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


#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 (bmorganstern@aacpl.net) 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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Update on Eliminating Our Reference Collection

   April 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

What the former reference area looks like nowThis might be my longest post ever, but I've got a lot to talk about. My library just finished a major project I mentioned earlier this year - the three parts of this project were:

  • Revamp the reference collection, to make the majority of it circulating and interfiled with the regular non-fiction collection
  • Use the space formerly housing the reference collection to make popular subjects easier to find and use
  • Build new study rooms

Because we were moving so much material around, all of this had to happen at the same time (although it dragged out a couple extra months because of problems with the building contractor). A breakdown of what we did is below, and you can see photos of the construction, and some "before" pictures.

Rethinking Reference

For the last few years, it was pretty clear that our reference collection was underused (which is an understatement). There were many times I would take a patron over there, hand them the book and point to the information they were looking for, but when they found out the book couldn't leave the library, their response was, "nevermind, I'll just look it up on the internet."

That drove me crazy, but also illustrated that our collection no longer met the needs of our community. For better or worse, books they couldn't take home were useless to them, and for me to keep spending thousands of dollars on it was wasting their tax dollars.

So the plan we came up with was to convert about 90% of the "reference" collection to books that could be checked out and taken home. The only thing that remained as "library use only" are our current encyclopedias (Britannica and World Book), almanacs (The Old Farmer's Almanac and the World Almanac), statistics books (Statistical Abstract of the United States), and also our ready-reference collection.

The rest of the reference collection fell into one of three categories:

  • Weeded - I'd estimate that at least half of our collection went this route. We had a lot of space for reference books, so I tended to hang onto them much longer than I should have. Also, for the last couple years I was buying more for non-fiction than reference, so in quite a few instances we had a newer edition in non-fiction than the reference edition
  • Converted to regular non-fiction - about 20%-40% of the collection were converted to regular non-fiction books. I made an effort to put as much into this category as I could, because these would be the most useful to patrons
  • Made "7 Day Loan" - this was a new item type we created as a result of this project. Into this category when all the big sets, expensive books, or books that we used a lot but not enough to keep as ready-reference. Each of these books got a bright red "7 Day Loan" sticker on the spine, and circulate under three caveats:
    • They circulate for 7 days - by allowing limited circulation, they will be more useful to patrons, and we'll get a better value for the money we spend on them
    • They are non-requestable - because we're part of a consortium, making them non-requestable means they're more likely to be available when a local patron or staff needs them. However, if another library calls and asks us to set a book aside for a patron because they're coming to pick it up, we will
    • They are non-renewable - again, the goal here is to make sure there is turnover on these books, and that they are available to most people most of the time. We did need to create a new "24 hour waiting period" for checkouts though - when a patron returns a 7 Day Loan book, they need to wait 24 hours before they can check it out again - otherwise, one patron could monopolize a resource, and I wanted to avoid that

Since the non-fiction collection would be absorbing a lot of newly recataloged books, the Reference staff spent months weeding that collection also, and got rid of a ton of outdated or underused books. Then, as Tech Services recataloged books either as regular non-fiction or 7 Day Loan books, Reference staff would interfile them with the regular non-fiction collection.

This is really my favorite part of the project, because it means all books on a topic were in one place, instead of having to show patrons the non-fiction books, then walk them across the room to show them the same Dewey number in the Reference Collection.

Space, and How to Best Fill it

As the Reference area cleared out, we had a lot of floor space we could now repurpose. I had two ideas for this.

1. More Study Rooms
View from the Reference Desk of the three new study room being builtBy far, the biggest unmet need in my department was for quiet study rooms. We had one room that people could reserve, but it was always booked. It was definitely a hot commodity, and we sometimes had mild altercations between tutors or students or parents, who all wanted to use the room.

This need had been growing over the years (and especially in the summers), and money finally became available in our budget to build new study rooms. Given the space available, we decided on three new 8' x 8' rooms. Each room had two chairs and a work counter along one wall - this maximized table space, without actually putting a table in the room (which would have required the rooms to be bigger to make them ADA-compliant). We also wired all the rooms with power outlets and ethernet jacks (above the counters to make them easy to access), and put a clock and recycle bin in each room. For security, the fronts of each room are floor-to-ceiling glass, which many tutors actually thanked us for.

These rooms are now almost constantly in use, and being able to accommodate the needs of our patrons - instead of always apologizing for our limited resources, feels really good.

2. Subject Tables
New study tablesWe built the study rooms along the back wall of the Reference area, which left open floor space between them and the Reference Desk. Into this space went three new index tables (basically, a table with a book shelf down the center). I like these tables because they let you combine a book collection with a work surface. They are also low and open, and therefore inviting and easy to use.

These three tables became "subject tables" for some of our commonly-used collection areas - career resources, auto repair, genealogy, and maps (continuing what we started in 2009).

The tables were lined up in such a way that each section got its own little pod, along with clear signage. We also created new call numbers for each subject, so patrons searching the catalog would know they were in a special section. The system we used is roughly:

  • Career/331.702 and Career/650.14 - plus a few stragglers from other Dewey numbers
  • Car Repair/629.287
  • Genealogy/929
  • Maps/910 and Maps/911 - plus a few others, with more to come including a lot of atlases that ended up being banished to the Oversized collection

By just appending logical subject words to the beginning of the Dewey numbers, we were able to make things easier to find without reinventing the wheel. This allowed us to get things recataloged quicker, and kept my Cataloger from tampering with my car's brake lines.

A couple happy results of the layout of our building and the tables: the table closest the Reference Desk is where I put the remainder of our Reference collection - the encyclopedia, almanacs and statistical books. This is the best place for them, so I was happy it worked out. On the other end of the tables is where I put the Genealogy books, which just happens to be right outside of our Local History Room. Again, not exactly just a happy accident, but really the best place for them considering the patrons that use both of those collections.

So Far, So Good

The project took longer than it should have, and the transition period was rocky at times. The biggest complaints (from both patrons and staff) were:

  • weeding so many books in such a short period
  • letting expensive books be checked out
  • not having a reference collection
  • building study rooms instead of spending that money on something else

Through it all, I kept coming back to my bottom line: the needs of our patrons have changed, and we need to change too. No one uses reference books, and everyone wants quiet study rooms.

Now that things have been in place for a month or so, I think everyone is adjusting to the changes. I honestly still do cringe any time I see a middle school kid walking out with a Grzimek's volume under his arm, but I also know that patron is far better served by being able to take that book home.

One last detail: total cost for the construction of the three study rooms, plus purchase of the custom-made wooden subject table and chairs, ran about $16,000. This doesn't factor in all the staff time involved in weeding, shifting, recataloging, or other duties, but I think this is not only a great investment, but a small price to pay to make sure our library evolves to continue to serve the needs of our patrons.

I'm sorry this post was so long, and sorrier that I know I left important parts out. If anyone has any questions about this project, my goals or logic, or how things have been going, please let me know.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/27/11

   April 2nd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Lifehacker QR Code #1Instead of a reference question, here's something in honor of April 1st:

Yesterday, Lifehacker posted an April Fools QR Code Internet Scavenger Hunt - the point is to find and decode a series of QR codes hidden on various websites. But the trick is that you not only need to decipher the clues, but use reference skills to search and find the right websites.

It was fun, and the information provided in the clues is remarkably similar to library reference transactions - cryptic and obscure, but usually enough to go on.

So test out your reference skills - it's fun. It's also a very good example of how a library can use QR codes for an enjoyable and engaging project.

It would have also been interesting to sort of track peoples' search techniques and strategies, to see if librarians are any better at something like this than anyone else.

Bonus
The article also linked to a handy online QR code decoder - neat.



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Out With The Old, In With The New

   January 4th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Emptying the Reference AreaThis project has been underway at my library for the last month or two, and the beginning of a new year seems like a very appropriate time to mention it. We are in the process of removing our Reference shelves so we can repurpose the space.

This is a major project for us. It was brought about by two main factors:

  • The community primarily uses my library for popular materials and assistance with projects (homework, hobbies, etc) - hardly anyone does in-library research, so our Reference collection hardly every got used
  • Our patrons are constantly asking to reserve our (single) quiet study room, and we often had more requests for it than we could accommodate

So, we came up with a plan to build three new 8' x 8' study rooms. Big enough for one or two people, but small enough that we could fit more than one into the available space.

To make space for them, we developed a new approach (for us) to our Reference collection. For the last month or so, I've been weeding with these new criteria:

  • Anything that seemed like a reference book and could be easily photocopied - World Book and Encyclopedia Britannica, Farmer's Almanac, Statistical Abstract of the United States - remained "Reference" and will be shelved close to the Reference Desk (more on shelving in a minute)
  • Anything that seemed like a reference book but required more reading is being recataloged with a new "7 Day Loan" designation. These books will circulate for only 7 days (instead of our regular 3 week loan for books), but cannot be renewed or requested by other libraries. The goal here is to make the books more useful to people by letting patrons take them home when needed, but make the circulation rules such that the books will also get back on the shelves quickly and so be available when other patrons or staff need them. Also, very importantly, these will be interfiled on our regular non-fiction shelves, so all information on a subject will be same place*
  • Anything that wasn't pure reference, and didn't seem like something someone would need to lay their hands on immediately, was recataloged as regular circulating non-fiction. There were far more of these than the 7 Day Loan books, which I thought was a good thing
  • Everything else got weeded. I've been wanting to do this for the last few years, so have been slowly deemphasizing the Reference Collection by putting new books as they came in into our circulating collection. As a result, quite a few Reference books could be deleted because we already had newer editions in the circulating collection. Others got deleted because it was a duplicate copy, we had lots of other material on the subject, we had better resources available online, or it was simply outdated (I've been ordering new items as updates). Another criteria was the good old "dust test" - if blowing on the book produced a plume of dust, I took that as a sign that it was not used, and only kept it if I felt it was absolutely vital. This process illustrated how bad of a job I did with regularly weeding the Reference Collection, because we had lots of shelf space to keep things

My goal for this project, in addition to providing study space that our community is demanding, is to increase the usefulness of our entire collection by letting patrons use it the way they want to - at home. Also, by interfiling all of our material, hopefully the "reference" books will get a new lease on life, as many patrons previously couldn't even be enticed into the Reference area - more than once I handed a patron a reference book open to the page that answered their question, but since they couldn't take it home they wouldn't even look at it.

Of course, there have been problems, too. Most notably, we don't have the space on our non-fiction shelves to absorb all of the Reference books we're shifting down there. This prompted major weeding of the circulating collection (which, again, was probably overdue).

Another solution was to pull out discreet subjects and reshelve them elsewhere in the library. The study rooms we're building won't take up all of the floor space in the Reference area, so we're putting in three new index tables and using them as "subject tables." These subjects will be auto repair (629.287), career (331.702 and 650.14), genealogy (929, plus a few other hand-chosen items), and maps (mostly our oversized atlases, but also geography reference like the Columbia Gazetteer). All of the general encyclopedias and other books that are remaining true Reference items will also be on one of these tables.

Another issue has been peoples' concern about how many books we're getting rid of. It certainly has been a lot, and I understand why it might shock some people. But I'm evaluating the entire collection almost on a book-by-book basis, so I have a reason for every decision I made. Like I said above, usually it's because the book is out-of-date or we have enough complimentary materials and don't have room for everything. Again though, if I had been weeding properly all along, it wouldn't be such a monumental task right now.

We're still in the process of weeding, recataloging, and shifting. Construction of the new rooms is suppose to start next week, and everything should be finished by the end of the month. Transition periods are always difficult, but I think once things are finished our collection will be much better and more useful.

Something else that makes me happy is that all of these changes were driven by patron behavior. I'm glad that we can adapt to the changing needs our our community.

 


*Damn you, Oversized Books - you are the bane of my existence. Sadly, much of our recataloged Reference collection is ending up on our Oversized shelves, but that is a project for a later date.



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