Reference: Understanding the Question, Knowing the Patron

17 Sep

This blog post was originally written as a class assignment for a Reference and User Services class at Syracuse University during the 2010 Fall Semester.

NYC - NYPL Mid-Manhattan Branch

Image by wallyg via Flickr

My first observation session was at the General Reference desk at the Mid-Manhattan branch of New York Public Library. The librarian answered reference questions through two modes: in person and by phone. Most reference transactions happened in person. There is a dedicated NYPL telephone reference line, so calls usually only come into the reference desk at this branch specifically if someone gets impatient while on hold for ASK-NYPL and

then calls the branch directly and asks to be transferred to the reference desk.

The prevailing theme of this session aligned well with a major theme from weeks 1 and 2 of class: asking follow up questions and being absolutely certain to understand the exact information the patron is seeking. Another theme emerged as well, which is knowing (or gauging) the patron. The examples below are just a few of many questions I heard asked and answered while I was at the desk, but I feel they best illustrate the themes that emerged while I was observing on a Saturday afternoon.

In most transactions, the librarian asked for more details or specifics about the information being sought, and before searching repeated the refined question back to the patron to make sure she knew exactly what they needed. For example, one person needed a “spanish dictionary”, so the librarian asked if they wanted a “Spanish-English dictionary” or a dictionary that was completely in Spanish. (They wanted the latter.)

Another patron asked for archives of New York Times Reviews. After some conversation, the librarian  learned that he was looking for theater reviews from a specific time period in the 19th century, but the microfilm collection at the Performing Arts library was shrinking so he couldn’t find what he wanted there. At this moment, the phone began to ring. The librarian asked the patron if he had a library card and pin number, which he did. She directed him to login to a database computer nearby and said that after she answered the phone call, she would show him how to use the New York Times archives database to search for reviews by date. When the librarian joined the patron at the computer after completing the phone interview, she learned that once he found the review, he wanted to be able to see the layout of the entire page that review appeared on. She showed him how to change his search so that he could view PDF files of entire issues of the paper, which he related to as being like using the microfilm method, and he was very happy. On a busy afternoon in the library, I was impressed that the librarian took the time to really understand what this person was looking for and help him learn how to find it himself in the future. She was patient and as the request evolved, she adapted her method and followed up as promised to make sure his question was answered.

Some of the librarian’s transactions were aided by knowing “the regulars” and being able to avoid pitfalls that a new librarian may fall into. One person who was a regular asked her to print something from the Internet for him. It is only because the librarian had seen him printing his quota from internet stations earlier in the day, and her familiarity with him regularly trying to pretend not to know how to print in order to get extra free copies, that she was able to handle this appropriately and instruct him to come back to the library tomorrow to print the extra pages he needed from his daily quota in a professional manner. Another patron stopped and asked for “that call number from yesterday”, which she remembered was a search for a map of meteorite impact sites around the world. She was able to quickly locate the call number and write it for him, and knew already that he would be able to locate the material on his own.

Another method of knowing the patron comes only from experience and intuition. Many patrons asked for help finding a book or type of book, and the librarian felt comfortable providing call numbers for them and letting them know which floor of the library they would be found in. Some patrons, though, she would walk to the stacks and actually continue the interview there, because she instinctively knew they were less certain about what they needed. For example, one patron asked for a “GED study book”. Those books were actually visible from the reference desk, but instead of pointing in that direction, the librarian said, “We have a lot of GED learning aids on this floor. Let’s go see what will work best.” While in the stacks, she learned that he actually needed a math practice book that wasn’t actually in the same row as the books she initially thought he may be looking for.

At the time I was observing, the librarian was the only reference librarian at the desk, and there was a steady stream of transactions. She was able to give each patron her full attention and no one became impatient with her. She also was very approachable, and often asked if she could help patrons before they made it all the way to the desk. I was impressed with her ability to get to everyone that needed help but still thoroughly answer the questions provided to her.

Cassell, K. A., & Hiremath, U. (2009). Determining the Question: In-person, Telephone and Virtual Reference Interviews. In Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century (Second Edition., pp. 15-31). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc.

Conducting the Reference Interview. (2004). . Library Video Network. Retrieved from

Reference and User Services Association. (2008, January 14). Definitions of Reference. Retrieved September 17, 2010, from

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