Tuesday, August 28, 2012

My Reference Desk Conundrum


Creative Commons licensed picture, source.

The semester has just barely begun - classes started yesterday - and I'm already confronted with my first conundrum of the academic year. My problem is with the seeming conflict between two things that are, I think, crucial to the success of my library: staying true to our mission ("...to create an environment that fosters intellectual excellence and encourages lifelong learning.") and providing good customer service.

More specifically, I'm thinking about how I answer reference questions. The analogy I've always used is about teaching someone how to catch fish versus giving them a fish right now. It's rare that I just answer questions at the reference desk, especially when the asker is a student. Instead, I escort the student over to one of our public computers and walk them through the process of figuring it out for themselves. I make them work for it because I believe that working for it means they'll eventually be able to answer questions for themselves.

That is all well and good, but some students seem to avoid the reference desk when I'm there. It might be because they'd rather work with a man (I'm the only woman who staffs the ref desk), but it might be because I insist on teaching them to fish. Don't get me wrong: I make sure every person who comes to me at the desk has an answer, or at least a path to an answer, before we're done. But is this insistence good customer service? 

How would I react if my mechanic said some version of, "I know what's causing that grinding noise when you turn left on hot days, but let's see if you can figure it out for yourself"? Or if the check-out clerk at the grocery store showed me the map and waited patiently for me to discern where they store the pearl barley? I know that I'm in a very different line of work, but I also want the members of my community to like the library and the librarians. I know I'm doing my job when I teach people how to figure it out for themselves, but what impression am I making (even when I do it in as friendly and open a way as possible)?

As I said, I suspect that my tendency towards the side of teaching patrons to fish, of making them work for it, means that some students avoid me when I'm at the reference desk. I've even seen students go to the circulation desk for help with things that I could easily do, and I wonder if that is because of my stance on teaching students to do it for themselves. (I do know that part of it might come from people not knowing who does what, but when it's an upper-classmen asking and it's a returning student behind the circulation desk, I don't think that enters into it. There's no way Patron A thinks that Library Student Worker B is a librarian.)

I'm not sure that, at least in this instance, there is a true conflict. For an academic librarian, particularly one who specializes in instruction, teaching is customer service. But with outreach and building community relationships, perceptions can sink even the best efforts.

My thinking on this is definitely evolving, so I'd love to get your input. For the librarians (degreed or otherwise) in my reading audience, how do you handle it? Further: does your library have an official stance on how to handle reference desk interactions? For the library science students, what have your professors had to say on the subject?

21 comments:

  1. We have a little rubric by which we judge our reference success. There's a statement in it about "instruction when appropriate." It's completely subjective. But it does remind us to feel out the student/faculty for how much time and patience they have. My favorite technique, when I can manage it, is to wow them and then use their moment of being impressed as a foot in the door. Then I can show off how I did it, like a stage magician revealing how the trick is performed. A lot of students seem to be very gratified to think they are now in possession of secret shortcuts and backdoors and tricks of the trade.

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    1. That's how I generally approach it, but another part of the conundrum is the difference between my and my colleagues' interpretation of "instruction when appropriate."

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  2. I don't get any super complicated reference questions at my library, but I choose to walk my students through the research process instead of just showing them where something is or doing it for them. I think this is the better tactic because part of my job is to teach them how to do research (which is kind of an endless lesson, even for experienced librarians). This is what separates us from the search engines that are supposedly replacing us. There will always be people who would rather take the short cut.

    I might feel differently if you weren't at a college, but I think since your role is an educational one, your "teach them to fish" instinct is correct.

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    1. I'm not abandoning my approach, but I also wonder if I'd have more opportunities to teach if I just answered more questions.

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  3. When I get return patrons who want the same thing each visit--e.g., to place a hold on an item--I become more likely to try to show them how to do it. Many of my patrons don't want to know how to do things; they want me to do it, and they have no qualms about expressing this desire. But I try to give the people who might want to know more (how to use the catalog from home, etc.) the opportunity to learn.

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    1. I have some students who just want me to do it, too, but especially with freshmen I feel like I need to teach them. (For the record: if an administrator asks me a reference question, I just answer it.)

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    2. This is one of the big differences between services in public libraries and academic ones. I'm a public librarian too, and a lot of times, you just find the answer for the patron. Many times, if you try to "teach them to fish," well, they'd rather pay a fisherman for that.

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    3. Anne, I have definitely encountered students who would rather pay a fisherman. At a previous job, I actually had a student offer me money to do some research for him - not related to school work, but it was still so odd.

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  4. If the circulation desk is answering questions you can answer faster/more indepth, then its time for an institution over haul. My academic library has the same philosophy. Its understood that we won't answer reference questions at the circulation desk. I send students, even when they're unwilling, to a reference librarian.

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    1. Hmm... food for thought, there. Thanks!

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  5. My instinct as a Library Tech student would be to teach that person to fish because I would personally consider demanding the answer without any effort to be cheating. The librarians in my community college, who are also my professors, also believe in teaching us to fish, and I've observed many non-library students being very vocally opposed to that.

    I wonder if it related to fear of failure? My husband, a teacher, has complained about students that will not even attempt assignments unless walked every step of the way through them. Then there are other, like me, who were raised not to go to adults for help, including parents, teachers, and librarians, because that was a sign of failure. That is still something I'm trying to get over as an adult. Both situations create problems.

    Final question: Are your circulation and reference desks labeled, even with something simple like "Ask Me!" and "Check Out?" My school's are not, and while the circulation desk was fairly easy to figure out, it was several weeks before I realized we had a reference desk versus a person who just monitored what students were doing on the computers. Many local libraries rarely have a reference desk anymore, so coupled with my insistence on being independent, I never even thought to look for one.

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    1. I had such a hard time asking for help when I was in my MLIS program. I don't remember what it was that finally tipped the balance, but I do remember through my "I'm learning how to do this so I should be able to do it myself" phase and moving onto the "I'm supposed to be learning how to do this, and the person at the reference desk already knows how, so I should ask" phase.

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  6. As an academic librarian, it's my job to teach the students how to do it for themselves, but what I tend to do is walk them through the exact process that I'm going through to find the answer, rather than just find the answer and give it to them. We have two monitors on the reference desk, one for us and one for the students, and that makes it really easy for us to do this.

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    1. I'm jealous. I had a set up like that at a previous job.

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  7. i definitely try to work some kind of instruction into almost every reference interaction, but i find myself doing "sly" instruction. since i'm youngish at a community college library, students (pretty much all of them) assume I am a student worker (it probably doesn't help that my idea/planning notebook is a single subject green spiral, but whatever). it puts us on the same level (they think) and so my instruction can be more "let's figure this out together" and less "watch me type". i ask a LOT of questions to gauge what they know/don't know, tell them where and what we're looking at and why and go from there. students love it, i love it, we all win. if it comes out naturally, i mention that i am *gasp* a librarian, but if not, no big deal, at least they know that someone at the reference desk was helpful and they'll (hopefully) be more likely to return.

    at my current POW, the division between reference and circulation is a bit murky. at my last job, where i was a circ assistant, i was forbidden for answering reference questions of any kind (even though i had 3 reference internships/volunteer experiences) and those questions went to the reference librarian.

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    1. At my last job, we only had one desk. It was circ, and reference, and information. We all did it all.

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  8. I'm not the only one who faces this! Whew! I am not a reference librarian, but I am the Local History Director at my public library. Patrons come to the Local History Room for Local History or genealogy questions or research. I have often come upon situations where I'm not sure how much to help- do I just show them where the microfilm is and give them the index, or do I pull the microfilm out and look up that death certificate for them? Sometimes, it's easy to know who needs to be guided and who does not- sometimes all I need to do is ask. But it can be difficult to figure out how much to help- I feel as if I do it for them, they lose out on the joy of research and the skills they will acquire by researching on their own. However, if I do not walk through it with them, there is always a possibility that they will not discover all there is to be discovered, and I feel like I am not doing my job. I have no answer to the conundrum, but it's good to know that other librarians face the same difficulty.

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    1. I'm also glad to know I'm not the only one. Of course, I act like I know exactly what I'm doing when I'm dealing with the public, so it stands to reason that others are sort of faking, too.

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  9. I'm on the public side, and we've recently abolished the reference desk (grrrrrr). However, this means I tend to balance things based on the line. If we're busy and I know the answer, I'm likely to belt out the answer and row number, and point... not great customer service, but I balance it against the 10 people we have in line, who are waiting for check in, check out, and reference services (at one desk. grrrrr.).

    On the other hand, if I am engaging with a patron, I do my best to instruct them. "Health and medicine tends to be in the 610-619s" or "History is organized by continents, so US History is in the 970s, with the rest of North America." If they're looking for a specific book, I may not get up and make them find it themselves, but I will show them the process I use to go through our web catalog, and determine whether something should be there in the first place.

    It is a balancing act; if I've pointed and given an answer, and they don't look sure, I walk them over, explaining a few things as I go along (like "These are our circulating books; the reference is over there and can't be checked out").

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  10. I'm not sure I'm adding anything to the discussion that hasn't already been said - but I think that academic librarians have much more responsibility to teach, by virtue of the position. Customer service is still great in an academic setting, but those students are paying big bucks to learn. They should be learning everywhere. I think an academic librarian who doesn't teach is wasting a student's tuition dollars (in most cases - I agree with you on the administrator comment).

    In the public setting - like others, I gauge the person. If they need to learn how to do it on their own, I teach them. If not, I just do it. I've gotten to the point where I know what's better for each patron. If I don't, I just flat out ask. I like your point about the mechanic - but even if the mechanic doesn't make me do the fixing myself, can he tell me what I can do to avoid the problem in the future? That's a form of teaching. So, when working with the public in a non-academic setting, even non-library, there is a degree of responsibility to teach.

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  11. Another dimension to this in my role at a very busy public library is TIME. It can be difficult to patiently teach someone to fish while there are five hungry patrons behind them waiting for their own fish suppers. I've over-extended the metaphor here, but I definitely feel like I would be able to provide a more empowering service if I wasn't in such a demanding environment. And yes, I can see how that is self perpetuating.

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