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

Tips for New Library Employees

   September 16th, 2010

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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4 Responses to “Tips for New Library Employees”

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Swiss Army Librarian » Tips for New Library Employees :: Brian Herzog [swissarmylibrarian.net] on Topsy.com Says:

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  2. Erin Says:

    Brian, what a great post! I agree with and use all of the things you listed, especially #2 and #3. I am a huge advocate of working as a team at the library and have no problem asking my co-workers for their advice, especially if they are more knowledgeable in a certain area than I am. Additionally #3 best bet for a harder question! Great advice, thanks for posting, I’m sure it will help many others new to the field!

  3. Anne deFuria Says:

    nice post. I would also recommend that all library employees become very familiar with the library website, and look it over on a regular basis to stay informed about upcoming programs, databases etc. And subscribe to all library newsletters, blogs, Twitter, Facebook etc. Patrons will be looking at these sources of library news, so staff should be too. And do a walkabout periodically to see any exhibits, bulletin boards, displays etc.

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Anne: that is a great idea, and I am definitely adding it when I give advice in the future. I’ve been trying to help coordinate and standardize our library communications, but there always seems to be something the patrons know about that staff doesn’t.