Thursday, 20 March 2008

Michael's two laws of library science

I'm on Enquire this morning, doing online reference as part of the People's Network cooperative. I answered a question and received this feedback:

This is a great service that I didn't know existed. Michael was courteous and professional and also helpful in answering my question. I am very pleased with this service.


Feedback is rare on Enquire: each reference transaction ends with a survey for the user, but only about 6% actually get filled in. Of the 116 questions I've answered in the last couple of years, I've had 12 surveys back. That's 10.3%. So if I'm beating the average, I must be doing something right.

I'd like to share the two guiding principles I bring to the reference desk, whether it's made of chipboard and veneer, or silicon and pixels:

  1. Be excellent to each other
  2. Party on, dudes

Abe Lincoln's words ring as true today as they did in 1989.

But seriously, I believe quite firmly that half of the battle in modern librarianship is in building relationships on a positive footing. Maybe this wasn't necessary back in the day: the reference library as a physical entity contained everything that could be known on a subject. People had no other options. These days, of course, "everyone" assumes that Google will give them the answer. Immediately. For free. We need to know not just our physical collections, but also the online resources we subscribe to, *and* the pockets of quality information available for free on the Internets.

If we're competing with multiple destinations, and calling on more and diverse sources, it's going to be a struggle. We don't have long to convince people that we're the better option, so that relationship has to be built very quickly. Being excellent to our users helps, as does partying on - or at least chatting a bit - where appropriate. Exercising a little judgement is not difficult.

If this is the case for face-to-face reference, it goes double for the online environment. If you can't see your patron, you won't pick up on their body language, so you need to try extra hard to win them over. They can't see you checking the OED or the road atlas by your desk, so you need to tell them what you're up to. The conversation needs to keep going, to fill in those holes.

Now, if I can beat Wayne's World into a metaphor for librarianship, my work here is done.