The Reference Singularity

Last week, I was at my favorite watering hole with a group of my fellow librarians enjoying an evening of beer and socializing. During this gathering, Pete Bromberg was telling me about his upcoming presentation at ALA Annual, the RUSA President’s program “For the Love of Reference”. When I got home, I looked up the write-up in the online preliminary program. This passage caught my eye:

We want to explore the twin appeals of information discovery and serving users that drive the devotion to reference and readers' advisory work.

I have written about reference before in terms out how the interviews could possibly be measured (and maybe re-labeling reference service as an “information concierge”), but I had not really considered examining the interaction itself and the implications of all of the possible outcomes. When I start to turn this idea over in my head, something really caught me. Imagine the reference interaction as this: an intersection of time and space in which you (as the librarian) have the ability to influence the resulting experience.

From the moment of inquiry, it presents a vast array of potential outcomes. We tend to think of these results in a binary fashion (the two potential endings of “Yes, we have that/Here is the answer” versus “No, we don’t have that/I cannot provide an answer.”), but the reality of outcome pathways is far more nuanced. The prevailing underlying thought that finding materials or information is good and that the opposite is bad is not just misguided, but completely wrong. I would contend that there is no such thing as a good or bad outcome; there is only good or bad reference (customer) service.

In my mind, good or bad reference experiences do not hinge on the resolution of the inquiry, but on the type of customer service a patron receives. How much does the result matter when the experience was unsavory or unpleasant versus engaging or personable? I don’t think there is much of a stretch required to prove this contention, either. There are examples within our own lives in which the overall experience of the encounter have made us more or less likely to use a service, store, contact, or material. While outcome may have bearing as to whether or not a person uses reference services in the future, I think it is a minor factor in comparison to the impressions formed from the encounter.

Even if we were to take the customer service aspect out of the experience and examine the interaction based all of the potential outcomes, I think that all but the most cynical observer would find the any potential result acceptable. For the inquiries that have their criteria met (in the form of an answer, material, or other solution), the librarian is successful in meeting the stated request. For the inquiries that do not have their criteria met, the librarian play a heavy role influencing the outcome pathways. For example, in a request for an author or book, this is where literature discovery occurs in finding other authors (ones that the patron may not have considered). In a request for research information, it turns into a search for a person or material that can answer beyond the walls of the library or the development of a new search strategy. This is the providence of serendipity, for sometimes in failure there are opportunities created for possibilities previously unknown or unconsidered.

Some might find the concept of serendipity as a convenient answer to those inquiries which are not resolved to the specifications of the patron. I would suggest that it is still an answer, just perhaps not in the form that the patron anticipated. And since all of the answers provided by reference services may not be simple and straightforward as outlined by the inquiry, it is the customer service during the transaction that matters more than the outcome itself.

For me, I know I can’t answer every item that comes across the reference desk. It’s simply not possible. However, the one thing I can control and do for each interaction is make it an exemplary experience. I treat them the way I would want to be treated if I was in their shoes: professional, personable, and completely engaged in their curiosity or need, no matter how big or small. I may not win every round of the reference desk question roulette, but I hope to win the patron over to try again in the future.

And that’s what I love reference.

(The title of the post is a play on the term mechanical singularity, in which the positions of a mechanism or machine results in subsequent behavior being unpredictable. I thought it was appropriate.)

AndyW

Comments

fyi: "brand butlers"

http://trendwatching.com/briefing/
"The resulting, ideal ‘BRAND BUTLER OMNIPRESENCE' would be a mix of (discreetly) being there when customers want you to be there, and pleasantly surprising them with your presence when they least expect it."

the wizard of oz is the answer... or "the master"

re: "information concierge"

If the library can't afford to hire greeters who smile and tell patrons that the librarian will see her "in just a moment," then we should be able to get little tv monitors at the desk to distract the patrons for that period between the time they ask a question and the time I have an answer. Or let them play Wii Darts. Or anything except continue to bother me. Because, guess what, I'm working.

...
Me: Please enjoy the hilarious hijinks of Alice while I process your request."
[click]
Mel, kiss my ____
[click]
Me: I have the information you..
Patron: Hey, you interrupted Flo's catch-phrase, you ignoramus!
Me: But I have your infor...
Patron: You are a terrible person. And I'm going to report you. And I'm never coming back to this library.
[click]
Mel, you better go apologize to Flo.
Me: That's fine by me. You tell him, Alice.

from: http://effinglibrarian.blogspot.com/2008/02/how-wizard-of-oz-can-save-libraries.html
and for this other post

This is what my patrons want:
"Why, that's a beautiful pin you're wearing. That little Pom just seems to leap right out at cha."
"Why, thank you. That is so kind of you to say so. That's Jo Jo. He's my best friend."
"How's Jo Jo doing?"
"He's passed on."
"Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that."
"You are the best librarian, ever."

And the patron leaves happy.

That's why I believe libraries should have greeters: volunteers who chat with the patron until the librarian can see her. The librarian should always be hidden from patrons, like in The Wizard of Oz (the movie). Patrons should feel the same way about seeing the librarian as they would visiting a doctor, lawyer or loanshark.

This is why I am adopting a child. Ok, more like a volunteer, but I'm getting a kid to work with me at the reference desk. I will sit there in my black tunic and a clean-shaven head (sorry, Farrah hair, we both knew it couldn't last). My child assistant will greet each patron with the words: "I interpret for Master."
After the patron tells my assistant what she wants, he will lean to me and whisper some nonsense in my ear.
Then I will search. My assistant will then say, "Master says the cookbooks are on aisle twelve. Come, Master will lead you."
After I find her cookbook and she thanks us, my assistant will finish with, "Also, Master says, 'nice pin.'"

from: http://effinglibrarian.blogspot.com/2007/12/master.html

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