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




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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Salem Press Great Reference Idea Contest

   December 7th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Salem PressThe following came in email from Peter W. Tobey, Director of Sales & Marketing for Salem Press. I thought it was something worth publicizing and supporting - check it out:

The Great Reference Idea Contest

Salem is tinkering with a way to learn more about the changing landscape of reference. In this particular instance, we're wondering about what new content areas (or emphasis) might be on the minds of students, patrons and librarians. So, we're asking.

We'd like librarians to suggest titles and/or subject areas for new reference. Everything is on the table. Every idea is welcome, covering any subject. Our hope is that librarians will ask for the reference their patrons and students need but can't find.

WINNERS
The first three librarians whose suggestions on any specific subject become new Salem Press reference will receive that reference free. That's it, very simple: Be among the first three with an idea and we'll give you the reference when (and if) we publish it.

SUBMISSIONS
Librarians should email ptobey@salempress.com with their ideas. Librarians may submit as many ideas as they'd like. In fact, the more the merrier.

For a press release on the program, click Press Release. Hope you enjoy this...

Peter W. Tobey
Director, Sales & Marketing
Salem Press
Voice: (201) 968-9599
Email: ptobey@salempress.com

I appreciate publishers taking an interest in the development and future direction of the library world, and this cooperative approach to identify need, rather than just pushing whatever they have to sell.

I haven't come up with any earth-shattering ideas, but I'll definitely submit something.

(Image: energy-saving light bulb by AA, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from sloth_rider's photostream)



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Performing Reference Triage

   October 26th, 2010 Brian Herzog

M*A*S*H fingerpostNELA2010 was last week, and I'm still mulling over ideas I learned there, trying to figure out if I can synthesize them for use in my library.

One that stood out came up during the audience participation portion of the Trends in Reference panel discussion. Demetri Kyriakis from the Morse Library in Natick, MA, mentioned "reference triage," and I followed up with him in the hall later in the day to get some more information.

This approach seems like it will help libraries with staff cuts or an awkwardly-located reference desk. The basic idea, as you can probably surmise, is to direct patrons to different staff members based on the difficulty of their question. Our Circ staff informally does this already, since that is the first service desk patrons see when they enter the library - Circ handles what it can, and sends the rest downstairs to Reference.

What was novel about Demetri 's approach is that he said there are some questions they just won't answer at the Reference Desk - the really time-intensive ones - because he just can't do them justice when he's alone and the library is busy.

Instead of giving the patron an incomplete answer, or making everyone else wait for a half-hour while he completes that question, he has the patron set up an appointment with him - at which time he's able to give them his undivided attention, and a full and unhurried answer.

I like that idea. We used to do something similar with our One-on-One computer sessions, until we had to discontinue those due to staff cuts. But there are sporadic times during the week with enough coverage desk that could allow me to get away for twenty or thirty minutes for a patron appointment.

Some examples of questions that would require an appointment:

  • Help with Overdrive (especially the people who are willing to learn all the steps it takes to do it right, not just the people who want to download something right now)
  • Help with job searching or creating a resume
  • Help with a digital camera
  • Help with genealogy
  • Learning Twitter/Facebook/et al.

Of course, making an appointment to come back later might not be every patron's idea of a good time. Hopefully they'd be able to see the trade-off between immediate incomplete help and an appointment for thorough assistance.



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NELA2010: Trends in Reference

   October 19th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Pingsheng Chen and Laura KohlSession notes from a great NELA2010 interactive discussion on reference and where it's headed:

A panel of experienced reference librarians explores the ever-changing landscape of reference service, with particular emphasis on implementing new and emerging technologies. Panelists include Laura Kohl from Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, Eleanor Sathan from Memorial Hall Library in Andover, MA, and Pingsheng Chen from Worcester (MA) Public Library.

Laura Kohl - What Bryant University is Doing

  • Offer text (using a Droid rather than online), email, IM
  • Goal has been to differentiate librarians from Google and add value "Librarians: the thinking search engine"
  • Bryant's mission is to be high-touch and hands-on - they don't just offer access, they provide instruction to make sure people know how to use things
  • All reference desks computers are dual monitor/keyboard (one faces staff, one faces patron), so it's easy for students to participate in the search, rather than just watch
  • Use Jing to create on-the-fly instructional screencasts for chat and email reference questions. These are uploaded to Jing's server, which archives them for reuse

How to patrons know what is available? Marketing all over the place.

  • Word of mouth - go into classrooms, tell people it's okay to interrupt us"
  • Hang up tear-off sheets all around campus (including in the bathrooms)
  • Have imprinted scrap paper at the desk with library contact information at the bottom
  • Use Moo Cards for business cards to hand out. Also used clear labels to add more contact information to the back of the standard business cards
  • On Twitter, Facebook (include redundant links to everything, which helps when regular website is unavailable), integrate into Blackboard
  • Use digital signage using rotating powerpoints, images, or anything else - these are in the library and throughout campus
  • QR codes on signs to go to websites or download contact information into students' smart phones

How to measure success?

  • Qualitative - comments from students (email, texts, etc)
  • Quantitative - track stats (face-to-face, phone, text, email, IM) - face-to-face is going down but students staying longer, and IMs are way up

Pingsheng Chen - What Worcester Library is Doing

Worcester is 3rd largest city in New England (behind Boston and Providence)

Trend 1: People need a librarian more than every

  • Across the country, library use is going up
  • Nature of questions have changed - fewer questions that can be handled in the traditional way, and knowing the collection is no longer enough

Trend 2: Reference librarians are reinventing themselves to make a wide range of new reference services available to meet users' current expectations

  • Provide learning opportunities for users, especially for job seekers (computer books, job search/resume help, workshops)
  • Provide personal assistance for job seekers or others (consult with a librarian, resume/cover letter help, set up LinkedIn or email account)
  • Provide virtual reference services - email, chat (QuestionPoint), text (My Info Quest), ebooks and databases for online 24x7 reference (and build Gale bookshelf)
  • Use web 2.0 and social networking tools to provide help in more than one way and in more than one place - blog, wiki, delicious links, Bookletters, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace (do them all, because patrons have their own preferences)

Trend 3: Reference services have a bright but challenging future. So, with less money and less staff, we must...

  • provide public and free access to ideas and information
  • stay current with new technologies and new resources and be able to teach users those information tools and skills
  • offer a wide range of reference services to meet users where they are and connect people to information that matters in their lives
  • Bottom line: meet users' current expectations (it's about their experience)


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Ahmadinejad Classification System

   August 26th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I recently noticed in our Reference collection one of the quirks of the Dewey Decimal System that people often refer to as "serendipitous" - but look at the picture below to see if you also see a problem:

Ahmadinejad Classification System

The books that caught my eye are these (biggify the photo to see the Dewey numbers):

And here's the Dewey breakdown:

809 - History, description, critical appraisal of more than two literatures
809.91-.92 - Literature displaying specific qualities and elements
809.933 - Literature dealing with specific themes and subjects

I didn't see .927 described in either DDC21 or DDC22, but it was the call number specified in that book's CIP data (©1987), so it must have been phased out long ago.

And so, I get that these books are each about specific kinds of literature. But come on - a book about the Holocaust shelved between two books about imaginary things? It really is like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other fool Holocaust deniers got into OCLC and caused this to happen - a cataloger sleeper cell.

I'm going to talk with my Head of Technical Services to see how we can fix this.



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Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk

   June 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

checklistIn library near me, the Director did most of the reference work. When she announced her retirement, the staff was worried about having to do reference themselves, until a replacement was found.

She emailed me saying she had just read The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, and asked for my help in creating a "reference checklist" for her staff - hopefully, it would help them cover all the bases when helping patrons at the Reference Desk.

I haven't actually read the book (although did read lots of reviews when it was published), but I think the general idea is summarized in this quote from the New York Times review:

In medicine, he writes, the problem is “making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly.” Failure, he argues, results not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works).

This is also true of reference work. Some sort of checklist or decision tree is probably covered in most library school reference text books, but I thought I'd take a crack at it. Of course, any checklist like this could vary widely by library, depending on available resources, but the following few questions might help make sure all bases are covered consistently:

Are you sure you understand the question?

  • Don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions and to restate the question in your own words to make sure you and the patron are on the same page

Is the patron looking for a specific item?

  • It's okay to use Amazon to verify the spelling of an author's name or title, and Novelist or other websites to check titles in a series. Once you know what you're looking for, be sure to check the local catalog, other libraries in the network, and also the state-wide catalog (if you have one) to interlibrary loan the item if necessary. If it's nowhere to be found, should this item be purchased? (refer to your Collection Development policy)
  • If the patron is comfortable with it, many books are now available online through Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and other ebook sources

Is the patron looking for a subject?

  • Use the catalog to find the right Dewey range so the patron can browse the shelf, and see where other libraries have cataloged their books on this subject
  • Remember to also check
    • other collections (Reference, Young Adult, Childrens, Oversized, Vertical File, Special Collections, etc)
    • research databases (especially for homework research or very current information)
    • the library's website (for subject guides, readers advisory, web links, etc)
    • general internet searching to find public websites
      • remember also to search government websites - add site:.gov to Google searches to limit to government websites
    • if you're in the right Dewey section but there are no books on the specific topic, look for a general book on the subject and check the book's index for your specific topic

Is the question about something local?

  • Check the local newspaper, local websites (especially newspaper and municipal websites, as well as meetup.com and yelp.com for socializing and events), printed brochures and fliers available in the library, event calendars, etc. Remember also to ask coworkers, as they may have heard of something or be involved with it

Is your answer still “no” or “I don't know” - what else can you do?

  • Is the problem that you're in the right place and the information is just not there, or that you can't think of where to look? Keep the patron informed, but don't waste their time - there is nothing wrong with referring them to a larger or specialized library, another Town office, or organization that is more likely to have the resources to answer their question. Be sure to give them contact phone numbers/email address/web address/driving directions/operating hours
  • Ask a coworker or supervisor for help
  • Take the patron's name and number and offer to contact them when you find something

A strategy I use to try to make reference interactions go more smoothly is this:

  • Sometimes it's hard to find the answer with the patron hovering above you watching and waiting. If possible, get the patron started on looking in one area, and then go back to the catalog/database on your own for more thorough research

And to make future reference questions better, here's a checklist about patron interactions in general:

  • Have there been a lot of questions on the same topic? If so, is there a way to make this information more readily available for future patrons?
  • Pay attention to what kind of questions make you uncomfortable, and then ask for training or explore those areas further
  • Remember to show patrons how to do something, instead of just giving them answers. It's also okay to think out loud when working on a question - explaining why you're consulting the resources you are, or why books are in a certain spot in the library, will help the patron and possibly make you think of something you may have otherwise forgotten.
  • Look around the Reference Desk - things within reach are probably there for a reason, but can also be the hardest to find if you don't know where they are
  • Remember to review applicable common tasks and policies, such as booking museum passes, helping with printing, turning everything on/off

This could definitely be distilled more. At the same time, no checklist will cover every patron interaction, but should at least get people started down the right road. And I'm sure I missed things - what are more tips to give staff new to the Reference Desk?



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