4 More Best Practices for Working the Reference Desk

A little while ago, I wrote a blog post titled “5 Best Practices for Working the Reference Desk“. In that post I described “what I consider necessary elements of top-notch public service”. I received some positive feedback about that post, so I came up with four more best practices that every reference librarian should keep in mind.

1. Be alert
Though it may appear that being alert is more important in a library where there are more behavioral issues among the patron population, I would disagree. Just as in any place where a certain environment is to be maintained, staff members should always have a sense of what’s going on in their building. In a speech delivered to LA County Library staff during our training day, the Black Belt Librarian mentioned how a good librarian (or security guard) can intuit when something is off. I know that “tingle” very well from working at variety of “problem” branches. Just a few months ago I visited a branch where I used to work before coming to LA County and as soon as I came in, I knew that something was wrong; there was a vibe that didn’t sit right with me. Lo and behold, 20 minutes later two patrons got into a brawl in the middle of the reading room.

It seems like an intangible feeling, but it’s not. It’s just a matter of paying attention to the ambiance using all of your senses; for me, hearing is vital in this regard. Sharp sounds notwithstanding, it is typically not very difficult to tell that *something* is going on by listening for unusual vocal patterns, shuffling, and other patterns of sounds. They don’t have to be loud or sudden, they just have to be different. It’s the same for the other four senses as well. The bottom line? Whether it’s walking the floor, turning in your seat, or monitoring video, always be aware of what’s going on around you.

2. Know your patrons
Some consider this uncomfortable, luckily it’s difficult to avoid knowing your regulars at most libraries. My policy is that if I see a patron in the library more than a few times, I try to learn his name, or at the very least, establish some sort of communication with him. This may be as basic as nodding at the patron in passing, though I have had occasion to strike up conversations. I do this for several reasons: 1) I like to know who’s hanging out where I hang out, 2) If I know a patron, I can better help him, 3) In case there is a security incident involving the patron in question, I know his name, description, and usual state-of-mind, 4) In the same vein, during the incident having a rapport with the troublemaker makes handling it easier, 5) Patrons you know are easier to recruit as volunteers, members of the friends’ group, or advocacy initiative, they are more likely to become active members of the library community if they know someone who works there, 6) How do you guarantee attendance at your programs? That’s right, invite patrons that you know.

3. Do not argue with patrons
Superior customer service professionals know that arguing with the people they serve is a bad idea. To be sure, it’s not because you aren’t right and they aren’t wrong, to be sure, the customer is very frequently wrong, but how constructive is it to spend loads of time trying to prove the unprovable to someone who won’t listen anyway? It can’t always be avoided, but if at all possible treat patron complaints using this handy acronym that barista and customer service extraordinaire, Sarah (who works at the coffee shop at the ground floor of my library) taught me: LACT: Listen, Acknowledge (and/or Apologize), Correct, Thank. Here is this method in action:

Patron: I can’t believe this! The book that I placed on hold has been sent back! This is terrible, I need it for the play my Ladies’ Fly-Fishing Club is putting on!! I was never notified that it arrived!!!1

Librarian: I see what happened here, the book arrived and you didn’t know it was here, that’s why you couldn’t pick it up.

Patron: Exactly! What happened!? Why wasn’t I notified that it was here?

Librarian: I apologize, sometimes our notification system doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Just in case, let’s verify the information on your library card to make sure it’s correct.

(Take a few minutes to go over her phone number, home address, and email.)

Patron: Everything is correct. But how are we going to put on the play without this book? I’m really worried and upset about this.

Librarian: I understand. Let’s see how we can get this book back here to you ASAP.

(Proceed to track down other copies of the book and have them sent in/check other library systems/find a dirt-cheap copy on Amazon that she could buy/etc.)

I know what you’re thinking, there’s nothing wrong with the notification system, is there. This lady just doesn’t know how to work her answering machine so she missed the message and hence couldn’t pick up her book. Sure, why not? But why would you argue with her about this? The fact that she didn’t receive the message (for whatever reason) is not a personal attack on you; the lady is upset and angry that she doesn’t have her book! Acknowledge the problem, accept the blame, and solve her problem. Many times it is possible to shift the blame to the patron and leave it at that, but then you’ve got a negative situation on your hands. In a service profession like librarianship, it was often wiser to quickly move past the blame game and simply do your darndest to get the lady her book, put the guy on the next-available computer, or for pete’s sake, clear the 30 cent fine. No one’s saying be a doormat, there are some patrons who require a flat “No,” but most don’t. Rise above arguing with them when you can avoid it.

4. Take ownership of problems and solve them
The previous idea dovetails perfectly with our final Best Practice, solve problems. Remember that lady from above? Well, you’ve masterfly moved past the tension, now what? Now you show why you get paid the big bucks. You know how your system works and how other libraries work so work the system for her. No need to explain in detail. Just use your magic to get her the book by the time she needs it. She will go from angry and upset to appreciative in a flash. But wait! Maybe she needs it by tomorrow, getting it to her would be impossible! Be creative, get her a book on the same subject, print a list of libraries where it’s available and perhaps she can drive there, use your super-sleuth web searching skills. Take care of it!

Before you do, though, here’s a very powerful statement to use when you want to make someone feel comfortable, you say “I’m going to take care of this for you.” By saying that, you take the responsibility off of her shoulders and silently declaim “The buck stops here!” I frequently use a variant of this statement when – by no fault of their own – patrons have trouble with our computers or printers. I say “I know you’ve had a lot of trouble with this, but we’re going to get you onto a computer,” or “The printer can be difficult, but I will make sure you get your prints.” Librarians often think this, but they rarely say it. Well, I’m advising you to do just say it. Let patrons know that you are a human being who is on their team, not another faceless bureaucratic slug. If you take ownership of a patron’s problem and solve it, they will love you (in a friendly, non-creepy way) and that is what we want.

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