Building people skills at the reference desk

I’ve been working shifts at the central reference desk at the University of Illinois Main Library for nearly a year and half now, and it’s occurred to me recently that the ways in which I approach interactions with patrons has changed substantially over that time. Prior to staffing the reference desk, I had already worked for a year in the library’s digital scholarship center, the Scholarly Commons, and so I had some experience providing reference service in that capacity. But the shifts at the main reference desk seemed like a whole different animal. In a lot of ways they are, while in others, they are not. The most obvious difference between the service desks is the breadth of questions we receive from patrons. At the reference desk, we receive questions of all kinds, from where the nearest restroom is (probably the most common inquiry!), to requests for specialized research support in a discipline the existence of which I was previously unaware. However, as I noted, there are some similarities, most notably, the fact that reference interview and people skills lie at the heart of most interactions.

This brings me to my central point, over the course of my year and half at the reference desk, I’ve noticed a dramatic improvement not only in my reference interview skills, but in my people skills in general. During my first shifts at the desk, I felt really nervous anytime a patron approached. Would I be able to answer their question? Would I even comprehend their question? Was I going to do such a poor job serving them that they give up on ever using the library again, and tell all of their friends to stay away as well?

Fortunately, none of these fears have come to pass, and even when I haven’t been able to answer a patron’s question, they are usually grateful for my efforts to try to do so, and I can at least usually point them towards a resource that may help them. This points to one of the key lessons for me with regards to serving patrons – putting in a sincere effort goes a long way. Patrons can tell when we are trying to help them, and they usually appreciate it a great deal. When you think about it, this makes sense. Where, but at a library, can you go ask a complete stranger an in-depth question about an esoteric topic and receive a warm smile and a, “Sure, I’d be happy to help you with that,” in response.

Working the reference desk has also helped me become A LOT more comfortable using the phone. Like many people, my personal phone is more  of a text messaging device than a means of voice communication nowadays, but we still get a lot of phone calls at the library. This was pretty intimidating to me in my early days at the desk, as I get nervous using the phone to call pretty much anyone other than my closest family members. Perhaps some of you can relate to the experience of calling someone you don’t know that well, and secretly hoping they don’t answer. Yeah, that was so me.

The phone is still, by no means, my favorite way to interact with people from the desk, but my heart rate no longer increases when I hear it ring. Furthermore, some of my most challenging interactions with patrons have come via the telephone, and successfully navigating those has really increased my confidence when answering the phone day to day, or when I need to make an outgoing call to check on some information, or to try to refer a patron to a better resource elsewhere in the library.

I realize that I’m really fortunate in being able to acquire these experiences during library school, as they have come through my assistantship at the University Library rather than through school itself. So, I’m curious about how these skills could be taught within the library school curriculum. I’m skeptical that role-playing types of exercises will really do the trick, but I’m not sure what other options there are. Perhaps my this is just further evidence of the importance of getting some kind of library-related work experience while in school.

One final note. I think librarianship is a profession that tends to attract introverts. I don’t have any numbers to back this up, but I would not be at all surprised if that’s true. I’m certainly among those numbers. But writing this post has lead me to stepping back and finding it a bit amusing that such a field is one in which human interaction plays such a central role. And so I think this is evidence that introversion is not about not liking people, or being anti-social. Rather, some introverts have the best people skills around.

Featured image credit: Purchase College Library, CC BY-NC 2.o

Ian Harmon, Consulting Editor, is an MSLIS student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a Graduate Assistant in the Scholarly Commons, the University Library’s digital scholarship center. Prior to entering library school, he earned a PhD in Philosophy at Illinois and taught philosophy at Rice University. Ian is interested in digital humanities and scholarly communication, specifically the ways in which technology impacts research and the dissemination of scholarship. He enjoys teaching, and hopes to work in an academic setting that will allow him to work directly with students and other researchers. Ian is also passionate about the role that libraries serve as central institutions of the public sphere and supporters of the common good. Follow him on twitter @harmoniant.

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