Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Helping Patrons Ask For Help


I've been thinking a lot lately about patrons - specifically about how to make them feel comfortable asking us for help. This is an eternal struggle, I know, but thanks to a librarian here I've been having new ideas about it.

Here are some things I know for sure:
  • Even I sometimes have problems asking librarians for help. I recently had to ask for help at my local public library because the catalog system they use makes it difficult (impossible?) to request a specific volume in a series when they are cataloged together. I felt awkward and dumb because I couldn't figure it out on my own. I know better! And yet I still felt awkward and dumb.
  • Students feel more comfortable coming to ask for help if they have a friend along for the ride.
  • Asking a librarian for help is a last resort for pretty much everyone, from people who have never walked through the door to actual librarians.

Here are some things that I suspect are true:
  • Some patrons won't interrupt us if we look busy, but what "busy" looks like is different for each person. The conversation I had recently that got me thinking..? Was about how if librarians look like they are just chatting with a patron, such as a faculty member, they are more likely to interrupt than if they see someone sitting at their computer typing away. But I also believe that if we are always chatting with someone, patrons might think we're having a meeting and won't want to interrupt that either.
  • If patrons know a librarian in a different context, they are more likely to feel comfortable asking for help. This is where fun roving reference days - with guessing contests and similar - can help. This is also how being a club advisor or adjuncting or generally being visible outside the library can help.
  • Word of mouth marketing - patrons telling other patrons that they got help - is the most powerful tool we have, but it can be so hard to take advantage of that kind of network. Getting to know the influencers in your community can be difficult or impossible, especially if the only way you participate in that community is as librarian.

I'm still sometimes left scratching my head when it comes to who will and who won't come to a librarian for help. Breaking through and getting people's attention and trust is so difficult, but it is so important. I pick at this conundrum a little at a time, but I doubt I'll ever completely complete the puzzle.

How about you? What do you do to make patrons comfortable asking for help?

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