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

Performing Reference Triage

   October 26th, 2010 Brian Herzog

M*A*S*H fingerpostNELA2010 was last week, and I'm still mulling over ideas I learned there, trying to figure out if I can synthesize them for use in my library.

One that stood out came up during the audience participation portion of the Trends in Reference panel discussion. Demetri Kyriakis from the Morse Library in Natick, MA, mentioned "reference triage," and I followed up with him in the hall later in the day to get some more information.

This approach seems like it will help libraries with staff cuts or an awkwardly-located reference desk. The basic idea, as you can probably surmise, is to direct patrons to different staff members based on the difficulty of their question. Our Circ staff informally does this already, since that is the first service desk patrons see when they enter the library - Circ handles what it can, and sends the rest downstairs to Reference.

What was novel about Demetri 's approach is that he said there are some questions they just won't answer at the Reference Desk - the really time-intensive ones - because he just can't do them justice when he's alone and the library is busy.

Instead of giving the patron an incomplete answer, or making everyone else wait for a half-hour while he completes that question, he has the patron set up an appointment with him - at which time he's able to give them his undivided attention, and a full and unhurried answer.

I like that idea. We used to do something similar with our One-on-One computer sessions, until we had to discontinue those due to staff cuts. But there are sporadic times during the week with enough coverage desk that could allow me to get away for twenty or thirty minutes for a patron appointment.

Some examples of questions that would require an appointment:

  • Help with Overdrive (especially the people who are willing to learn all the steps it takes to do it right, not just the people who want to download something right now)
  • Help with job searching or creating a resume
  • Help with a digital camera
  • Help with genealogy
  • Learning Twitter/Facebook/et al.

Of course, making an appointment to come back later might not be every patron's idea of a good time. Hopefully they'd be able to see the trade-off between immediate incomplete help and an appointment for thorough assistance.

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