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

Updating Library Policies

   September 8th, 2009

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.*

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.

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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7 Responses to “Updating Library Policies”

  1. Sara Says:

    I work at Kinko’s, which many people use as a substitute for the public library, either because they don’t know what the library offers or because they prefer the leverage that being a “customer” versus a “patron” gives them. Unfortunately, since providing reference help isn’t a service that our corporate office thinks we provide, and it’s not one that anyone actually pays for, they’ve never addressed it from a policy standpoint. That puts us in this weird position where we want to help the customer, but at the same time we never know exactly to what limit we should assist them. How much time should we help them until we move on to someone else? To what extent should we do the research for them versus teaching them to do it themselves? What topics should we NOT help them out with?

    I was wondering how actual reference librarians handled the issue. I at least can always play the “sorry, that’s not my job” card if I need to, but you guys don’t necessarily have the option. Thanks for posting this as it’s answered a lot of my questions! 🙂

  2. Oleg K. Says:

    Have patrons really tried to “buy” reference time?

    I’m a hardened library staff member and have never heard of that being an issue.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    Yes, they have. It’s always been the attitude that if they “donate” $20 (or whatever) to “the kitty,” then we will do all their work for them.

    We don’t have the staffing to offer specialized research services like that and still be able to serve all the other patrons, but I also kind of resent the implication that we can be bought, or that we’d do anything for money.

  4. Liz Says:

    Awww – does the “Gift and Donation Policy” mean no more surprise cake?

  5. Jack Black Says:

    I love that you specify “National Geographic”. Can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been offered 40 years of NG that the person “couldn’t bear to throw out”. As a medical librarian, in a field where information ages rapidly, I’ve adopted a policy of not accepting donations of books or journals. More of a headache than they are worth.

    As for the money for reference issue, I agree. The implication is that we make so little (no longer true fortunately) that we should be grateful for any money thrown our way. I’ve had people get bent out of shape when I refused a “tip”. How dare I?

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jack: Yeah, lots of people think that library = attic, and they want us to store the old stuff they can’t bear to throw away. Sometimes I have taken things from people, knowing full well it was going right in the recycle bin, because it was clear they simply could not do it. Some people just don’t want to be the one making the decision, but they have no problem with someone else throwing it away.

    Also, I don’t like turning donations away, because I’m afraid that next time, that person might not think to donate to the library.

  7. Swiss Army Librarian » On Helping Parents Instead of Students :: Brian Herzog Says:

    […] Today’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. […]