Reference librarians reach out

Reference librarian and patron

Reference interview

A librarian sits at the reference desk. Patrons come to the desk, ask questions, and receive answers. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

I have personally served at busy times with people streaming past the desk in both directions, but not stopping to ask questions.

That doesn’t  necessarily mean that none of those people had questions, either. Here’s a story I found on a librarians’ email list:

One student at an academic librarian sat at a table asking friends for help as they walked by. He used his cell phone to call friends in other parts of the library. He was sitting right next to the reference desk.

Not only did he not think to go ask a librarian for help, he refused help with the reference librarian came over to offer it!

The reference desk can be a lonely place to work!

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Good bye, reference desk

You have probably seen librarians at the reference desk reading magazines or doing some kind of paper work. They need something productive to do between questions. Do some patrons think it’s important work and politely refrain from interrupting?

As the anecdote shows, reference librarians don’t just sit there and wait for patrons to come. They leave the desk to offer help whomever seems to need it.

Some libraries, therefore, have eliminated the reference desk entirely. Instead, the reference librarian on duty walks around the library, much like a clerk in a store, offering help to people in the stacks or at the various computers.

In principle, at least, the librarian encounters people who are actively using library resources and might appreciate some help. And other people nearby will know who the librarian is and ask questions as he or she walks by.

Whether or not a library has a traditional reference desk, it uses all kinds of technology to communicate with patrons.

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Text a Librarian

It began with the telephone, actually. I doubt if anyone alive remembers a time before it was possible to call the library with a question. Library reference staff has eagerly adopted every new technology since then.

When it comes to online communication technologies, libraries find it helpful to subscribe to various services that provide a single interface so staff can

  • use any device (computer, tablet, phone)
  • use any channel (email, chat, instant messaging, texting, etc.)
  • consult the online library catalog and databases during the conversation
  • collaborate with other librarians or even transfer a chat

Of course, the patron must still take the initiative to use any of these services, but the library took the initiative to purchase the software and equipment that makes it possible. The library publicizes its services on its web site and through whatever other “marketing” channels it uses.

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Book a Librarian

Book A LibrarianWhy do reference librarians typically serve shifts of a couple of hours at a time on the reference desk? There is a lot more to their job than that.

Each one is the resident expert on at least one subject. Regardless of the librarians’ expertise, patrons frequently have questions that require more research than the library can perform at the desk.

As the name implies, patrons can make an appointment for a personal consultation with a librarian. Depending on the library, the appointment will be for half an hour or other specified time.

Each library typically devotes a page on its website to describing its Book a Librarian program. Here’s an excerpt of one from the Lexington (Ky.) Public Library to show the variety of services offer.

We can help with many kinds of research. Typical requests include:

  • Research a topic.
  • Research genealogy and local history.  (Central Library only)
  • Learn to download ebooks to your digital device.
  • Get more from the library’s catalog or databases.
  • Finding a good read, for you, your children, or your bookgroup.
  • Take a tour of the library and learn about the materials and resources we provide – Groups welcomed!
  • Job assistance: We offer help with job searching, resume and cover letter writing, and filling out job applications.
  • Thematic Units Reader’s Advisory: We can help teachers/child care workers/homeschoolers and parents locate books based on a theme and age range.

Some things we are unable to help with:

  • We do not provide medical, legal or business advice or opinions.
  • We cannot type or proofread your documents.
  • We do not offer technical support or troubleshooting except when it relates to library resources.

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Photo credits:
Reference interview.Some rights reserved by AASU Armstrong University Archives.
Book a Librarian. Georgetown County (SC) Public Library?

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