the information, resources, and materials that fall into this grey category.

Personally, I’ve subscribed to the idea that personal responsibility plays a major role in terms of information seeking behaviors. I want to leave it up to the individual in placing as few restrictions or obstacles as possible on people using library resources, no matter what I or other people think of their inquiries. It is none of my business nor my judgments and I try to keep it that way.

In terms of controversial online access, I am bound by policy to shut down access to pornography when discovered (and the law when it comes to child pornography or exposing minors to pornography), but no such bureaucratic or legal requirements when it comes to depictions of violence. I do have leeway in terms of discretion for computer use, but it seems internally incoherent to me that someone who is watching two people have sex gets automatically shut down while another watching a video of a mujahidin fighter slitting the throat of captured Russian soldier during the Soviet-Afghanistan war yields a “You’re making people uncomfortable, please stop” style of conversation.

Back to the issue at hand, I wonder at whether it was my place to stop someone from doing something that set off danger bells. Suppose instead that he wasn’t trying to sign up for a free cell phone, but was signing up for cancer treatments. Instead of going with his doctor’s advice, he was going to sign up for a program that yielded the same search results calling it a fraud and a scam. Do I stop him then? Do I refuse to let him use the computer? Do I refuse to give him further assistance? Do I beg and plead for him to do more research before giving his personal information?

Where is the line?

I would reckon that this would make a good class discussion for an MLS class, but I’m wondering how other reference librarians think about this situation. I felt that I did the right thing that day, but it’s the days afterward that having me wondering. What do you think?

Can You Ever Use the Phrase “I Don’t Know”?

There was a conversation at my workplace the other day that I want to pose as a question to my readership: should a librarian ever use the phrase “I don’t know” when trying to help a library member? My position is that the phrase can be used only with a qualifier; as in, that there is a solution, advice, or suggestion as to know to find out. (For example, “I don’t know but I know someone to ask” or “I don’t know but there might be a database that has an answer”.) Only rarely that the phrase be used without additional content and only in a situation where you don’t know and you don’t even know where to begin to search. Considering the existence of impossible reference questions (insert your own experience being asked one here), I think it is a very human admission and puts you in a sympathetic position with the questioner.

The other position in the conversation was that the phrase should never be uttered, period. Any other phrase that segues into searching should be used (“Let me check on that”, etc.) but never an admission of a lack of knowledge. The idea (as I saw it) is to focus the library member on that fact that you are working to find out the answer rather than a lack of personal knowledge. (I’m probably not explaining this as well, but since it’s not my side of the argument, I’m not terribly obligated to do so.)

What do you think? Can you ever use the phrase “I don’t know”?  Have you ever said it?

[Addendum: I asked my friends on the Library Society of the World Friendfeed this question earlier. You can see their responses here.]

I, Reference Robot

Last week, the computer named Watson took on two of Jeopardy’s all time champions in a two day match. Developed by IBM, the computer was designed with the intent of attempting to respond the unique “answer first” trivia format of the show. It trounced the human opponents on both nights of the challenge and not by small margins either. And with its win, it raised the possibilities of what the computer could do in the next generation.

I was rather surprised at the muted reaction of the librarian blogosphere. With the exception of a post at Henderson Valley Eggs, there wasn’t any sort of commentary. Given the glimpse of capability that the computer like Watson represents, I would have hoped that there would be a bit more excitement about the possible library applications. While Watson is probably not ready for prime time at the reference desk (due to how the program was deconstructing the clues), I could not help but marvel at the potential.

My excitement in getting a computer like Watson in the library is having a tool that can handle known requests (as in “I want Cross Fire by James Patterson” or “What books on biology do you have?”), some harder requests ("I want the movie that came out last year with Stallone in it” or “Can you tell me what order the Lillian Jackson Braun books came out in?”), or just requests that require deep scanning (“It’s a book with a red bicycle on the cover and it’s about an aunt’s suicide”). I’m not sure that the computer would be able to handle all types of requests, but I think on a long enough timeline it would be able to handle complex speech. (I’m trying to imagine if it had Google’s voice recognition data that it gathered from its Goog-4-1-1 information access number; now that would be pretty awesome.) But, in the meantime, I don’t believe there would be shortage of questions it could answer. Think IM, text, and chat questions; it runs a search, shows it to a human operator who approves or corrects, then the reply is sent. The turnaround for easy questions could be under a minute; corrections or harder answers could be not much more.

As I called it a tool, I don’t see it as a replacement for any library staff. As such, I can see it freeing up staff so as they can be able to offer more programs, services, or be able to have time for additional librarian work both at and away from the desk. It’s a great technology and I would hope that one of the future challenges that would Watson’s programmers would take up would be trying to handle reference style questions. For those who may balk at a computer with this kind of capability, I personally feel that it is an inevitable technology; as such, rather than shunning it, it should be embraced and integrated as soon as possible.

I’ve linked the library scene from The Time Machine below as an idea of future capability (even if the hologram needs some serious customer service training).

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.

Reference Desk Reverence?

In my own experience (and somewhat amplified by the Master’s Degree posts (first, second), there is a mystique that is lent to the reference desk like no other place in the library (save for closed stacks, the final mystery of the library world). It is the sacred space for the librarian immortals and perhaps the paraprofessional demigods who prove themselves worthy of its station. From behind this lauded furniture, answers are dispensed to all who seek wisdom within the walls of the library. It is the desk of last resort for those who continue to question, the deliverer of information redemption, and start of many journeys into discovery. To hear some of my peers talk about the reference desk, you would think that the desk was made of wood cut down by God, carved by Jesus, and blessed by his library apostles, Dewey and Ranganathan.

Ok, that was a bit of enjoyable hyperbole, but for me, I really don’t see the reference desk is such a lofty position. Sorry folks, but while the desk is a good central point for people to come to for questions, I’m in the camp that believes the following things about the reference desk:

  1. It creates a unnecessary barrier to patron-staff interactions (some of these desks are not the most approachable);
  2. It creates a refuge for librarians who, rather than get up and walk around and see about helping patrons in the library, sit on their butts;
  3. It represents an older ideology in librarian thought regarding the passive role of the librarian out on the floor
  4. And it is a bunch of dead space that could be utilized for another set of chairs or table, sometimes in front of outdated reference material (not a great image boost there), and is sometimes aesthetically displeasing.

Now that I’ve dumped my opinion about this, what’s your take on the reference desk? Keep? Dispose? Or evolve into something else?

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.)