One of the classes I am taking this term is Information Access and Retrieval. Back in the day, I suspect this course would have simply been titled Reference, but the current title aptly describes the coursework and expectations.
A recent assignment involved spending at least sixty minutes observing a reference desk and taking notes about all of the interactions we may see. It had to be in a library we were not known in and we were encouraged to go at a busy time of day. Luckily for me, I have a plethora of libraries within a thirty mile radius on both sides of the river, which is the natural border between Vermont and New Hampshire.
Armed with my laptop, I chose to go to a local library that is centrally located to a downtown on a recent Saturday morning. I refreshed my knowledge of the RUSA guidelines for best practices in reference and information services before strategically locating a table close to the desk that would not call attention to the sneaky library school observer in their midst.
Over the next hour, I observed eight different transactions at a combined circulation and reference desk, staffed by two people. Much of what I witnessed made me realize how important it is as library professionals to remind ourselves that these guidelines are important. And if we do not go the extra mile, walk a patron to a shelf, do more than a simple look-up on Wikipedia, or engage in a conversation enough to attempt a reader’s advisory, librarians will lose their relevancy to many of the patrons who could benefit the most from our assistance.
One only need search “Best practices in libraries” to find a whole host of resources and guidelines for different populations including:
In my recent experience, I witnessed negative body language from one reference librarian when a person of color asked a question and she did the bare minimum to assist him. I observed pointing to areas of the library versus walking the patron to the shelves and a criticism of someone’s choice in a book they were checking out. I also witnessed enthusiasm for little children, helpful directions for someone new in town, and genuine concern for another patron who clearly had an illness.
I plan to go back to this library on another Saturday and observe again. This time it will be just for my own benefit and hope that I had happened to come on a day that was the exception, versus the norm, at the information desk.
We all have those days when an interruption from someone at the desk is the last thing we have time for when we have reports due or meetings to attend; but let us all pause and remember that the core tenets of librarianship are to assist patrons who seek our knowledge and tools to help them learn. The more we provide them with what they seek, the more they will return, and perhaps they will bring a friend or two as well.