...use service concepts, principles and techniques that facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for individuals or groups of users
Meaning and Importance of Competency
Librarianship is a service-oriented profession. We are people helping people. Libraries provide a wide variety of services, from online public access catalogs, licensed databases, and digital downloads to interlibrary loan, readers’ advisory service, and online renewals. One of the major services offered by libraries is the provision of access to information; in most libraries, this goes by the name of “reference services.” Reference services involve more than just buying a collection of reference books or other resources and making them available to patrons—reference services involve communication between service providers (i.e., librarians) and users.
In order to ensure that we provide information that is accessible, relevant, and accurate for the diverse populations that use our libraries, as information professionals, we must be skilled in using different service concepts, principles, and techniques. These can range from guidelines issued by professional associations, such as the “Guidelines for Behavioral Performance of Reference and Information Service Providers” (2004) issued by the Reference and User Services Association (RUSA) (hereafter referred to as the “RUSA Guidelines”), to concepts from the professional literature, such as the reference interview and information literacy instruction; from interpersonal behaviors, such as listening, inquiring, and following up, to customer service techniques borrowed from the retail sector, such as engaging in friendly conversation and finding out what the customer wants. The ultimate goal of these concepts, principles, and techniques is to satisfy the needs of our patrons. In some cases, this may mean simply finding the answer to a question or suggesting a few resources to help a student get started on a research project; in other cases, it can involve in-depth instruction in the use of various resources and in the formulation of complex search strategies. The information needs of our clientele vary widely, and as information professionals, we must be skilled in adapting our behaviors to fit each situation that arises. By having a variety of concepts, principles, and techniques in our tool belts, we can ensure that we are successful in meeting the needs of our patrons.
Preparation and Evidence
To demonstrate my ability to use service concepts, principles and techniques that facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for individuals or groups of users, I present two assignments that I completed for courses in the online School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) at San Jose State University (SJSU). My first piece of evidence is an analysis of face-to-face and chat reference services at Washington State’s X Library System (XLS)* that I completed for LIBR 210, Reference and Information Services, in which I analyze the use of service concepts, principles and techniques by XLS staff providing in-person and virtual reference services. My second piece of evidence is a pathfinder and accompanying narrative that I completed for the same course, LIBR 210, in which I demonstrate my own ability to use service concepts, principles and techniques to facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for an adult user group consisting of professionals, business owners, and job seekers.
First Piece of Evidence: Observation Analysis, LIBR 210
In Spring 2011, I took the course “Reference and Information Services” with Dr. Michelle Holschuh Simmons. The course covered many topics, including the reference process, evaluation of reference interactions, reference service to diverse populations, and the role of instruction in reference service. Through the course, students were introduced to a variety of service concepts, principles, and techniques that facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for individuals or groups of users, including the reference interview, effective search strategies for information retrieval, effective communication, the importance of reaching all users, and various guidelines from the library professional associations, including the RUSA Guidelines. One of the aims of the course was to teach students to become more effective and reflective practitioners, and one way for us to achieve that was by observing practicing reference librarians in both live and virtual environments as part of the Observation Analysis assignment.
This assignment had two parts. For Part 1, students were assigned to spend approximately two hours observing reference interactions in a library of our choice, preferably the type we hoped to work in after graduation, and to analyze our observations in a paper. For this portion of the assignment, students were assigned to focus on interpersonal interactions between users and librarians, the physical environment, the absence or presence of the reference interview, behaviors and attitudes of both librarians and users, and evidence of policies. We were also instructed to analyze noteworthy interactions using established criteria, such as the RUSA Guidelines (2004), and to make references to the professional literature. A rubric was provided, and students were graded on description of the context, description and analysis of the librarian’s manner, description and analysis of the reference interview, analysis of reference interactions in relation to the professional literature, overall analysis, application of criteria, and written presentation.
My background is in public libraries, and I have worked for The Seattle Public Library since 2007, so a public library was a natural choice of setting for me to observe. In order to remain more anonymous and unbiased in my observation and analysis, I decided not to observe at my own library but rather at the Y Library, which serves as a regional reference center for the neighboring X Library System. In my paper, I describe the reasons for my choice: “I selected this particular library as the location of my face-to-face observation precisely because of its role as a regional reference center; I thought my chances of observing a large number of reference interactions would be high” (p. 2).
I begin my paper by setting the context for my observation through description of the city of Y and its surroundings and the physical location and layout of the library (pp. 2-3). I analyze the physical environment of the library and particularly the reference desk with reference to the RUSA Guidelines (2004), which suggest that one quality of approachability—a key service concept—“includes having Reference Services in a highly visible location and using proper signage…to indicate the location, hours, and availability of in-person and remote help or assistance” (1.1). I conclude that the presence of an information desk on the first floor of the library “helps to establish an immediate ‘reference presence’ as patrons enter the library” (p. 3), despite the fact that the reference desk itself is located on the second floor.
After setting the context for my observation, I describe my own approach to the reference staff and the circumstances under which I was able to perform my observation (p. 4). Because I was unable to effectively observe activity at the desk from a distance, I got permission from one of the reference librarians to sit behind the desk, off to the side of where she and the other employee staffing the desk at the time of my arrival were working; I observed a total of seven different reference employees over the course of the two hours of my visit. I then go on to describe how the 25 patron-initiated inquiries I observed fell into eight general categories: “library rules of conduct (2), questions about library services (1), computer/printer issues (3), directional questions (3), study room inquiries (3), supply requests (3), specific title look-ups (4), and reference questions (6)” (p. 5). From this point, I use the RUSA Guidelines (2004) to guide my analysis of the various interactions I observed at the reference desk.
Approachability (RUSA Guidelines, 1.0) is a service concept used to facilitate access to relevant, accurate information for individuals and user groups. Approachability incorporates a set of behaviors, including poise and readiness to engage with approaching patrons, acknowledging others waiting for service, establishing eye contact, smiling, using friendly greetings, standing up, remaining visible, and roving the floor. In my paper, I analyze the XLS reference staff’s approachability, recognizing areas of strength and suggesting a few behavioral changes that could strengthen their service even further (pp. 5-6).
Demonstrating interest (RUSA Guidelines, 2.0) is a service technique used to “generate a higher level of satisfaction among users” and involves facing the patron when speaking or listening, focusing attention on the patron, maintaining eye contact, and signaling “an understanding of patrons’ needs through verbal or non-verbal confirmation, such as nodding of the head or brief comments or questions” (2.5). In my analysis, I acknowledge that most of the library employees I observed demonstrated interest on most occasions but that “more notable were the few interactions where interest on the part of the library employee seemed to be lacking” (p. 7); I go on to describe a couple of examples of situations in which interest was not demonstrated and the confusion and miscommunication that arose as a result.
The third component of the RUSA Guidelines (3.0) is listening/inquiring. The Guidelines specifically link this service technique to the concept of the reference interview: “The reference interview is the heart of the reference transaction and is crucial to the success of the process” (3.0). In my discussion of listening and inquiring, I consider the professional discourse on the topic of the reference interview, highlighting ongoing debate over the best types of questions to ask at various stages (p. 8), and point out how the RUSA Guidelines reiterate the importance of using various questioning techniques to refine the search strategy and more fully understand the patron’s information need. In my observation analysis, I describe situations in which a full reference interview would have led to better service while also acknowledging that the staff exhibited strong listening and questioning skills overall (pp. 8-9).
The RUSA Guidelines describe searching (4.0) as “the portion of the transaction in which behavior and accuracy intersect.” Effective searching is necessary to find desired information and satisfy patron needs. Much responsibility falls upon the provider of reference service in formulating an effective search strategy. This process involves finding out what the patron has already tried and encouraging the patron to contribute ideas (4.1), selecting appropriate search terms and appropriate sources with “the highest probability of containing information relevant to the patron's query” (4.2), explaining the search strategy, sequence, and sources to the patron (4.3), attempting to conduct the search within the patron’s allotted time frame (4.4), and offering “pointers, detailed search paths (including complete URLs), and names of resources used to find the answer, so that patrons can learn to answer similar questions on their own” (4.9). Effective searching is a complex skill incorporating not only service techniques but also service concepts and principles. It takes into consideration the needs of individuals and groups of users in order to provide them with accurate and relevant information. In my discussion of my observation, I describe one reference librarian who displayed particularly strong searching skills (p. 10) and conclude that the XLS reference staff excels in this area (p. 11).
The fifth component of successful reference service is described in the RUSA Guidelines as follow-up: “The librarian is responsible for determining if the patrons are satisfied with the results of the search, and is also responsible for referring the patrons to other sources, even when those sources are not available in the local library” (5.0). Follow-up involves a set of behaviors that include asking patrons if their questions have been completely answered (5.1), encouraging them to return if they have further questions (5.2), roving (5.3), consulting other librarians or subject matter experts (5.4), making patrons aware of other appropriate reference services (5.5), making referrals (5.7), and taking care not to end the interview prematurely (5.9). In my observation analysis, I describe examples in which follow-up was both demonstrated and not demonstrated, pointing out that follow-up generally led to more successful reference interactions.
After some concluding remarks about my in-person reference observation, my paper moves on to Part 2, which describes a digital reference interaction I completed using XLS’s “Ask a Librarian” live chat reference service. I analyze this interaction using most of the same criteria from the RUSA Guidelines as I used to analyze my in-person observation. The RUSA Guidelines include some specific guidelines for what are termed “remote” services, and many of the other principles and behaviors can be applied in the virtual realm as well. For example, the XLS “Ask a Librarian” service meets several criteria for approachability not only because it is accessible through a prominent link on the library’s home page but also because it was convenient to use from my home computer and because the librarian who chatted with me was actively engaged (pp. 12-13). My analysis of my digital reference interaction goes beyond the RUSA Guidelines to incorporate concepts from the professional literature as well. Based on digital reference criteria developed by David Ward and described by Wikoff (2008), I conclude that the librarian who chatted with me conducted a successful digital reference interview (p. 14). I describe how she met several of the criteria outlined in the RUSA Guidelines, including demonstrating interest (p. 13), good searching skills (p. 14), and good follow-up skills (p. 15). I also point out a couple of areas with room for improvement.
Because of its emphasis on the observation of practicing reference librarians and its consideration of both professional guidelines and professional literature, the Observation Analysis paper I completed for LIBR 210 demonstrates my ability to use service concepts, principles and techniques that facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for individuals or groups of users. I received a perfect score on this assignment, and by completing it, I learned that there are specific behaviors and attitudes that can be utilized to achieve desired results in providing information to diverse populations. I therefore submit it as evidence of my mastery of this competency.
Second Piece of Evidence: Pathfinder and Narrative Report, LIBR 210
The culminating assignment for Dr. Simmons’ LIBR 210 course in Reference and Information Services was a pathfinder and accompanying narrative. Students were instructed to select a relatively narrow area of interest and create a research guide to help researchers find substantive sources on the topic. The assignment was broken into three parts.
For Part 1, students were instructed to write a brief discussion of the topic, the scope of the pathfinder, and the audience. As I discuss in my report, I chose to do my pathfinder on “resources that provide instruction to individuals and organizations in the use of online social networking for business and career growth” (p. 2). The audience for my pathfinder consists of adults, specifically professionals, business owners, and job seekers. On page 3 of my report, I discuss my decision to design my pathfinder specifically for users of The Seattle Public Library (SPL), which was based on factors such as the likelihood of the intended audience to utilize that particular library, the pathfinder’s complementary role to other programs and services (including a Job Resource Center) already offered at SPL, and SPL’s extensive selection of resources on the topic. I go on to discuss challenges that library users might encounter when researching this topic, including the speed at which materials on the topic become outdated, difficulties in distinguishing authoritative from non-authoritative sources, and the large volume of materials written on the topic.
In my report, I go on to discuss the criteria I used to evaluate the different resources I found at SPL on my topic. My criteria included “currency, appropriateness for my target audience, providing a substantial treatment of the topic of how online social networking can be used for business and career growth, and authority” (p. 4). The parameters by which I judged different resources according to the criteria are specified in further detail on pages 4-5 of my report; for example, “in order to be considered appropriate for my target audience, resources needed to be written for an adult audience with a basic knowledge of Internet use” (p. 4) and “in order for an online resource to be considered authoritative, it needed to be content-rich and not overtly attempt to ‘sell’ readers on specific products or services” (p. 5).
For Part 2 of the assignment, students were instructed to include two parts: A) a bibliography of sources we selected and B) a bibliography of sources we examined but chose not to include. For Part 2A, students were instructed to include brief annotations describing each source and explaining why we decided to include it in our pathfinder, making specific reference to how it fits the criteria explained in the introductory section. My bibliography of included sources appears on pages 5-13 of my narrative. For Part 2B, students were instructed to indicate why the sources were not selected, again making reference to the criteria explained in Part 1. The sources I excluded from my pathfinder fell into several general categories, including outdated, out of scope, too advanced, redundant, superficial treatment of topic, and scope too broad. My bibliography of excluded sources appears on pages 13-17 of my narrative.
Part 3 of the assignment consisted of the pathfinder itself. The assignment specified that the pathfinder should be about two pages in length and should be “formatted attractively and with a library patron in mind” (Simmons, 2011, p. 2). Students were asked to open our pathfinder with a scope note stating the library for which it was designed, the intended audience, and the purpose of the pathfinder; my scope note reads, “This pathfinder is intended to help adult job seekers, professionals, and businesspeople learn how to utilize online social networking for business and career growth. Incorporating both print and online learning resources, it is designed for use at The Seattle Public Library.” Students were also instructed to “avoid library language and to organize the pathfinder in a way that makes sense for a user, not necessarily for a librarian” and to include helpful hints (Simmons, 2011, p. 3). My pathfinder includes several sections chosen with the user group in mind, including “Social networking for business 101: Introduction and overview,” “For job seekers: Leverage your social network to get hired,” and “Social networking platforms: Dive into Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn.” I include tips for conducting keyword and subject searches of the SPL catalog, suggested call number areas to browse, and suggested Web searches for more information. I also include links to online help and support for the three specific social networks—Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn—that are covered in the resources included in my pathfinder.
My pathfinder was designed to facilitate access to relevant and accurate information on a particular topic for a specific user group. The relevance and accuracy of the resources I selected for inclusion are based on specified criteria. Several service concepts, principles, and techniques played a role in the creation of my pathfinder, including effective search strategies, selection of appropriate resources for the user group, interest in the research topic, and instruction in the use of the library catalog to find specific information. I received a perfect score on this assignment, and Dr. Simmons remarked that I explained my criteria well and “created a useful and user-friendly pathfinder.” I therefore submit this assignment as evidence of my ability to use service concepts, principles and techniques that facilitate information access, relevance, and accuracy for individuals or groups of users.
In my current role as a Library Associate IV in The Seattle Public Library’s Quick Information Center, one of my key duties is to provide basic reference services in all subjects. Every day, I draw on the knowledge I have gained through my observation and analysis of practicing reference librarians and my creation of a pathfinder for a real group of SPL users. The service concepts, principles, and techniques that I have learned through my coursework enable me to effectively serve library patrons, whether I am responding to inquiries at the reference desk, assisting patrons on the public computers, referring complex questions to subject-matter experts in other departments, or troubleshooting digital downloads. Each of these interactions is more successful when I am approachable, interested, and effective in communicating, searching, and following up. Working with the public can be challenging, and there is always more to learn, so it is important to continually strive to develop greater knowledge and skills. By continuing to observe other practitioners, regularly reviewing the professional literature, and reflecting upon my own work, I feel confident that I will continue to provide even greater levels of service as an information professional.
Reference and User Services Association. (2004). Guidelines for behavioral performance of reference and information service providers. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/rusa/resources/guidelines/guidelinesbehavioral.
Simmons, M. H. (2011). Pathfinder assignment sheet. Unpublished assignment sheet, San Jose State University.
Wikoff, N. (2008). Reference transaction handoffs: Factors affecting the transition from chat to email. RUSQ, 47(3), 230-241.
*NOTE: Out of respect for the organizations and individuals evaluated in my Observation Analysis, I have removed, changed, or obscured names and other identifying information.