Posted by: ayounglove | June 18, 2009


a Yesterday I had a realization at work: a large part of my efforts to help patrons find materials is not actually searching for materials — it’s convincing patrons that I’m a professional capable of helping them, that my search won’t take much of their time, and that they want to stick around long enough for me to successfully get them what they need.  If I hesitate or ask a patron, “Would you like me to go check the drop box to see if this item has just been returned?” then I am inviting the patron to say “no” because we are all conditioned not to bother someone.

When I first started working in libraries as a desk clerk I was constantly frustrated that patrons were not patient enough to let themselves be helped.  It rarely takes more than an additional 60-90 seconds to do those extra steps to help someone find what they need. In most cases it will take the patron more time to physically leave the building and cross the street than it will for me to finish helping them. Eventually, I realized that I should say, “Please wait one moment while I check the drop — I’ll be right back,” instead.  This reverses the situation and makes it so that the patron would feel rude to stop me.  By informing and assuring, I now regularly take control of the situation and also am more likely to end with a happy patron.  I’m not sure when I made this transition or if it was even conscious, but it’s a tremendous improvement.

Part of my realization yesterday was spawned by a specific event.  A student came in and asked to check out an item that she said her instructor needed.  After locating the record and seeing that the item was still checked-out, I let the student know it was currently out on loan and asked if the instructor might want to do a recall.  The student then told me that the instructor had said to her that she had just mistakenly returned the book only moments earlier.  I told her I would check the shelves and the drop box and did so immediately.  Finding nothing, I returned to the computer and the student.  I told the student that I was absolutely going to track down the item for her in the next two minutes.  Then I checked the special staff screen that told me who had the book currently.  It was checked-out to the instructor!  At this point it became apparent that there were two possible locations for this item: 1) the instructor still had it, or 2) the instructor had given it to someone else to return for her and it had not yet been returned.  I then called the instructor in her office and told her quickly about the situation.  She located the book on her desk, laughed and profusely thanked me.

My first reaction was to chuckle too.  However, on thinking more about the situation I felt like I provided a successful service.  The instructor couldn’t have gotten the item much faster unless we beamed it straight into her hands — but on her own it might have taken her a couple days to find it. In other words, it wasn’t relevant that we the library did not have the book on our shelves that the instructor sent her student aide to retrieve.  What is relevant is that she had an information need.  She didn’t know where to find what she wanted and we had the tools and the professionalism to take her student worker and her need seriously, to behave decisively and confidently, and to solve  the instructor’s information need.



  1. Hi April,

    I’ve been chewing on this lately too–especially how to communicate effectively. I feel it is necessary to ask questions but have noticed this can be misinterpreted as passing judgment. As librarians, we know what materials are available–asking questions helps us connect the user to the most appropriate information available.

    I like your approach to providing service. Although I’m not currently working in the capacity of librarian, I find that I am thinking about these issues and trying to integrate better service in my work and with my family. My goal is to continually refine and clean my communication style.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on professionalism. I think you provided excellent customer service, which I consider a cornerstone of librarianship.


  2. You’re welcome, Julie. I also struggle with the to ask or not to ask dilemma. It’s easier to do a reference interview if we know what a patron is looking for, but it is sometimes invasive of their privacy to ask them what they need the information for.

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