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

Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk

   June 29th, 2010

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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15 Responses to “Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk”

  1. Olivia Says:

    Loved this book! I had a similar reaction regarding library work after reading it, but I haven’t implemented anything yet. I think it may be most relevant for team-based projects.

    There’s a great audio version read by John Bedford Lloyd if you don’t have time to track down the print 😉

  2. Brett Bonfield Says:

    I think your ideas in this post are really good, and I’ll do my best to use them in my own reference transactions, but I think the format veers from Gawande’s ideas about checklists. He believes checklists are appropriate for tasks people already know how to do. They’re more like a series of prompts or reminders, and less about providing instruction. Also, they’re best used for discrete tasks. In this instance, each type of reference transaction might have its own series of short prompts.

    As Olivia notes, Gawande’s book is superb: short, persuasive, and very entertaining. He was also nice enough to give a free copy to everyone who attended his lecture at the 2010 Midwinter in Boston, so I figure that’s another point in his favor. Though if you don’t have time to read the book, or it doesn’t appeal to you, you might want to read the shorter, article-length version of his thesis available for free on the New Yorker website: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/12/10/071210fa_fact_gawande

  3. sylvie Says:

    this is very helpful. thank you.

  4. Daily Digest for June 30th « May Yan Says:

    […] Shared Swiss Army Librarian » Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk :: Brian Herzog. […]

  5. Ahniwa Ferrari Says:

    Hi Brian, excellent post.

    I adapted this a bit, mainly formatting, some language, and included links to local resources. The end result is over here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/33750253/Checklist-Manifesto-for-the-Reference-Desk-Adapted-for-WA

    Thanks, and I hope you don’t mind my pilfering. 🙂

  6. Michelle Says:


    As always, you ROCK! I guess they don’t mint you a mover and shaker for nothing! I’ve already fwd’d this to my reference staff but I think it has larger implications for our circ staff as well. I feel a staff meeting coming on….

    Love this blog!

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    You guys are very welcome – and I’m glad you like it. Definitely feel free to adapt and refine it to work in your libraries – if you’re able to make it more of a real checklist, or have any kind of improvement/breakthrough, please let me know.

    @Michelle: and by the way, how’d you know I have this comic as my desktop wallpaper and a friend even gave me this t-shirt. Ha.

  8. Lists = Awesome Idea for Many of Life’s Tasks Says:

    […] this interesting and great article about having a “reference checklist” for reference […]

  9. Cari Says:

    I also read The Checklist Manifesto, and I have tried to put it into practice as much as I can. Our staff is notorious for hating them, but that doesn’t mean I can’t use them for my own purposes.

  10. Cabot Science Library Blog » New Beginnings, v.1, no.8, July 2, 2010 Says:

    […] Checklist manifesto for the reference desk (Source: Librarian Chat) […]

  11. barbara trumpnski-roberts Says:

    I bought the e version of this book and just finished it. Thanks for pointing it out. The need for the reference checklist should be a part of training for every reference librarian, but checklists are important for other areas of the library as well. I’m glad you pointed this out.

    I am part of a group that is trying to standardize the basics of training student and staff circulation desk students and shelvers. Organizing the training material is going well, but I have found that it’s difficult to train students unless the supervisor has a checklist of things that need to be covered.

  12. Anne Says:

    Great reminders! I’m going to share this post with my co-workers, and just let them know about your blog for general reference interest purposes. I always like you “Reference Question of the Week” posts…

  13. Jessica Says:

    This is great–I’ll be giving a talk to library support staff in a couple of weeks, and I’ll definitely be referencing this post. Thanks!

  14. Librarified » Librarians talking about what librarians do Says:

    […] it. He also includes posts that are useful to practicing librarians (super-especially his recent “Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk”) or musings on current events and controversies in librarianship, but overall I think his blog is a […]

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