Our library has gotten rid of much of the reference collection, which simply wasn’t being used. We also took some titles we thought were too useful to discard and put them in our circulating collection. The jury is still out on those newly-circulating books. But occasionally I can get patrons to give the reference collection a try.
Today, I had a woman ask for major events in American history that happened between 1955 & 1965. She just wanted to browse a list quickly. I could have went to google and typed her request in word-for-word. I could have found a reputable website that has a list of these events. But I took her straight to the reference shelves instead.
We have a series called “American Decades.” It lists major events & their dates. Then it breaks down into categories like the arts or health & medicine, and lists headlines, people and more. It was a PERFECT match!
Lesson: Even if your reference collection is looking dusty and lonely, never underestimate its power to have the right information at the right time.
Two young adults came into the library today looking for the oldest book we own. Cool question! They were doing a scavenger hunt put together by friends and family. How was I going to find what they were looking for?
I started by searching our staff side of the OPAC. I know there’s a way to do an item record search and limit by publication date. Using this method, I searched for books with a publication date earlier than 1850. The oldest book in that results list is Pere Goirot and Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac, published in 1834.
That got me thinking, though. What about the Bible or other prominent religious texts? What about Shakespeare or Homer? They were written well before 1834, but all of our editions in the library were published after 1834. And the only way I can search the catalog is by published date.
Can we even put an exact date on when some of these older classics like The Odyssey were first published? Maybe when the Gutenberg printing press was first invented. But what about a handwritten copy of a classic? That is surely a book just as much as a printed copy is. Now I’ve sunk myself deep into questions of “What defines a book?”, “Who wrote the first book?”, “Who printed the first book?”, “Does the true ‘first’ book even exist any longer or has it been eaten away by insects?” and so on. This bamboo book is gorgeous.Wax tablets were used by the Romans. Even little kids know about papyrus, which was first produced about 2,300 years ago. Once I start googling, I find I know very little about the history of books and their production. As a librarian, a steward of books and an advocate of reading, I am a little embarrassed for myself. I’ll have to find a book to learn more about it….
In Library Journal‘s June 1st issue, Aaron Schmidt makes an interesting proposition in his article “Focus on People, Not Tools.” So much talk in LibraryLand these days is about social networks, 3-D printers, and any kind of technology trend that we can glom on to.
But what’s happened to our connection with the community? We need to be talking not just about the technology that goes into maker-spaces, but WHY maker spaces are needed in our towns and neighborhoods and how the products being made at maker spaces are positively affecting our lives.
Also, I would personally like to see more articles about customer service best practices. We are in the service industry and we need to make good customer service a priority if people are going to return to our buildings again and again. I still see too many librarians and library staff acting like it’s such a drag to be helping people. Come on now, that’s what working in a library is all about! Stop your bellyaching and act like you care about what book that guy should read next, or the articles that college student needs to find for a paper. I know our work is not always exciting or glamorous, but that’s not why I got into this business. And yes, I understand that there are those patrons who call in for phone numbers constantly or have eccentricities that we’ve come to know and “love.” They deserve our patience and best service too. Those are the best people to practice excellent customer service on because the harder interactions will build your tolerance and resilience. In any service industry, there will be people who push your buttons or rub you the wrong way. It will never go away. So we have to build skills that will help us cope and strengthen our commitment to help, no matter the question, no matter the person.
Some jobs require quick thinking. Air traffic controller. ER doctor. Improv actor. They have to be great at thinking quickly and intelligently, or they are out of a job.
Librarians need quick thinking too. People want answers to questions, and they want it NOW! I got a little experience thinking on my feet when I did homework that involved practice reference transactions. I would pair up with another student and we’d practice answering questions on the spot using only free internet resources.
Now that I’m working in a public library answering questions all day, I find myself wanting to jump to conclusions or habitually only looking in certain places. My quick thinking may not suffice in the end, though, and someone leaves dissatisfied or still looking for an answer that suits their needs.
Naturally, I’ve been aware of my interactions with patrons because I’m new at this. And I really like helping people so I want to get better at it. Slowly, I’ve been collecting tips and tricks from my fellow librarians who know much more than I do. The full-time cataloger who has a few shifts at the reference desk has been extremely helpful with giving me new ways to search the catalog to find books. It’s already improved my response time tremendously. I also walk around the stacks or click around on the library’s website to get acquainted with the massive amount of information we have access to. I think another great exercise would be to give myself random questions and see how fast I could answer them.
Here’s some questions I’ve gotten lately that had my brain sputtering:
- What are the side effects or dangers of zeolite?
- I searched online for this “zeolite.” My first reaction to the “side effects” part was that they should consult their physician. We are not in the business of giving health advice. When the patron heard this, they were immediately discouraged and ended the interaction. After searching the internet some more, I found some basic info on the Sloan Kettering website that could have been useful to them without breaking the “no medical advice” rule.
- Do you have any audio books about math?
- Hmm. This was a hard one because there just wasn’t anything to fill his need. I showed him some audio books in which math was mentioned as a smaller topic within a broader science context. I did use the tips I learned from the cataloger to make my catalog search more precise.
- Which Kennedy had an annulment?
- I guess this one was hard because she kept saying that it was Robert Kennedy and it was actually Joseph Kennedy II. Sometimes people think they have their facts right but they don’t always. A Google search for “Kennedy annulment” did the trick. But I got stuck because of her prejudgment about who had the annulment.
- I need some easy listening music CDs.
- We don’t have an easy listening category in our music CD collection. I know this used to be a category when browsing in some CD stores back in the day (I remember those days….). So I had to give suggestions, like jazz or classical. Sorry, dude!
I love this infographic about how to use search operators in Google to get the best results. Some of these strategies I knew about; some I didn’t. The tilde (~) and asterisk (*) are my two new favorites.
Originally posted by Hack College under a Creative Commons license.
What’s the best way to answer a reference question by email?
Luckily I was well prepared to do this today because of my previous experience answering reference questions submitted through the Internet Public Library website as part of my virtual reference class. Here’s the formula I followed:
- Greeting – Say hello and use the person’s name if you know it. Makes the transaction more personal.
- Reiterate the question being asked
- Give an answer – Use simple steps, URL links, screen capture images, anything else to make the patron’s job easier to find the information they are looking for.
- Describe how you found the answer – This is your change to have a teaching moment and show the patron how they could find the answer next time on their own. You’d be surprised how grateful people are when you go this extra mile.
- Provide follow-up help – Let the patron know that they can always come back for more help if they have any questions or if the answer wasn’t quite what they were looking for. Give contact information, again to make it easier for the patron.
- Say goodbye – It’s nice to give a goodbye greeting to make the email transaction more personal.
I came away with some questions after answering my first email at the USciences reference desk. We discussed many of these ideas in my virtual reference class but I am still trying to find satisfying answers.
- How much information is TOO much information for an answer? At what point will the patron stop reading your email answer? When it is too long? Filled with too much jargon? Not formatted in a readable way?
- Can this question even be answered properly through email? Or do you need to suggest a phone/in-person meeting to discuss the answer/information need? What’s the best way to go about that?
- How can you tell if the patron is asking for what they really need? Reference librarians know that most patrons don’t ask for what they want right away. You have to ask them questions to get to the root of their need. With email, it’s hard to ask the patron for clarification, especially when the patron may never respond back.
Librarians – what kinds of concerns/questions do you have about email reference?
After starting my first shift ever at the reference desk at J.W. England Library, University of the Sciences, I got a reference question in the first 5 minutes. That was fast!
Her initial question was about if we had access to an article. After some back and forth, we determined that article wasn’t exactly what her professor was looking for. It was a news article and not a scholarly journal article. So her initial question turned into a different problem that we needed to solve.
Now she needed to go back into the CINAHL and the Cochrane Databases but she had received very little results from her first search or results that weren’t relelvant. Her problem was that she was using very specific keywords, which worked for some databases but not so great for others, and didn’t revise her search strategy when the results were poor.
I showed her several ways she could expand her search–by using synonyms and wildcards, looking at subject headings of relevant articles, and limiting her results by date or subject.
She left the desk satisfied. It was my first official success at the reference desk as a newly-minted librarian!