Friday, October 21, 2011

Take a Hike! by Anna Mickelsen

I’m sure you’ve heard about recent studies and their dire warnings that “sitting kills you!,” but many librarians have jobs that keep us in front of a monitor for long stretches at a time. Casting aside any pretension of a discussion of the health benefits of regular exercise, I’d like to encourage all librarians to take a walk--for (library) science! One of the first things I try to do when I start a shift on the reference desk is to take a quick stroll around the area I’m responsible for. I collect a few books for the put-away shelf, discover if any teen couples are skulking together in the dark recesses of the stacks, and generally make sure that everything is in order. I find that walking around the library, especially the public areas, can be just as beneficial when I’m off desk as well.

When you start working at a new library, becoming familiar with the layout and collection is of paramount importance, because patrons (and sometimes other staff) will expect you to know where things are. Even in an increasingly digital landscape, the location of the restrooms is still going to be high on the FAQ. Every reference question is an opportunity to create a mental map through the collection that will enable you to field “on the fly” questions with greater ease. For example, if you’re helping a patron finding books on autism and they suddenly ask for help learning Spanish, it helps to be able to guide them to that part of the collection without dragging the patron back to the catalog. Other than a basic sense of knowing where to find things--especially useful when the online catalog goes down--there are several benefits to moving around.

The Benefits of a Nice Walk

  1. Information on the state of the collection: What shelves are overflowing with books? Does a certain section require weeding and/or shifting? What books are patrons regularly browsing (and leaving on shelves and tables in a haphazard manner)?
  2. Opportunity to interact with patrons: A desk can create an intimidating barrier, especially for someone who fears that their question might be “stupid.” A roving librarian has the opportunity to answer questions in a setting that is somewhat more private. My director encourages us to leave the desk to assist lost-looking people and answer reference questions, although sometimes a line of patrons forms, making that difficult. Everything in moderation.
  3. General information: As I work at a reasonably large library, I’m not always sure what’s on display at any given time. Walking around allows me to peruse the thoughtful choices my co-workers have made for whatever the theme of the month happens to be. Also, I can end problems before they start. Are we low on brochures? Is there some kind of sanitary disaster brewing in the public restroom? Some things are better to know sooner rather than later.
  4. Getting outside your comfort zone: It can’t hurt to have a basic familiarity with where things are and what’s available in other departments. This is a perfect opportunity to talk to co-workers that you might not usually interact with. Talk to people who may not technically be “librarians” but have probably worked at your new library a long time. Familiarize yourself with who is responsible for what, and ask a lot of questions.
  5. Think like a patron: Is it easy to find things at your library? How’s the signage--too much or too little or too shouty? By approaching the collection as a patron would, you can get a different perspective on how well the library is working.
Finally, it will give you a great excuse to get out of that killer chair once in a while.

Anna Mickelsen is a reference librarian in Springfield, MA, where she answers patrons' questions, manages both fiction and nonfiction collections, and teaches computer classes. In her spare time, she blogs about collection development at Collection Reflection and shares her library experiences on Twitter (username: @helgagrace).

1 comment:

  1. Ha! You just gave me a professional answer to what I always thought of as curiosity. I figure, if it's in the library building, I should know about it, and that includes talking to people who might not be library workers or discovering which staircase is the quickest route to another building.