Reference Interview From Far Away

MLx, aka as the Gadabout Library Trainer, is attending the Alabama Library Association conference.  Now I’m here in Maryland yet I feel as if I’m getting the best out of this conference because she is using Twitter to share some real gems.  Currently she is in the Renewing Your Involvement in the Reference Interview presentation.  Reading her tweets have been great so I thought I’d post some here and include my two cents/my observations as someone who used to work the customer service desk for many years.

#alla09 Tweets from MLx in bold

(my 2 cents follow)

people don’t come to the ref desk because they are uncomfortable or consider the staff ‘unhelpful’

(As someone who worked the circulation [now called customer service desk] for many years I can’t tell you how many times a customer sounded very reluctant to “bother” the librarian – they appeared as busy because they were sitting behind a computer screen.  Found this interesting since the circulation staff stands behind a computer but since they had to come to us to checkout they were able to strike up conversations easier.)

when patrons ask ‘where are the encyclopedias’ they probably don’t need the encyclopedias

(Good point.  People in general use terminology that is comfortable to them or is an euphemism for what they really want.  This is why the interview process of asking open ended questions is vital in helping our customer get what they need.  This is the same no matter which desk you work (circ, children’s, info, etc.).)

Ask how much time the patron has for the ref interview. “Librarians like to look for things, patrons like to find things”

(This goes for the customer service desk as well.  When registering a new customer it is an opportunity to share with them what your library has to offer.  Offer to take them on a tour of your building or walk them to the information desk.  But only after finding out how much time they have.  Don’t assume because they are here they have all the time in the world.  They may only have a few moments before picking up Janie from ___ to get a card and a DVD. Offer them choices – don’t have a lot of time here let me get what you need quickly – have a bit more time let me give you a tour.)

Prof sent ‘secret shoppers’ who were MLS students to libraries in search of ref interviews that lived up to RUSA standards – overall they found many librarians approachable and interested, that they excelled in searching – secret students were exposed to ‘librarian’s disease’ during the ref interview (too much information)

(Again anything applied at the Information desk can be applied to any customer service desk.  Librarians aren’t the only ones to can give too much information.  I’ve seen Circulation staff do the same thing.  Listen to what the customer is saying, ask those probing questions before you respond. )

users believe that if they find the physical location of the type of information that they can find the actual info on their own

(Amen to that.  I’m very much like that.  If I can find the section in any store/business/library than I can usually find what I want.  If I can’t then I ask.)

avoid respond immediately and without clarification to the question unless you’re sure you’ve interpreted correctly

(Goes back to my previous comment Listen to what the customer is saying, ask those probing questions before you respond.)

don’t confuse the user with library jargon during the ref interview

(As a profession we are ALL guilty of this one no matter which desk we work.  Customers don’t know what Circulation is but use terms like checkout, returns, etc.  I love how some libraries are making sure their signage reflects this.  Reminds me of how I describe what tagging in the Web 2.0 world is about.)

The library homepage might be the first step in the ref interview.

(What a fabulous idea!  I really like this and want to explore it with our Public Relations team and our web programmer.)

The most difficult reference interview is when a parent tries to get the info for a child.

(I’ve witnessed this.  Fault can lie on both sides.  Parents mean well and that can leave staff unsure to whom they should direct their questions.  Parents need to butt out.  Library staff need to converse with the person (no matter what the age) that needs or is going to use the information.  Not an easy situation when some parents are very pushy.)

I’m sure this was a great session to attend in person but I got a lot out of it miles and miles away.  Thanks to Twitter and MLx!


2 Responses to Reference Interview From Far Away

  1. Marianne says:

    Beth, it’s so cool that you carried this over to your blog to reflect and remix. 🙂

    I do want to add some thoughts about the library home page becoming a first step in the reference interview customer experience. We’ve just gotten a grant for federated search and users can search (almost) all our electronic databases and catalog from the front page of our site and I’m really interested to see the stats on that in the next few months. It looks as though a bunch of folks are using it, as trainer I’ll need to make sure all the public service staff do, too.

    Also, the talk was beautifully given by Rachel A. Fleming-May, Ph.D., M.L.I.S., Instructor at the School of Library & Information Studies, the University of Alabama.

  2. mlibrarianus says:


    Thanks again for Twittering this. I enjoyed your Tweets. Currently our search box on the library home page links to AquaBrowser and it searches the library catalog, web site, our events with a link to search the electronic databases. People have said that they didn’t like the web site/database links mixed in with the other results. I’d be interested in knowing how that goes over with your customers.

    Thanks for crediting the speaker as I didn’t know who was giving the presentation.

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