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


Guidelines for Handling Weekend Emergencies at the Library

   January 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Hello, I'm IN CHARGE badgeThis has been in my "to blog" folder for awhile, but better late than never, I suppose.

In the fall, my library was able to reopen for Sundays for the first time in like five years. This is great news for patrons, but since our seasonal Sunday hours are voluntary (with paid overtime), we sometimes have a shortage of staff willing to work them.

In my library, there needs to be a Department Head in the building at all times. Generally this isn't a problem, but if no Department Head volunteered to work a particular Sunday, other staff (with library degrees) can be acting Department Head.

Since these acting Department Heads would be in charge of the building, we created some "Sunday Department Head Guidelines" for them to refer to if something unusual happened - and also to make sure the library delivered the same level of service on Sundays as we do the rest of the week. The goal was to have all necessary information - procedure, contact information, passwords, etc. - in one place.

I really like lists like this*, so I thought I'd share. Obviously it is primarily applicable to my library, and even then primarily only on Sundays (as other times follow slightly different procedures in certain situations), but perhaps it might inspire other libraries to also document procedures like this. Feel free to download and use these however you like (names, phone numbers, and other vital information removed):

I know the staff here appreciated it, as it can be daunting to be in charge when something goes wrong.

 


*Some people say I have a love of rules, but that's not true - orderliness and answers are what I like. Take that, entropy.



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Tips for New Library Employees

   September 16th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Advice DeskJust recently, someone who follows my blog sent me this email:

I have just started a job as a library reference assistant in a public library system in a city of over 500,000 people. I will be in one of the busier neighborhood libraries (there are around a dozen neighborhood libraries and a central library).

Any tips/advice for a new library reference assistant with only patron experience (and that, only checking out books, no reference usage) in a library?

First, I was happy to hear someone managed to get a library job, despite the "librarian shortage" the ALA is talking about (discussed at Closed Stacks and by Jessamyn, and contradicted by my library's recent experience filling an opening).

Anyway, I thought I'd put together a Top 5 list for advice for new library employees. It's tricky, as library jobs can be so different, but here's the advice (mostly reference-related) I came up with - please submit more advice in the comments:

  1. Don't be afraid to tell the patron you're new, and might not know something
  2. Don't be afraid to ask coworkers for help (this will also save the patron's time)
  3. When working on a difficult or complex question with a patron, I will get the patron started in one area (say, browsing the right Dewey section) while I go back and continue searching on my own. I find it much easier to think when a patron isn't standing there staring at me, and I think they get more out of it by being involved in the search
  4. During downtime, learn your library's policies and about what resources & tools available to you - the catalog, vertical files, information at the reference desk, etc. (this is especially true for local information, which always seems like the hardest thing to find)
  5. Practice - a little while ago I posted a couple tests used for hiring and training new staff - the more experience you have and the more familiar you are with the quirks of your tools, the more comfortable and helpful you'll be

The Librarian by Day has more good advice for library staff, new and old, in the bottom portion of her post about library skills.

And on the lighter side of interviewing for a library position, here's a classic Monty Python sketch - humorous, yes, but most of what the interviewers say is still spot on:



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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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Staff Technology Competencies

   May 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Thumbs UpIn addition to Email Scam Competency Testing, here's another tool for evaluating staff technology competencies.

Developed by Alicia Verno, Head of Technical Services at the Wilmington (MA) Memorial Library (who generously agreed to share with everyone), this is a nice staff technology competencies matrix [pdf], breaking down tech skills by subject/software and assigning different skill levels based on position.

The skill levels are:

  • Level 1: Basic (Circulation Staff, Tech Services Asst.)
  • Level 2: Intermediate (Department Heads, Information Desk staff, Administration)
  • Level 3: Advanced (Technology Committee members)

and the required skills are broken out into these categories:

  • Workstation Basics
  • Operating System
  • System Security
  • Printing
  • Internet
  • Email
  • CASSIE [time management software]
  • Horizon [ILS]
  • Horizon (Tech Services staff only)
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Microsoft Word

I really like this fine-tuned approach. Assigning library positions to different skill levels is an easy way of being able to find help if a question is over someone's head.

I also like breaking out each skill area. It plainly lays out which skills are important for staff to know, but also shows them skills above their level, perhaps enticing them to be curious and figure things out.

We're going to modify Alicia's matrix [pdf] for use at my library, and I'd like to add:

  • Printers/Copiers: changing toner, adding paper, cleaning jams, checking print queues, deleting print jobs, overriding payment system, shutting down/starting up print server
  • Museum Passes: booking a pass, deleting a reservation, checking out a pass
  • ILL Requests: requesting through local catalog/state-wide catalog/OCLC requests, checking on a request

I'm sure it could be an endless list, and I know the point isn't to be exhaustive - nor is it to point out peoples' shortcomings or reasons why someone shouldn't be in the position they're in. Really, competencies lists should identify the areas in which staff feel uncomfortable, so supervisors can make sure they get the training they need.

Thanks again Alicia!



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Library Clones Librarian

   April 1st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Facing another round a budget cuts for this coming fiscal year, my library had to lay off all of our reference staff, except for me.

However, in an effort to continue to meet patron need at the Reference Desk, the library is capitalizing on Massachusetts' strength in the biomedical technology industry by partnering with biotech firms to create librarian clones. The advantages are numerous:

  • multiplying the effect of a library degree
  • staff training is streamlined
  • communication within the department is excellent
  • we all share a single social security number so we also share a single salary
  • all of us are covered by a single benefits package
  • our wardrobe is interchangeable

This week was the first reference shift for the clones - here's a snapshot of the day:

Assistance of the Clones

If this cloning experiment works for the Reference Department, it may be expanded to additional departments during future budget cuts. We also might begin to selectively clone patrons, based on quality of questions, reading tastes, adherence to library policies, and how many pet peeves they commit.



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Updating Library Policies

   September 8th, 2009 Brian Herzog

MacKay policiesI'm finally getting my library's updated policies online. We started revising them in April 2008, and the Trustees approved the new versions in April 2009, so I'm a bit behind.

Updating a Dreamweaver-based website is slow going, so I thought I'd share the new (footnoted) Reference policy here. The old policies are still online until I get all the new ones coded and published. Once that is done, our plan is to review them every three years (some of these hadn't been touched since 1999) to make sure they are up-to-date. I'm also trying to think of a better way to display them on our website - any ideas?

Reference Service Policy

The following guidelines should be used by Reference Department staff in providing answers and materials for ready-reference and general research questions taken in person, by telephone, by mail, or submitted electronically.

The primary role of the Reference Staff is to assist patrons with their information searches and to educate them in the location and use of all types of reference resources. While assistance will be provided, patrons should not expect Reference Staff to do their work for them. Staff should spend no more than 15 minutes assisting a patron before returning to the Reference Desk to be available to assist other patrons. Patrons are not permitted to purchase dedicated staff time for reference or research services; please see the Library's Gift and Donation Policy (4.3) for additional details.*

Confidentiality
All reference transactions should be treated with confidentiality, and the patron's right to privacy must be ensured. All information requests should be discussed only in a professional manner.

Timeliness
Patrons of all ages will be provided correct answers or referrals to their reference requests as soon as possible. If an answer cannot be provided within twenty-four hours, the patron will be informed of the status of their request.

While priority is given to walk-in patrons, telephone and electronic requests will be answered as quickly as possible. If "same day" service cannot be provided, the patron will be informed.

Locating Materials and Resources
Whenever possible, answers will first be sought using the resources available within the Chelmsford Library, whether print or electronic. The Reference Staff will also use the resources available through the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium (MVLC) and the Northeast Massachusetts Regional Library System (NMRLS). If an answer cannot be provided immediately using local resources, appropriate print or electronical materials will be requested or located on the patron's behalf.

Every effort will be made to provide patrons with a source for an answer, where appropriate. If a patron is unable to visit the Library, the staff should offer to mail, fax or email a copy of the material, or a bibliography of the resources used (reproduction and/or shipping costs may apply).

Loaning of Reference Materials
Reference material will not leave the building. Material in this area is considered to be important for ready access to patrons, or be irreplaceable local history items. Allowing References items to circulate defeats the purpose of having a separate section for reference use. Patrons are encouraged to photocopy if they need to have the printed material in hand.

Types of Questions
The Reference Staff strives to provide professional and complete answers to any type of question asked at the Reference Desk. In addition to general reference questions, the following types of questions receive special treatment:

  • Directory Information - Reference Staff will assist patrons searching for names, addresses, or other contact information in any publicly-available resource, including telephone books, city directories, and electronic resources. Reference staff will not provide personal information about other Library staff, nor information contained in their personnel files. Please contact Library Administration or the Town of Chelmsford Human Resources Department for personnel information.
  • Homework Assignments - The use of the Library for homework and research assignments is part of the educational process, and staff should strive to provide students with a positive library experience. Questions from students should be answered in the same manner as other informational requests, and additional time should be given to provide the student with informal bibliographical instruction and research techniques.**
  • Technology Questions - All Reference Staff will be proficient with the technology resources available within the library, and are responsible for assisting with electronic research resources and basic library computer and internet competencies. Technology questions beyond the scope of regular Library resources may be referred to the Head of Reference or the Library's technology administrator.
  • Medical/Legal/Financial Information - Medical, legal, tax and investing assistance is limited to directing patrons to Library resources and/or secondary referral sources such as local hospital libraries, law libraries, etc. Reference staff cannot, at any time, assist with the interpretation of medical, legal or financial information, or give patrons advice on these topics.
  • Trivia Questions - Trivia question should be considered in the same manner as other informational questions. In line with the Chelmsford Library's Public Service Policy (2.1), “The needs and requests of library patrons should always be taken seriously and treated with respect. Equal consideration should be given to all users in a non-judgmental environment.”

 


*I added this sentence to keep patrons from thinking they can "buy" reference staff time with gifts or donations, which also got included in the Gift and Donation Policy, so it would apply to all library staff

**I originally included a sentence saying that staff would focus on helping the student, and not anyone that might be accompanying them. The reason is that a lot of times, a parent brings their child in, but never lets the child speak or explain their assignment - the parents just wants to get as many books and possible and leave as quickly as possible. I'm not a parent so I can't criticize, but this bugs me to no end. However, the wording was awkward, and other department heads thought it sent a bad message, so it was cut.



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