The Reference Interview – Customer Service or Lifelong Community?

Cover Photo by Aubrey Young

I’ve been doing assignments of late that involve me seeking out reference librarians and evaluating them with my inquiries and it’s got me thinking about the placement of libraries in their respective communities and how said librarians are capable of functioning.

Now, not everyone in a library/information/etc science program will ever be at the helm of any sort of reference desk. However, it’s one of the quintessential symbols of librarianship for a reason. I’ve had such poor reference interview experiences during the past two weeks that I believe it best that anyone in the program should stop to think about how they are preparing for this breed of what can essentially be called customer service; but, ideally, is far more than that.

Anyone who has known or knows anyone who has worked in the service industry, whether as a cashier or waitress or cleaning personnel, can tell you what an abysmal time it can be. On that base level, it seems far removed from the hallowed halls of information proficiency and I can imagine many MLIS students are working towards their degree in order to get out of that line of work, so why talk about it?

I do so because what I’ve learned about reference librarian/patron interactions is that the most successful ones do not merely welcome or serve, but connect on such an intrinsic level that the information seeker subconsciously incorporates the library as a communal touchstone that will be visited again: perhaps not soon, perhaps not regularly, but definitely again.

There is a particular part of the reference interview known as the “follow up” that comes at the very end and is the strongest initiator of any sort of long term relationship – it was this step that was majorly passed over in the interviews I conducted. Now, my assignments dictated that I evaluate these based on RUSA guidelines, but I’m more interested in the holistically communal aspects that the guidelines, while thorough, don’t entirely address in their rituals of social relations. Actions such as avoiding complicated lingo and explaining ongoing search choices to a patron peering over your shoulder are good standards to adhere to, but it’s more important to recognize the potential inherent in the interaction when it comes to cultivating relationships that could very well last months, years, or even decades if both librarian and patron have settled down in the area. Thus, the repeated lack of follow ups left me not at all committed to an ongoing relationship with the libraries beyond the self sufficient scanning I usually resort to. How many patrons who are not intensive book lovers like me took their lackluster reference interview as a sign that the Internet would be a better place to fulfill their information needs? Lost opportunities, those.

I’m sure there are many wonderful reference librarians whom I simply haven’t had the pleasure of meeting. I’m also not advocating for any sort of “perfect” style or that anyone has to overextend themselves amidst excessive work, difficult patrons, or dangerous situations librarians are unfortunately vulnerable to while on the job. What I’m hoping for is that all of us in library school, even if some of us never step behind said reference desk in any sort of professional capacity, keep a look out for a chance to turn a patron interaction into something more ingrained in the permanent social landscape.

In the era of the gig economy, it’s hard to imagine staying in one job/area for more than five years, let alone the rest of one’s life; and the field of librarianship is especially plagued by constant shifts in landscape as one jumps from position to position, library to library. However, while one is wherever one is, there’s always the chance of inspiring a lasting love of the library in a patron’s sense of community. Even when the reference librarian is gone, the library will still be localized in the patron’s consciousness as a place they can draw deep from when resources are low and the need for knowledge, community, or even peace and quiet is great. Rich donors are all very well, but it’s the ordinary folk who are the backbone of the circulation rates, the simple, friendly hellos, and the small expression on the part of the librarian as they look forward to a patron’s further inquiries can well work wonders in the long run.

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