Do We All Look Alike? The Patronsí View
This was the question asked of me one day by a reference librarian. I could see by her expression and hear by her tone that she was serious. Since I was looking at her somewhat bemusedly and wondering about the context of her question, she explained. “A student came in and asked for my help, saying that I had been so helpful to her a few days earlier.” The librarian went on, “But I didn’t help her before today. It must have been another librarian.” She repeated her question, “Do we really all look that much alike?”
When I understood the context of her question, my answer surprised her. Without any hesitation I said, “Yes, you do.” She was still confused. After all, she and the other four librarians were short, tall, blonde, and redheaded. How could they be mistaken for one another? It was not difficult at all for me to see that the patron’s mistake was actually a very good thing. I decided not to tell the librarian the reasons for my agreement with the student. I never did tell her.
On the day of the cookie-cutter librarian question, I was about halfway into my 10-week library internship at a small public university. The librarian who was puzzled that she and the other four reference librarians seemed indistinguishable was one of my mentors. Though we dropped the discussion, I continued to think about this in the context of all I had witnessed at the reference desk. I thought more about why it was so clear to me that in the eyes of their patrons, these five ladies all “look alike.”It was my belief that it was not hair color, size, age, or any other discernible physical feature which the students remembered about the reference librarians. What the students remembered were their warm genuine smiles and expressions of true interest as their queries were answered. They remembered the probing, helpful questions which aided in narrowing their searches, as well as how much effort was spent toward a successful search.
Though I had made it my practice to observe keenly the reference librarians’ words, actions, facial expressions, and movements as they assisted their patrons, I decided to observe further to see if my supposition was correct.Observation Deck
The location for my observation was a seat right under my subjects’ noses at the reference desk. I busied myself with searches or with one of several projects I had been assigned. Daily, I watched and listened while comparing my observations with the RUSA Reference Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers. As revised in 2004, it states in its introduction, “the success of the transaction is measured not only by the information conveyed, but also by the positive or negative impact of the patron/staff interaction.” The five main areas addressed in the guidelines are Approachability, Interest, Listening/Inquiring, Searching, and Follow Up. I used these guidelines as the basis for my observations.Approachability
The RUSA Guidelines state that staff behaviors should serve to welcome the patrons and to place them at ease. Time after time I watched as timid students and members of the general public approached the librarians only to have their anxieties melted away by a warm welcome, followed by complete focus on the patrons’ questions. I watched specifically for differences in librarians’ reactions to directional versus instructional queries. From “Where is the elevator” to “I can’t find this book my professor says you have,” there was no difference in approachability. The same was true for telephone queries. The patrons could “hear the librarians’ smiles” over the phone. Yes, they all sound alike too.Interest
The high degree of interest shown by these librarians over even the most mundane of queries was memorable to their patrons. Each displayed a high degree of intensity and focus which made every patron feel that his/her question was important. The genuine interest in their patrons’ needs was yet another characteristic which did not set the librarians apart from one another.Listening/Inquiring
According to the RUSA guidelines, “the librarian must be effective in identifying the patron’s information needs. Strong listening and questioning skills are necessary for a positive interaction.” This was another area in which the ladies did not set themselves apart from one another. Each gave her complete attention to the patron, while encouraging, rephrasing questions, clarifying, and maintaining objectivity. The evidence continued to support my answer: To the patron, you all look alike.Searching
This is where the rubber meets the road. The guidelines state, “Many of the aspects of searching that lead to accurate results are still dependent on the behavior of the librarian.” Would these five set themselves apart in the conduct of their searches? Each one, having initially determined what the student had already tried, constructed searches with the patron’s time frame in mind. Each explained her strategy while proceeding and involved the students in the process.Follow Up
The final point, and the one most likely to fall by the wayside, includes encouraging patrons to return if they have further questions, referring them to other sources or institutions, and consulting other librarians or experts in the field. Repeatedly, I watched these “look alikes” exemplifying these guidelines with the same degree of interest and professionalism demonstrated throughout the entire process.Answer
To the librarian whose question prompted my investigation: On the occasion that I listened to you patiently assisting a patron over the course of three phone calls, consulting with two other librarians and a third party outside of the library, keeping the patron aware of progress in the search, and following up by encouraging him to come into the library if possible, I complimented you afterward on how well you handled the entire process. You humbly said, “I just did what any one of us would have done.”
Now you know why, for many good reasons, you all look alike to your patrons. They probably do not remember your name, what you were wearing, or how tall or how thin you were, but nevertheless you were memorable. By the way, those sweaters you all wear don’t exactly set you apart either.
Reference and User Services Association. (2004). Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers. Retrieved Dec. 20, 2007 from http://www.ala.org/ala/rusa/protools/referenceguide/guidelinesbehavioral.cfm
Muriel K. Wells is an MLS student at School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alabama.
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