November 8th was my first full year as a law librarian. I’m still a newbie, but if I could go back in time to last year, here are the top 5 things that I would tell myself about reference:
- Go with the flow.
- Teach the students who come to you.
- Leave the building at lunchtime.
I was not a smiley child. I was raised by the kind of people who think that children are small adults. As a result, I was a very serious child. To me, a serious face means I am taking you and your concern seriously. What I have realized is that when I am friendly and down to earth, my patrons seem to feel taken care of. Sometimes, students who I chatted with briefly about nothing in the elevator,
or at a prospective students function, later come to me with their research questions. I can only presume that this is because they find me approachable.
One thing that has been very hard for me is fielding office supplies and bathroom questions at the reference desk. Because I want so much to be relevant,
and respected for what I do, sometimes it is hard to swallow when people are asking me if they can buy index cards or borrow a pen. But ego aside, if I can let this go and smile as I point them to the circulation desk where such things are kept, a lot more students would probably feel comfortable coming to ask me questions.
It then becomes a matter of time constraints. I am either at the reference desk or on call for reference 26 hours a week. Let’s say I concede defeat and surround myself with a plethora of office supply offerings and use the thing that they most ask me about as an opportunity to meet and talk to students in a friendly way so that when they have real questions, they will come to me.
To do this, I need to spend my time at the reference desk doing the more mechanical aspects of my job,such as forwarding current awareness newsletters to the relevant professors,
or browsing for legal news to post to our social media sites so that when students pass by I can smile, look at them, say hello, and respond cheerily to their directional questions. This would still leave me with 14 hours a week for research and teaching preparation.
I need to strike a balance and take a more relaxed approach. Being more relaxed at the reference desk,
and being more prepared to interact with the students could lead in the long term to a better overall relationship with the students, which could mean more students coming to me for help.
Go with the Flow
On a Saturday morning, there are often very few students around. This means that my reference question count is often 0-3 (including that alumni who wanted to know if she could print).
So maybe I need to use the reference desk time when students are around but do not need much research assistance as an opportunity to put myself onto their radar by responding with friendliness to their liquid paper inquiries,and maybe when they ask about the bathroom, I can show them how to use the touchscreens located on every floor to find any room in the building, just as I would show them how to find a book on ThomCat.
Teach the students who come to you.
It is easy to get disillusioned by the small number of patrons who actually ask for research help in the library. I think this is ubiquitous,
and not particular to any school, or any particular type of library. Sending them messages or offering mini-research classes at times that are convenient for us librarians does not seem to result in very high attendance.
Although I sometimes get students coming to me one at a time,
from a particular class, and I know I could teach them more efficiently if they came as a group, trying to organize this is unwise. In my limited experience, if you try to get students to self-organize to come to you as a group, they will never show up at all. Instead of aiming for quantity, I try to provide quality service for whomever shows up. This means that if I have the time, even if a student comes to me with a discrete question, I may offer to show them some more things, and if they seem interested, one question can turn into a tour of the California resources, or an exploration of WestlawNext. I teach the students who show up. I teach them what they allow me to teach, and I hope the word will spread that I am helpful.
Leave the building at lunchtime
The up side to being on call for reference,
is that when a challenging or tedious task is in front of me, I still have the joy of knowing that I could possibly be whisked away from that task at any moment by a patron who needs help finding something in the CJS, or locating a practice guide. The down side is that it is easy to get burnt out. Although I frequently eat lunch at my desk, I am starting to realize that in the interest of remaining happy and excited about my job, I need to be here less. So at lunchtime I really ought to leave the glass walled fishbowl that is my office and get out of the building, preferably with a friend who will not stand for shop-talk.