“I am looking for information on how to sleep-train a toddler.”
to both an academic library and a public library to see how I fared with some face-to-face questioning.
In each case I entered the library in the early afternoon and headed straight for the well-marked information desk. From there I was redirected: in the academic library, to a different building (look here for my initial impressions of this); in the public library, to the appropriate floor.
Here the similarities end. I went to the academic library on my own; I went to the public library with three children in tow—including the energetic subject of my inquiry. This difference influenced the experience substantially. First, it was clear to the public librarian that I am a tired parent with my hands full; when I asked my question, very little additional context was needed. Second, it gave her a prompt for some friendly chit-chat. The academic librarian had more work to do to “negotiate the question,” to use Cassell and Hiremath’s terminology (p. 17), and had no obvious opening for informal conversation.
Both librarians greeted me in a friendly manner. However, the presence of my children made it easier for the public librarian to establish a connection: she mentioned that she was also a mother, she told my older children about a contest that they could enter, and she found my toddler amusing. According to Cavanaugh, such interaction between librarians and patrons is common: “library staff and clients describe chit-chat or small talk as a means of engaging with their clients” (p. 13). Moreover, this interaction is more than merely pleasant—it develops what Nardi calls “affinity, commitment and attention” (cited by Cavanaugh, p. 14), which in turn leads to better results.
Negotiating the Question
After a disappointing false start which had me taking my question to the wrong building, I finally found a librarian at the academic library who could help me. She got straight to business, asking me questions such as “Is this for a class?” and “Are you asking as a parent?” to learn more about what I was after.
Developing a Strategy; Locating the Information
The academic and public librarians both impressed me with their knowledge. Yet, the type of knowledge that each demonstrated, as evidenced by the way in which each approached my question, could not have been more different.
Referring to the online catalog as a “narrative prop,” Cavanaugh describes how librarians “co-browse,” working with patrons to construct queries and turning the computer monitor so they can see it clearly (p. 14-15). This inclusive approach was certainly what I experienced at the academic library. Once my question and context were clear, the academic librarian recommended a particular psychology database, passed me paper so I could make notes, adjusted her monitor so I could see what she was doing, showed me how to limit my search to peer-reviewed research involving children in the appropriate age range, and worked with me to come up with good keywords. On leaving the library, not only did I have a list of promising resources, but also I had learned something about the available databases and how to search them effectively.
What struck me the most about the interview with the public librarian, however, is that she did not consult the catalog at all. Because I was already in the relevant section of the library, I had reached a professional who was familiar with her collection. Once she had clarified my question, she sat back and thought for a few minutes, before taking me straight to the appropriate section where she pulled out several relevant books. I was seeing the advantage of receiving assistance from someone with a deep understanding of a particular collection. I went in expecting help with search queries, but here I saw how much more was possible.
Follow-up and Close
In both cases, it was clear to the librarians that I ended up finding what I had come for. At the academic library, I had written down the call numbers of the two books that came up through our search; I’d also noted the most useful of the databases. At the public library, the librarian was beside me in the stacks, pulling books off shelves and helping me examine tables of contents, indices, and references. Neither said anything as direct as, “Come back if you need additional help,” but I certainly wasn’t disappointed by the way the interviews concluded.
Cassell, Kay Ann & Hiremath, Uma. (2011) Reference and Information Services in the 21st century(2nd Revised ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman.
Cavanagh, M. (2006).Re-conceptualizing the Reference Transaction: The Case for Interaction and Information Relationships at the Public Library Reference Desk. Canadian Journal of Information & Library Sciences, 30(1/2), 1-19.
Radford, M. L. (2008) Encountering virtual users: a qualitative investigation of interpersonal communication in chat reference. Journal of the American Society for Information Science & Technology, 57(8), 1046-1059.
Ward, J. & Barbier, P. (2009) Best Practices in Chat Reference Used by Florida’s Ask a Librarian Virtual Reference Librarians. The Reference Librarian, 51:1, 53-68.
[Done as part of assignment for LIBR 503 at the UBC iSchool]