The Lifeline

Why Human Interaction Will Always Trump Machines

Press "1" for "Yes," or say, "Representative"...

What is it like to search for a specific answer in a sea of automated responses? Imagine if every method of attaining information would be this way. When someone says that the librarian is archaic and not needed because the Internet holds the answers, this is what they will encounter. And nobody's fond of repeating the word "representative" a million different ways only to get to a dead end.

The role of the librarian has changed through the years. And now, with the introduction to numerous technologies and social media, the librarian can go beyond face-to-face contact and provide the utmost service to patrons.

Some would argue that a librarian's job is easy, effortless, and that it lacks ingenuity. Any librarian or information specialist would strongly argue against this very point, as there are many avenues to master and understand. One of those is ethics.



The Patrons Have Rights!

The library may be the last place you would think there would be some sort of dissension or room for dispute, but when it comes to intellectual property, things couldn't be further from the truth. Librarians hold the power over what the patrons have access to, and the patrons have rights. In order to provide services in an "accurate, unbiased, and courteous" manner, a librarian must be sure the the library holds reference materials that echo just that. The code of ethics followed also stipulates that the reference interview and the reference material borrowed should be kept confidential. All this to protect one's principles of intellectual freedom. In addition to this confidentiality, the librarian must not allow his or her biased opinions about topics or events affect the integrity of the reference materials. The librarian must refrain from self-censoring books for any reason.

In addition to the intellectual property rights, the librarian must stay abreast of all changing copyright laws, "fair use" clauses, and other related items. Knowing these important aspects of these rights protects the establishment, its employees, and its users.

"One and Done"

When I worked with mobile phone call center some time ago, I quickly realized that providing a simple answer would not constitute providing the utmost customer service. To educate the customer was the true aim. They called it the "One and Done" approach. To provide the best customer service possible, the agent must coach and teach the customer using every avenue possible, in hopes that with all the education the customer would receive, that they'd be able to resolve that particular problem on their own in the future. Thus the "One" as in one call, and "Done" as in the customer may not need to call again for the same issue. Should a different issue arise, then the protocol would repeat itself. It is the same with being a librarian. Answering reference requires delicacy and skill. The librarian must get to the root of the question, even if the patron thinks they can answer it on their own. Taking opportunities and converting them into teachable moments enriches the librarians experience. As a librarian, one needs to gauge the intensity of the questions. Sometimes they are simple and resolved quickly. At other times, for example with research, the answer may require several searches, resources, or avenues. The complexity may increase due to copyright information. For example, bibliographical information may require more insight to verify the validity of the source.

Recommending Books and Information Literacy

Because of the constant change in the industry of directing inquiring minds to the right book, the librarian must also keep with the times. This goes from recommending the right book to pointing patrons to the right direction when it comes to resources.

Educating the patrons often depends on the library in questions. Schools may have more constraints over what software, websites, and programs librarians can teach the students, while in more public or academic libraries, the students may have more freedom and access to these types of information.


Electronic vs. Print

Being able to select the material the library holds can be a very rewarding experience; however, it can also be daunting and overwhelming. Regardless of the latter, providing the best array of materials and resources will create a rich environment for knowledge, in turn becoming an effective addition to the institution. Librarians must always make note of the budget, the necessity of the library, and the facility. Electronic resources are also available to many more students, patrons, or faculty members. Professional literature like Library Journal, Choice, and Booklist's are used to guide toward reputable materials.

Leading The Way

Librarians are at the helm of the library juggernaut. They guide the massive information beast and those who wish to navigate through it. They are the guides, and as such need to devise the best ways to do so. Providing visuals, lessons, orientations, tours, and the like, the librarian can ensure that all patrons know how to use this priceless tool. Librarians can also creative websites, pamphlets, and other materials that will facilitate the use of the library, its catalog, and other resources.

The Information Super Highway is rapidly changing the way in which we acquire information, so the library must always promote its services in a way that is also changing with the times. Promoting the library through marketing, campaigns, contests, and newsletters will ensure that people know the services the library provides and how having a library is paramount to a strong academic program.

Evaluating Staff and Services

Librarians provide a valuable service to the community, but the quality of their service is only as good as the resource they use to provide it. The library collection, its resources, the computer program must be what the patron wants and needs. The librarian can gauge the effectiveness of these materials by analyzing the frequency they're used and the quality of information they provide.

Interestingly enough, the librarian is also determined to be a fountain of information and must also be evaluated. Organizations like the American Librarian Association evaluate librarians in these five categories: approachability, interest, listening/inquiry, searching, and follow-up. Yes. This is as rigorous as a private company's, "This call may be recorded for quality and training purposes." These performance guidelines are the essence of the library's staff evaluation and the library's staff is what gives the library strength and merit.

Change is imminent. Libraries have seen a shift from patrons requesting the use of their physical collections and more demand on the electronic resource. The librarian must be ready, able, and willing to acquire new knowledge in technology. The layout of the library may also change to accommodate the changing world. Without adaptability, the future of the library is at stake - and the library is the heartbeat of any educational institution.


How May I Help You In-Person, Telephone, Virtually... or in any way possible?

Why Question?

Librarians are doctors. Doctors of the future, what you may be searching for, what you think you need, what you know, and what you didn't know you could find. Quite powerful, right? There is no other way to behold such power without the reference question. It is vital to every encounter the librarian will have, from elementary patron, to high school student, to any adult that enters the hallowed information sanctuary that is the library. Questioning leads to not only the right answer, but also the appropriate one. The reference questions provides focus, guidance, clarity, speed, and meaningful content matter.

Many experts have written about how to question.

  • Robert S. Taylor states that perspective is key to negotiating the what data needs to be acquired.
  • Elaine and Edward Jennerich label the art of questioning as "creative art" and "performing art".
  • Mary Jo Lynch examines the how to use non verbal cues to approach a user and the effective question sequence.
  • Marie Radford also focused on using non verbal communication.
  • Benda Dervin and Patricia Dewdney experimented with the notion of posing neutral questions.
  • Wang and Frank shed some light on crossing cross-cultural obstacles and barriers in communicaton.

Conducting the Reference Interview

Like any customer service agent, the librarian must target six different areas to ensure the "One and Done" approach. The first is gaining the confidence of the user.

  1. Establishing rapport with the user: When someone is searching for a service to be rendered, the are expect to have just that. First impressions are critical to making that first encounter a successful one. The areas of initiation, availability, proximity, familiarity, and gender each has an effect whether that use will return or not.
  2. Negotiating the question: Now that communication has been established, the librarian needs to target what the user wants and needs. This is done through a series of open and close-ended questions. This is modified with the goal of clarification.
  3. Developing a successful search strategy and communicating it to the user: After the librarian has a grasp of what is needed, then the search begins. The librarian can conduct a search, always talking the patron through the steps and using the opportunity as a teaching moment.
  4. Locating the information and evaluating it: As the quest for "One and Done" continues, the librarian needs to verify that the user has the information needed and evaluate it as well.
  5. Ensuring that the question is fully answered - the follow-up: In order to "seal the deal," the librarian verifies that all questions have been answered and that there are no doubts in regards to the user's inquiry. Following up with the patron to make sure all his or her needs were taken care of.
  6. Closing the interview: The librarian needs to make sure that the patron's quest at the library is complete without sounding dismissing or making the patron feel as if they're "done with." This requires finesse and tact. The patron must always feel like they can approach the librarian with another concern at any given time.

Possible Snags in Communication

The Imposed Query:

This is when the person posing the question isn't clear on their inquiry, thus making it more difficult for the librarian to clarify or really know what is in question.

The Communications Trap:

This reminds me of the expression, "lost in translation." This is when a student requests a book and then, through much probing, the librarian finds out that the text requested is of different name and/or genre. This is due to a misunderstanding because of the pronunciation of words or phrases.

Behavior to Avoid:

Librarians must always be vigilant to not all into these traps. Keeping in constant contact with the use is a way to avoid this. When a librarian starts to simply punch information into the keyboard without communicating what is going on can seem off-putting. Share the experience with the use. It's all part of educating and teaching the user.

Also, avoid closing on a negative note. This can be communicated as not wanting any visitors in the library, or sending the "thank heavens you're gone" message. The library is a place where people must be welcomed. It's the purpose a library exists. Always help the user find what he's looking for. There is no question too difficult, too dumb, or too stupid; there is always an answer. All users are welcomed. "No," is never an answer.

Different Ways To "Be There"

The Telephone Interview:

Speaking to someone over the phone and offering service through undivided attention is not for the faint of heart. This is considered one step removed from face-to-face communication. The librarian must have a welcoming, gentle, tone of voice. Because talking is all you have, asking clarifying questions is a must. Providing immediate feedback, from user and librarian, is also conducive to successful communication over the phone. Always close with a positive tone and welcome the user to call again if more assistance is needed.

Virtual Response:

As always, it is important to greet the user and establish rapport. Ask clarifying questions and take note, as it is difficult, or more cumbersome for both parties to go back and ask the same questions over and over again. This type of encounter is just as important as face to face interaction, but one must always be thorough. Ask open-ended questions and provide moments when the user can interact and give feedback as well. Be wary of the words used in email communication. Choose words that are not too abrasive or have a negative connotation or tone. Offering an approachable demeanor enables the user to have not apprehension to seeking your help.

RUSA Guidelines - An Integrated Approach:

RUSA, or the Reference and User Services Association approved the most recent guidelines for the reference interview. To have a successful interview, the library staff must have the following: approachability, interest, listening/inquiring, searching, and the follow-up.

Cultural Differences:

I've traveled abroad on several occasions and what qualifies a reputable customer service is the same in all cultures. One must always be respectful when addressing someone from another country, or with different background. If language poses a barrier, then speak slowly or ask the user to write their inquiry if it's easier for them. Always be courteous and helpful. Also, it is important to note that tapping into non verbal cues and body language can lead to a more productive encounter to assist. The user will also be observing your non verbal cues, to be cautious about conveying frustration, anxiety, nervousness, or any other negative emotion.

Improving Our Skills:

We must immerse ourselves in the positivity that comes with serving the public - any public. Whether it's in the school, city library, academic library, etc. These are the things we must practice to improve how we communicate with others:

  • Practice being approachable
  • Practice active listening
  • Know your resources well
  • Practice posing questions
  • Practice follow-up questions and the closing interview
  • And definitely observe other good examples. Shadowing successful librarians in their day-to-day activities is critical. Nothing teaches better than on-the-job training.



Help Me Help You.

There are various tools one can use to tackle the daunting, yet incredibly important task of searching and finding the adequate answers. After one, one is only as strong as it's weakest neuron. Right?

First, categorize the answer. Make a plan.

Is it time consuming or quick?

Categorizing helps avoid panic and frustration. It also helps to organize the flow of interaction with so much information. Also, if you pace yourself, it establishes credibility. Most importantly, it can flag problem areas or trouble shooting in the future.

Is is simple or complex?

One should have some sort of log that categorizes whether an inquiry is rudimentary or more advanced. If it's a graphic or familiar to the librarian, then it can constitute as simple. However, it can be a complex question in disguise. It can be a simple question that asks to be peeled layer by layer, or one that asks to be specific within realms of study.

Is it current or retrospective?

The user may be looking for something in history, or a current article about a historical event.

Is it specific or cross-disciplinary?

Perception and precise language are key to discerning where to turn my gaze in the library. For examples, is the user posing a general questions about illegal drugs, or are they honing in on socioeconomic statistics related to illegal drugs in the US/Mexican border area? This answer requires the librarian to go to two different places in the library. It is a layered search.

Single or Multisource?

Some questions are close-ended and only require you to visit one source to find them. Perhaps the user wants to know about a particular battle in the Civil War. A single source would help. If the use wants to know about architecture during the Civil War, then that would require two sources.

Is it user appropriate?

Knowing the patron well through the reference interview will allow for the appropriate resource to be found for the right person. Whether it's a parent looking for information for their child, or a friend playing the messenger for another, the librarian will have the correct information through questioning.

Secondly, visualize how the final answer will appear. Will this be a printed document, a website, a book, a magazine, a picture book, or an internet reference?

Thirdly, test the waters to check if the answer is proceeding in the right direction. There are tried and true ways of obtaining anything, whether it be weight loss, financial goals, or eating healthy. One must always step back, evaluate the course of action, proceed, or step back and refocus and continue. This is the same in the library.

Librarians must find a way to browse creatively. Another thing that can be done subcategorizing, very similar to how a teacher would scaffold the content for students in the classroom. This is away to probe for a more specific answer. Lastly, engage in overviews with the patrons. Seek out informal reviews and refocus from there.

Types of Answers

The answers a librarian gives will vary. In this section, answers vary from elementary answer, to skilled answer, to value-added answer.

The value-added answer provides an in-depth look at why a resource is effective and the qualities that enhance the learning experience. It categorizes the resources in depth and provides insight to their merit, and finally if addresses areas of growth an concern from the librarian.

Skilled answers are not as difficult to conjure as the value-added answers. The the everyday librarian, skilled answers are the norm. Skilled answers require the successful sorting, evaluating, and analysis of resources on hand. Librarians also develop highly effective ways to provide the best results in a large library or when working with a large collection. The librarian checks the table of contents to get a quick overview of keywords included, finds these words in an index, skims through the preface, reviews excerpts, and has past experiences with websites.

Elementary answers simply do not offer the accessibility you'd like at your institution, convey that you may need more time to strategize, or your institution is ill-equipped. In these cases, it is important to collaborate with others to find the answers you require for your patron.

Pitfalls in Reference Answering

It's a overwhelming to be expected to answer at a moment's notice. This can bring about providing the wrong information. Don't cave in and give wrong information. Always offer other alternative to further your research, ask for more time to investigate, and don't be afraid to openly communicate with your patron. Effective communication goes a long way.

Another things that can come of being overwhelmed is providing inappropriate information. It isn't advised to lead a user to swim through pages of communism when all he or she needs is biographical information on Karl Marx. Or to be lead to medical resources when the user is inquiring on "Wounded Knee." These may sound unbelievable, but these mistakes do happen. It's always best to step back, assess the situation, take time and communicate. Inappropriate information is wrong information too.

Avoidance of difficult questions can deter a patron from every coming into the library. It makes the librarian seem unprofessional, incompetent, and unethical. Panic can rear its ugly head if one isn't prepared to tackle these inquiries. Some steps one can take to avoid or be prepared to handle difficult questions are:

  • Develop referral pamphlets
  • Display how-to referral lists by computers or shelving
  • Keep jargon or lexicon available for users to familiarize themselves with the vocabulary.
  • Ask questions from different angles and perspectives to ensure you're addressing it in the correct way.
  • Play detective and find where a user can locate the elusive information
  • Don't act like a Know It All. There is always room for improvement, and in a world of constant flux regarding information, a librarian will constantly be in improvement mode.

Sometimes, one may become so busy and forget the follow-up. It is difficult for the librarian to conduct a follow up, but make a note. Ask members to sign in and use that as a reference point to check back with them.

Librarians can also have poor knowledge of resources. Always be abreast of your collection, know your books, be aware of your surroundings. The library is our Eden. We must tend it and procure what it needs. We can't be good stewards over our collection if we don't know what we have.

When we are aware of what we have in the library, librarians can also be sure to correct any issues regarding inadequate search skills. Instead of "browsing" try "searching." Practice using the local library log, electronic databases, and the Internet.

  • The library catalog is the first avenue to locate resources in the library. They each have a way to input information and produce specific results.
  • Electronic databases have several steps to conducting searches. One is to be sure to identify a research topic. Grammar can aid in keying in the appropriate words or phrases. Next is the identify the appropriate database to search. There are many areas on the Internet and each houses a particular set of sites. Many are governed by different entities.
  • Searching the databases encourages becoming familiar with the search screen and search functions. The more practice is accrued, the more functional and resourceful one will be.
  • Once on the databases, the librarian is coached to search using a subject heading and/or refining keywords. Again, different databases have different criteria that affect the results of the search. Some of these will lead to one-click results, while others will require more searching.
  • A well-equipped librarian learns to evaluate the search results. Once practice is gained, the librarian will know if he or she needs to add limitations or inclusions to the search, like "and" or "or". Sometimes, symbols like + or - will also conduct the same results. This will help refine or broaden the results desired.
  • The culmination of search efforts ends with pulling together search results into an organized whole. This means that the research can combine all the avenues of information into one cohesive unit for the use to elaborate, explain, show, print, or save.

Raison d'être: Finding the Answers

This is what librarians do. They are the missing link. They do what no machine can do... yet. One would argue that machines will never be able to do what librarians can. An automated response or 200 hits on a single subject can't add the finesse, guidance, and communication that a professional can. It is evident that the worlds still needs that human touch, even when it seems to be snowballing into the world of bits and bites. Clarity, positivity, empathy, and connection through communication is what confirms and validates the experience for all who enter the library seeking answers... and only the profession librarian, who has received training, guidance, and has acquired the expertise can offer what no machine can.

Wenndy Pray, Librarian

Wenndy Pray is a high school librarian for Sharyland High School in Mission, Texas. She enjoys serving her community's informational and educational needs, and hopes to one day enable all children in her school and neighboring communities to become more avid readers.