Streamlining General Reference

I’d like to make yet another proposal on the ways in which a general reference librarian can be helpful to students. First, however, I’d like to point out how difficult it must be to work as a reference librarian.

As a reference librarian, people approach you out to the blue and ask all sorts of questions, questions on which they may have thought quite a lot about before and you not at all, or at least not just then. In order to count a reference consultation as a success, it’s not enough that you have tried, that you were courteous, that you’re a nice person who went to school for a lot of years to now be doing what you’re doing. No, to do a successful reference consultation, you actually have to solve the person’s problem. He’s not there to talk to you about the weather, chat up fun but unresolvable riddles, or even to discuss all the inefficiencies in the library system that makes it difficult to do what he wants to do. He has a specific problem, to which there may be more than one right answers, but certainly a lot of wrong ones. He needs to solve that problem, and it’s not enough for the reference librarian to say, “Try this. This may work (even though I don’t know exactly how myself).”

To be a successful reference librarian, you have to make the person’s time with you worthwhile. This means that if he spends 15 minutes talking to you, then to just break even, you have to deliver at least as much results as he would’ve been able to achieve if he has spent that 15 minutes thinking about the problem on his own, doing various trials-and-errors, or whatever else. To do more than break even, to actually give people a reason to come to you when they have a problem requires reference librarians to do much more.

People fear the unknown, and as a reference librarian, you have to assuage that fear, to lower the barrier to information-seeking as much as possible. To tell somebody to, say, try using EndNote when you haven’t used it yourself doesn’t lower that barrier. To be simply talking about EndNote is less effective than actually pulling it up on the screen and walking through an example of how to use it. As far as possible, “try this” should be accompanied by a reference librarian actually trying whatever it is out with the student.

Of course, no reference librarian, however good at his job, can know everything. In fact, by definition, general reference librarians know a little bit about a lot of things but do not have specialized knowledge in any particular subject. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean they can’t still do a tremendous amount of good. A general reference librarian can work a lot like a general physician/family doctor. He can quickly assess whether the problem is within his expertise to resolve. If it is not, he can streamline the process so that the person can see a specialist as soon as possible. This means the general reference librarian doesn’t just hand out a subject specialist’s business card and say, “you should contact this person”. Studies have shown that that doing just a little bit more than simply telling people to do something makes a tremendous difference in whether they actually do it. If instead of handing somebody a business card and leaving it up to them to make an appointment to see the subject specialist, a reference librarian actually makes an appointment for them, so that the person is much like a  patient leaving doctors’ offices with a follow-up appointment already scheduled, then the person is much more likely to actually see the person with the expertise to help him.

At the limit, I envision general reference working along these lines: a person approaches the front-line, general reference librarian. Instead of then trying to most obvious things to help the person with his problem*, the reference librarian directs his effort to figuring out whether the person has already tried the most obvious things. If he has, and was not able to resolve his problem by doing so, then the problem is probably of an advance nature.

The most crucial thing the general reference can do at this point is to decide, relatively quickly, if he can solve the problem — solve, not just take a tentative step in the right direction — if he spends more time with the person. If not, then a system should be in place to slot this person in with a specialist who can do just that. (An e-calendar, and dedicated office hours by subject specialists should be the two primary ingredients of such a system.) This has the further advantage that the reference librarian can notify the subject specialist of the specifics of the reference issue, so the specialist can work on the problem ahead of time. This way when the person arrives to his appointment, the specialist has “already done his homework”, so to speak, and would not be in the same difficult position that the reference librarian continually finds himself in. Whatever the decision, within the first 5-10 minutes with a reference librarian, a person should be confident that he is going to leave the reference consultation with either a) a clear, step-by-step idea of what to do, or b) an appointment with somebody who will get him to a).

(*The general reference librarian should not, unless the person has not done it himself, perform the most obvious steps. Seeing a librarian do that when one has already done so is extremely frustrating. It consumes a lot of time, and the outcome is that the librarian runs into the same problems one has previously encountered. Furthermore, it conveys the message that the librarian must think that one is rather clueless and must have done something wrong even with the obvious first steps. Unless one is actually clueless, this isn’t going to be helpful.)

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