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

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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Library in Action

   December 8th, 2009 Brian Herzog

This photo from the Manchester (NH) City Library is almost a year old, but I love it:
Help at Reference Desk

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What’s In Your Ready Ref?

   September 1st, 2009 Brian Herzog

Ready Reference CollectionI've been working on an answer to Debbie's comment about a guide to ready reference, but am sorry to say I haven't been able to find one.

Searches on the web found a lot of great ready reference lists of websites, but not print books. Amazon lists some, but I don't have them to review. I remember having such lists in my library school text books, so maybe that's the best place to look.

But as I thought about this, and looked at what's on the ready reference shelf at my library, I concluded two things:

  1. To be effective, the ready reference collection needs to be tailored to the library and its patrons. My current ready reference collection is very different from the one we had behind the desk of the Kent State University Library when I worked there, but they are equally appropriate
  2. The best thing to do might just be to ask other librarians which print ready reference resources they like and use

So in the spirit of the second one, here's an overview of resources on the ready reference shelf in my library. If you're so inclined, please share what you've got on your shelf - I'd really be curious to know.

For staff to help answer computer questions:

Things that don't really get used but I feel we should have:

Quick Facts & Referencey books (for annual resources, we keep the current year in ready reference and move past years to the reference collection):

Government Information:

Business Directories:

Local Information:

Shelved right next to the desk

Granted, many of these only get used once or twice a year, if that, and almost all have online versions (or equivalents). But I really like being able to answer a question just by grabbing a book within reach, showing a patron how to look it up, and then let them sit at a table absorbing the information. I don't know, it feels more tangible and satisfying than relying on Google for everything.

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Reference Readiness : A Manual for Librarians and Students

   August 13th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Ready Reference coverI was weeding the reference collection when I came across Ready Reference : A Manual for Librarians and Students. It was published in 1984, so I flipped through it thinking the viewpoint of ready reference from 25 years ago might be humorously outdated.

I was wrong. I was 10 when this book was published, but I still use many of the resources author Agnes Ann Hede recommends.

Each chapter in the book is devoted to different types of resources, and describes the best books in each area. As you would expect, most of the book focuses on print:

  • Dictionaries: 31 pages
  • Encyclopedias: 23 pages
  • Indexes, Serials and Directories: 26 pages
  • Bibliographies: 32 pages
  • Computer Sources and Services: 5 pages

I did get a laugh from the page comparisons, but it was certainly appropriate for 1984.

However, when I read the Computer section, I was amazed by how relevant it still is. There was no "computers are a difficult fad we just need to humor" mentality. In fact, the language she used is exactly what is commonly used today. She speaks of "getting into" databases, and casually refers to online searching (not on-line searching or "online" searching).

And her characterization and advice concerning balancing print and online resources is as true today as it was then:

[T]o be today's "compleat librarian," you must add to those [print] sources the increasingly abundant resources offered through computer technology.

The sad part is that this advice, 25 years later, is still not being fully embraced by the profession.

I debated, but ultimately weeded this book. As much as I liked it, it certainly was outdated, even though we do have the current copies of many of the print resources it recommends. But take a look to see if your library has this book. And weed your reference collection!

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Tests for Hiring and Training

   July 30th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Cones in the stacksOne of my coworkers and her husband run Gibson's Bookstore, in Concord, NH. When hiring new employees, each applicant is given a knowledge of literature test to see how well they'll do at reader's advisory.

Their opinion is that bookstore staff are first and foremost reading advisers, and cashiers and stockers second. The test questions cover a broad scope of literature, just like the questions of customers (and library patrons):

2) Name five characters invented by William Shakespeare.
13) What is Ender Wiggin famous for?
14) James and the Giant ________ by Roald _______.
23) Why do some Sneetches feel superior to others?

To get hired, applicants must get at least half of the questions right. Perhaps libraries could implement something similar? Perhaps they already do.

I also have a list of reference questions and tasks I give to reference staff after they've been hired, to help with training. It is based on something my director found (can't remember what or where), but I tailored it to get new staff familiar with the type of questions we get, our collection, our policies, basic tech support, and reference in general. They get it as a Word document, and work on it for their first few months.

Some people like tests and some don't. But each in their own way, I think these tests are valuable to make sure that the people interacting with the public are really able to help the public.

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Reference Dept. Goals for FY10

   June 9th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Dilbert comic about annual reviewsAnother year has passed, which means another round of staff reviews and setting goals for the next fiscal year. Bleh.

In contrast to past years, I was encouraged to be brief. So this years goals are a bit more quantifiable, and a bit less "well, that's part of the job description anyway." You know, the way goals should be.

GOAL #1: Improve access to information resources and library services

  • Weed the reference collection, refine the ref standing order list, and reevaluate how the reference shelving area is used and begin to develop a plan for alternate uses1
  • Work with Tech Services to refine standing order list and evaluate reclassification of subjects to better group similar topics together
  • Continue with staff-assigned sections for weeding, straightening and order suggestions

GOAL #2: Expand and improve the library's technology offerings

  • Work with web committee to migrate website to new content management system2
  • Add more website subject guides to tie together print and electronic resources, and link to expanded offerings of BPL and other MVLC libraries3
  • Work with IT staff towards expanding technology offerings, such as wireless printing and loaning laptops
  • Review current offerings utilizing new technologies, prioritize those needing ongoing maintenance, and document procedures to support maintenance by other staff

GOAL #3: Maintain and/or support web-based resources beyond the library's core collection

  • CommInfo: utilize staff to contact and update organizations every Jan-Feb
  • ChelmsfordVolunteers.org: work with other departments and organizations to keep listings up to date
  • ChelmsfordHistory.org: provide leadership for the Chelmsford History project, coordinating with other organizations and volunteers to locate and index Chelmsford's historical resources
    • Look for ways to better organize and provide access to the library's historical collections, such as the Vertical File, microfilm records, etc.

Admittedly, much of this still falls into the "continuing things we're already doing" category, but that is a large part of my job. And something else covered elsewhere in my review is encouraging all staff to attend at least 5 hours of some kind of training or professional development.

I think it's all doable. I can probably even manage to squeeze in helping patrons at the reference desk, too.



1. I'd like to interfile the ref books with the circulating non-fiction, and put into the reference area more quiet study rooms or subject tables --Back to Goals--

2. Right now we're using Dreamweaver, but I'd like to see us move to a real CMS - NELA-ITS' CMS Day workshop is this Friday, so yay for good timing --Back to Goals--

3. Patrons like our genealogy subject guide, so I want to make more, incorporating Delicious bookmarks, and also linking to resources at other library to supplement what we offer --Back to Goals--

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