or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 3/8/15

   March 14th, 2015 Brian Herzog

One afternoon, an older Asian women came up to the desk. In this case, I'm only pointing out the age and ethnicity to illustrate that she and I did not share a common native language.

Usually I'm pretty good at hearing what people are saying, even with heavy accents on their English. However, with this women, I was struggling. And she knew it. Eventually I got that she was asking me to look up three books for her, and after having her repeat the first one four times, I finally got it.

We owned it and it was on the shelf, so things were looking up. But when we moved on to the next titles, the two of us just couldn't connect - I think she had repeated them four or five times when I finally asked her to write them down for me. She did, and slid me the note:

book titles note

When I looked down at it, I had to laugh (to myself) - I couldn't read her writing any better than I could understand her speech.

But after studying it for a minute, and listing to her say the titles again, I was able to pick up most of them. The second one suddenly became evident - Fresh off the Boat - and I could get "Man on" in the first one, but then she had to spell that third word: m-a-o.

I still couldn't get the last word, but searching for "man on mao's" was enough - the book she was looking for was Man on Mao's Right.

These two were also in the system, and I was able to request them for her. She thanked me and left, and I kept the note to hang by my desk on my wall of "things that amuse me and probably no one else."

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Seeding Book Displays

   December 14th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Book display missing one bookOne question I get asked all the time, by patrons who were attracted by one of our book displays and then spent a few minutes looking at all the books, is, "can these books be checked out?"

The answer is of course yes (that's why we put them on display). I don't actually mind answering the question, but any time I'm repeatedly asked the same question, I think there has got to be a better way to communicate the answer.

Signs are always the first option, but signs can go wrong quickly.

Then it struck me to use the same trick that restaurateurs and buskers use - you know when you see a tip jar with money already in it, you're more likely to put some in yourself versus a jar with nothing in it?

To translate this theory to book displays, we could start using dollar bills as bookmarks in display books, but I thought a better idea would be to always leave one of the display stands empty. It's subtle and non-verbal, but if someone sees that someone else has already checked out one of the books from the display, it might communicate to them that it's okay for them to check one out, too. Which is what we want them to know, especially if no staff person is around for them to ask.

I did this on all the displays around the Reference desk last week, and I'm waiting to see if anyone asks about checking out a display book. Usually it happens a couple times a week - so far so good.

What do other people do to let patrons know it's okay to check out display books?

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Ethan Zuckerman and Bridge Figures

   October 21st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Bridge FigureAt NELA2010 on Monday, I got to see Ethan Zuckerman speak again. I blogged his "The Internet is NOT Flat" talk two years ago, and although this year he spoke on the same theme, he is dynamic enough to always be both interesting and energizing.

His goal is to broaden people's view of the world, to get us thinking globally as well as locally. Something new in his talk this year was the concept of "bridge figures" - those people in an organization or community that serve as "bridges" between cultures, nations, people, departments, groups, ideas, etc.

These people are valuable because they can make connections others can't, and can move projects forward in new ways via collaborations. They are usually found in the "structural holes" in organizations - the positions that aren't explicitly defined, or the spots where many otherwise divergent areas overlap.

Because of their unique place, they can see things from multiple points of view, see how something will affect different groups, and see what skills each of the different groups can contribute to a situation. They are less susceptible to homophily than most of us (who tend to exist in [and not think beyond] our own social group, department, organization, etc.), and so are better able to develop solutions that address the concerns of all the stakeholders involved.

Libraries often serve this role in general. But can you think of any Bridge Figures within your library?

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The Patron Whisperer (+ contest)

   August 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Unshelved comic stripI'm not sure what got me on this, but all week I've been thinking about the language library staff use with patrons, and what we're able to convey beyond the actual words we use.

I'm sure I learned about this in various customer service workshops in the past, and I'm also sure there's a name for it, but I can't remember what it is. It seems to be most relevant when there is a problem or staff has to correct a patron for violating a policy - in those cases, the words we use can go a long way to either help diffuse or inflame the situation. Here are a couple examples of what I'm talking about:

Example 1: A patron asks for help locating a book that the computer says is Checked In, but when the staff person goes to the shelf with the patron, the book isn't there.

  • Staff Response A: "It looks like someone put the book in the wrong place; let's go back to the desk and request it from another library."
  • Staff Response B: "It should be right here, but is definitely missing; let's go back to the desk and request it from another library."

Example 2: A patron walks by the desk eating a hamburger, which violates the library's no-food policy.

  • Staff Response A: "They don't allow food in the library, you'll have to throw that away."
  • Staff Response B: "Could you please finish your meal outside before you come into the library?"

Example 3: The computer a patron is using is extremely slow.

  • Staff Response A: "Yeah, these computers are really old, so you'll just have to wait."
  • Staff Response B: "I'm not sure what the problem is, but you're welcome to move to a different computer or I can reboot this one for you."

Alright, these aren't great examples, but here's my point: in all the Response A's, the patron is getting the message that someone is to blame, whereas the Response B's provide the patron with a solution without any passive-aggressiveness.

This is probably a major sociological interpersonal communication issue - whether it's better to give someone a neutral third-party "they" to focus their displeasure upon, or to dissipate the anger by working on a solution rather than assigning blame. I suppose it varies depending on the level of emotion involved, but I personally prefer the Response B approach, because it addresses the cause of the problem, rather than symptoms.

Let's have a contest!
Librarian's Book of Lists, by George EberhartSince I can't remember what this type of phrasing is called, I can't look up examples or tips on implementing it. So I was hoping that other library staff could suggest some common patron interactions, and some good wording to handle the situations.

I posted this as a question on Unshelved Answers, and whichever answer there gets the most votes over there will win a copy of The Librarian's Book of Lists, by George M. Eberhart. It's an interesting book, and not just because it includes my list of 10 Patron Pet Peeves.

Even if you're not interested in the contest, please do post any wording suggestions you have - I'm really interested in the subtleties of language (like the difference between "yes, but..." and "yes, and..."), and this is something that can be practically useful to a lot of people. Thanks.

Update 8/20/10: Congratulations to Jeff from Gather No Dust - his suggestion got the most votes, so he wins the book. Thanks to everyone, and be sure to check out the suggestions at Unshelved Answers.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/11/09

   October 17th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Instead of a reference question this week, here's a good example of another question-of-the-week service:

The Seattle Public Library has a regular feature on the website of a local paper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. It's titled Shelf Talk, and in addition to general library content, it also features interesting reference questions (and their answers).

I think it's a great idea for libraries to have regular columns in the paper, in addition to events listings. It's not only entertaining and informative, but also promotes the library's reference service, subtly reminding people they can get help with tough questions at the library. And not surprisingly, Seattle is doing an excellent job of it.

via LISNews

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Library policy about personal blogging

   July 14th, 2009 Brian Herzog

The Man Behind The CurtainA couple of weeks ago, the director of the Wadleigh Memorial Library in New Hampshire wrote me with this question (I'm paraphrasing):

We have an intern for the summer, and she's started a blog about her work at the library. However, the next thing I knew, there was a link to her blog from the library's homepage (it's since been removed). While I like the idea of the public getting a bird's eye view of what we do at the library, I have to think of worst case scenario....

I couldn't find your blog linked from CPL's website, but you do publicly announce on your blog where you work. Does CPL have any policies in place about staff blogs? Have you ever had anything you've written come back to bite the library?...

This is a very interesting question. Something I wrote once did come back to bite, and the Town, the Library and I were all threatened with a lawsuit. That prompted a discussion between my director and me about separating library and personal, although no written policy ever came of it. But in general, here are the blogging guidelines that I follow:

  • Nothing written can be unwritten - think before you publish
  • Get permission before using names, and be vague when referring to people otherwise
  • Personal website has a disclaimer disassociating the library/town from me

Which is basic, I know, but since it's a personal website done on personal time, there's not much keeping me from doing whatever I want - other than common sense, experience, and goodwill towards the library. Since most of what goes on in libraries is public record anyway, pretty much everything I do at work is fair game, so long as I don't break the law or violate patron privacy.

Even still, it might be a good idea for libraries to create some sort of guidelines for staff who publicly use the library's name online. I don't think libraries can force people to do or not do most things (aside from using library resources and time), but basic guidelines might help a well-meaning library employee avoid awkward situations they might not have otherwise considered.

A few resources for these guidelines are:

It's a great idea for library employees to share their work with the public (and other librarians). Especially if the library is going to link to that personal blog from the library's website (in which case, the library might be entitled to more control over the content of that personal blog). If no employee is doing this on their personal blog, the library's blog itself could occasionally spotlight behind-the-scenes activities in the library.

I guess the bottom line is that people are still discovering Web 2.0, so there's a lot of inexperience and new situations out there. Libraries shouldn't try to prevent their employees from participating, but instead can assist them in doing it well (remember 23 Things?).

After our email discussion and speaking with library Trustees, the Wadleigh Library decided to put the link to their intern's blog back on their homepage, which was good news. So if you're looking for a model on how to do this, check out Lexi the Intern's blog - she's doing a great job.

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