5 Best Practices for Working the Reference Desk

Being a reference librarian in a busy library is not an easy task. It’s not necessarily the questions that are hard, but providing consistently excellent customer service to an occasionally less-than-adoring public. These five best practices articulate what I consider necessary elements of top-notch public service. Of course none of us can be perfect, but I think we should all aspire to embody these behaviors 100% of our time with the public.

1. Make eye contact with everyone who passes the desk
Studies have shown that around 60% of the people in the library have never approached the librarian with a question. Some of these people simply don’t have questions, others have “library anxiety,” a technical term meaning “confusion, fear, and frustration felt by a library user, especially someone lacking experience, when faced with the need to find information in a library” (ODLIS). A major way to help patrons overcome their anxiety is to be approachable at the reference desk by making eye contact and nodding or smiling at everyone who walks by. The library is your domain, after all, so it’s good to let people know that they are welcome there. As a patron, I hate when I have to approach a librarian who looks busy; courteous people hate interrupting others, so don’t make them. A librarian’s job at the reference desk is not weeding, or doing next week’s desk schedule, or surfing the ‘net, it is being present for the patrons.

2. Before putting someone on hold, let the caller ask their question
I was on the reference desk a few days ago calling another library for a patron. When the librarian on the other end picked up, she stammered a basic greeting, and summarily put me on hold. “I’m on hold,” I whispered to my patron, who nodded. A few minutes later, that librarian returned to the call and answered my simple question about a service they provide. Could that interaction have gone better? Absolutely. This is how it went:

Librarian: Hello, So-and-So Library Reference Desk, may I put you on hold?
Me: I guess…
(I am forced to wait for an indefinite amount of time)

Here’s the proper way to do it:

Librarian: Hello, So-and-So Library Reference Desk, how may I help you?
Me: When do you close tonight? [or some other easy question]
Librarian: 8 o’clock.
Me: k thnx bye.


Librarian: Hello, So-and-So Library Reference Desk, how may I help you?
Me: I’m interested in finding the hegemony of hominy in harmony? [or some other hard question]
Librarian: Alright, would you mind holding? I have 2 patrons in front of you.
Me: Sure, no problem.
Librarian: Okay, hang on.
(and every few minutes check-in to update the patron on their wait time)

I take the latter route every time I put anyone on hold at my busy library and I have yet to experience any hostility from the patrons in front of me about the few seconds it takes to listen to the caller’s question. Frankly, I do it because it helps me triage better when it’s very busy. Anyway, it’s good etiquette.

3. Walk slowly when showing someone to the stacks
Not everyone walks as fast as I do, so I always have to remind myself to slow down. Keeping pace with my patrons gives us a chance to chat or continue the reference interview if need be. Plus, walking beside the patron allows me to give them a mini-tour or a short explanation of the way the library is organized. There’s also a certain symbolism that I like involved in walking beside someone rather than in front of them, something like “we’re working together on this” instead of “I’m the boss of you”.

4. Do what you can, not what you must
Anyone who has worked in customer service knows that there is a bare-minimum level of service that one must give in order to remain employed. On the reference desk, this usually involves spending as little time as possible with each patron; if an answer can’t be found quickly, the librarian shrugs and gives the equivalent of a “get atta here!”; it means not trying to find an answer if one isn’t immediately obvious. I have run into this (non-)level of service on so many occasions and it is a huge letdown every time. I can only imagine what a disappointment it is for non-librarians to receive this treatment. Librarians are supposed to be customer service champs — our major purpose on the reference desk is to help people to the best of our ability! The truth is, rarely do librarians get fired for doing a poor job serving people because they do what they must to keep patrons from being completely put out. That shouldn’t be the standard. The standard should be to do everything we can to help people out. And we can do a lot.

5. Answer the phone clearly
We answer the phone a hundred times a day but the caller is dialing us for the first time. When we quickly mumble “Rfrncdeskso-and-sospeakinghowmhelpyou” it sounds exactly like a whole bunch of nonsense which means that the people calling haven’t a clue where and who they’ve reached. This interrupts the flow of the conversation while both sides gain their bearings. Fixing this is simple: when answering the phone, speak slowly and clearly. Pretend that every caller is your octogenarian friend who has trouble understanding fast-talking youngsters like you. You’ll be surprised that people will also repeat your name back to you, which means instant rapport and leads to a nice interaction.

These are just five best practices for top-notch customer service at the information desk. There are many more out there. Feel free to post any others you can think of in the comments below.

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2 Responses to 5 Best Practices for Working the Reference Desk

  1. Pingback: 4 More Best Practices for Working the Reference Desk | Life in Oleg

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