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

Hello, I’m the Swiss Army Assistant Director

   January 20th, 2016 Brian Herzog

In Mother Russia, sometimes the agent changes you.My library's long-time Assistant Director retired at the end of last year, and I am taking over that role. This means two things:

  1. My library is hiring a Head of Reference - if you're interested, check it out. It's fun.
  2. Second, since I'll no longer be a reference desk librarian, this blog will certainly change.

For whatever it's worth, I'm going to try to keep writing new posts here whenever I come across something people might find interesting. My desk hours are going to change drastically, so the Reference Question of the Week posts will be less frequent. Which is too bad, but we'll see what happens. I've done almost one of those a week for over nine years - wow.

I'm a little nervous about change. I'm sure things will be fine after all the transition, but not spending most of my time covering a service desk will certainly be an adjustment.

But really, if you're interested in being Chelmsford's new reference librarian, send in your resume. It's a nice place to work.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/19/15

   January 25th, 2015 Brian Herzog

I hate coming across as cynical and patron-deprecating on this blog, but I could not resist reposting this comic. I'm sure everyone who has worked at a reference desk has gone through this same thought process - for me, it was almost a GOOMHR moment and sums up much of the reference help I've given this week:

poker face tech support comic

I can even forgive the scroll wheel thing, but typing the URL into a search box and clicking "Search" instead of using the Enter key cracked me up.

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/21/14

   September 27th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Grammar Police Badge - To Serve and CorrectThis week's question is a two-fold cautionary tale: first, it illustrates the importance of annunciation enunciation, and second the importance of the reference interview. What I thought I heard initially was certainly not what this patron actually wanted.

A male patron calls the desk and says,

One of my wives' books is overdue - can you renew it for her?

Of course, what he meant was "One of my wife's books..." - it loses a little in the translation to typing it out, but it was pretty clear over the phone. Clearly wrong, though, and it made me laugh. It also reminded me of the joke about the importance of the Oxford comma.

But, item renewed, so everyone is happy (in a very non-polygamous sort of way).

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#PLA12 Revitalizing Reference Services

   March 15th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Presenters were from the Arlington Heights (IL) Library and the Ann Arbor (MI) District Library.

Passive reference, of librarians sitting at a big desk waiting to be asked questions, is pretty much over. However, even though capital-R Reference is dying, lowercase-r reference is still a core library service. Difference is Reference desk, Reference collection, Reference staff, vs. referring people to the information, services, and skills they're looking for.

Where reference service should be going: Niche Reference
Use the reference desk only for in-person reference - keep all calls, email, and chat reference in the back room. This will improve service to both types of reference, because one person isn't trying to balance everything at once.

Identify needs in your community and address them

  • have a "start your job search here" desk
  • get a grant from the Rotary club to bring in professional resume reviewers
  • put an add in the job classifieds to "get job search help at your library" (I came up with this, but I'm not sure if I like it)

Have staff be specialists, not generalists

  • reach out to the business community to help them get started or get better
  • hold one-on-one or group classes on research topics
  • [me again: this might work for large libraries, but does not scale down well]

Focus on community interest

  • what does your community have/want that people are interested in?
  • create something like, "What's the history of your house?" and let patrons provide the content - this is something that can be built on in the future
  • run a "question of the week" in the local paper - and ask for questions
  • create a local wiki (like Daviswiki) and don't "own" it - let other people add content
  • treat social media as a conversation starter, not one-way announcement stream. ie, on Facebook have a "stump the librarian" day and solicit questions (like Skokie, IL)

Focus on programming

  • whatever's interesting: job search skills, "What is it like to be a..." series (town manager, police officer, doctor, etc), urban agriculture, etc
  • Business Bytes: how to use social media to connect with customers, how to use Google Places, Yelp, Foursquare, etc
  • ideas: Computers 101 (basics), Working Life (job skills), Digital Life (beyond 101, and online), Creative Life (painting, video editing), Informed Life (search and finding skills)

Libraries should be like kitchens, not grocery stores: focus on getting patrons to come in and discover and interact, not just grab stuff off the shelves and go.

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#PLA12 Chat Reference Discussion (OCLC QuestionPoint User Group)

   March 15th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Integrating chat into your website

You put your info desk in the middle of your physical library, so put the chat reference link central to your website.

Placement = point of service, so put it everywhere, and be consistent (catalog, website, not just handouts and flyers)

Feb 2012 = 619 sessions (at Arlington Heights (IL) Library)

  • Homepage: 135
  • User account signup page: 133
  • Catalog pages: 124
  • These three pages are 63% of the total

Placement tips

  • Top-right or top-left, make sure it's above the fold
  • Talk to vendors: some will let you put chat widgets inside the databases
  • Put it on other community websites (local newspaper, Town Hall, social service agencies, etc)

Use a promotion to boost usage and introduce the service to patrons

"Win a Nook" promotion at Anne Arundel County (MD) Public Library

  • Promotion lasted one week, which was plenty long (especially for staff who had to keep promoting it)
  • Pass out bookmarks, pins/badges, and flyers to tell people how to get to the chat
  • This told patrons to mention the contest when they started their chat session, so they got entered to win the Nook)
  • Promotion focused on staff/patron interaction, so patron had to also mention staff person's name (staff person could then with a Nook also)
  • Results: 436 people tried chat that week - 632% increase; 899 sessions for the entire month - a 162% increase over previous year
  • Lessons learned: easy promotion; chat sessions increased; public "got" the service by trying it out; people love winning free stuff
  • Contact Betty Morganstern ([email protected]) for more details

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On Helping Parents Instead of Students

   April 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Parents with studentToday's post is a response to an email I received (thanks, Amber). She said she just started working in a public library again, and asked if I had any advice on helping parents when they are looking for resources for their child's homework. This happens often enough that I've actually written it into our reference policy.

The best-case scenario is when the parent comes in with the student, and I always try to engage the student as much as possible. After all, it's the student that knows what their assignment is and what kind of information they need - not to mention I am trying to teach them research skills at the same time.

The situation that can be the most difficult is when the parent comes in alone. It is certainly a good thing to have a parent involved in their child's education, but more often than not, I get the distinct impression that the parent is just doing the child's homework for them - which makes me uncomfortable.

Here are some of the tactics I use any time an adult asks for information on the underground railroad, or the Black Plague, or a very specific animal, etc:

  • Ask them if this is for them or for a homework assignment
    Rarely do people let you know right away that their question is for their child's homework assignment, but the quicker you know where you stand, the better
  • Ask if they have the homework assignment with them
    Maybe one person in a hundred actually does, but it can help a lot. For awhile the school library staff were emailing us assignments as they got them from the teachers, but this dropped off after they had staff cuts
  • Ask how much and what type of information is required, and the nature and length of the project
    If they don't have the homework assignment with them, this is the next best thing - but it's still rare that a parent would know very many details. However, sometimes they know that they need just two books*, or that they need photographs, or that the project is a three paragraph biography, etc. Whatever they can tell you will help, because there's a big difference between a five page paper and a poster.

    I also use this question to try to limit the amount of books the parent takes - some parents just want to take every single book they can find on the topic, and let the child sift through them once they get home. This is bad because often more than one student has the same topic, so if the parent says they need just two books, I try to hold them to that to leave resources for other kids

  • Ask for the age/grade of the student
    Obviously this is important in selecting the most appropriate resources, but also tells me right away if adult or teen resources are even applicable, or if I should refer them to the Children's Room
  • Ask when the assignment is due
    The answer to this is usually "tomorrow," but not always. This is especially helpful to know if I'm having trouble finding books on the topic - if the project isn't due for a week or so, that opens up the option of requesting books from other libraries. If there isn't time for that, I do remind patrons that they can drive to other libraries and pick up materials there (thanks to being in a consortium)
  • Give them our guide to accessing databases from home
    Also very helpful when I'm having trouble locating resources in the library, but this of course is limited to people who have internet access at home. I always give my speech about how databases are not an "internet source," and also write down the specific name of the databases that will help. If there is time, I show the parent how to search the database and that there is relevant information - and if we get this far, I always email one of the articles we find to them from the database, to remind them when they get home to use it
  • Tell them to have the student call or come in if they need more help or have questions
    Of course, it is ideal to work directly with the student, even if it's just on the phone. Sometimes students come in the next day after school, but I have had kids call later that night after their parents got home, asking where in the books they brought home is the information they need. I walk them through using the book's index and table of contents, and that is often enough to get them started

I'm curious to find out what other tactics are useful for this situation - it's something we face all the time, so please share your success stories in the comments.


*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I've been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography. Generally this confession comes from the student rather than the parent, but I probably hear this once or twice a month. I mentioned this to a middle school teacher who tutors a lot in the library, and she was shocked - enough that she said she'd bring it up at the next curriculum meeting.

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