The Personal Reference Touch

Within the last year or so, I've read and heard a lot of discussion about how the library could take lessons from retail. Most notably, the retail industry has done all of the research when it comes to layout and design of spaces. They know how people shop, how people act when presented with a layout, display, or other store feature, and how to adjust things so as to get the most desirable consumer reaction. The department stores you walk into are the sum total of this exploration into how people hunt and gather for their shopping needs. I don't think it's a bad idea, really, to mimic some of these attributes with our own libraries. If we can get people to take a second look or listen to what we have to offer, it is certainly energy well spent.

There is also some discussion about what lessons we can take from retail customer service. Patrons have come to expect a similar customer experience since they are engaging in the same steps (e.g. find a product, bring it to a counter, hand over a card, get the product and card back, leave). I think that, while a retail style interaction is logical for the circulation desk, I would hesitate to apply the principles to the reference desk. Any librarian can tell you of the many common questions and requests to the gamut of deeper inquiries and searches that patrons can bring. The principles of retail, for me, seem to fall flat on their face in the face of such diversity. I had been wracking my brain for a better customer interaction model for a good week and I think I've stumbled upon it: concierge.

Most online definitions of a concierge lean towards someone who cares for the physical needs of their clients, but I'd like to think that the underlying concept is still sound. It is a person who attends to the requests and needs of their client (in this case a patron). While it's not setting appointments or arranging for dry cleaning, I don't see much of a difference in placing holds, making calls on their behalf to other libraries for information, assisting with computer or copier problems, or researching complicated questions. Each patron comes to the reference desk with their own inquiries and requests. The customer service goal of the reference librarian should be to provide the patron with a personally tailored experience. That type of interaction is what brings people back to the library over time as they know that there is someone who will invest time and effort into what they seek. Much in the same way that a hotel concierge sees to the needs of guests, a reference librarian attends to the intellectual needs of the patron.

For certain, the next time my job title comes up, I'm going to be pressing for "Information Concierge". It just has a special ring to it.

Cross-posted to my personal blog, Agnostic, Maybe

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This is what my patrons want from me:

"Why, that's a beautiful pin you're wearing. That little Pom just seems to leap right out at 'cha."
"Why, thank you. That is so kind of you to say so. That's Jo Jo. He's my best friend."
"How's Jo Jo doing?"
"He's passed on."
"Oh, I'm very sorry to hear that."
"You are the best librarian, ever."

And the patron leaves happy.

That's why I believe libraries should have greeters: volunteers who chat with the patron until the librarian can see her. The librarian should always be hidden from patrons, like in The Wizard of Oz (the movie). Patrons should feel the same way about seeing the librarian as they would visiting a doctor, lawyer or loanshark.

This is why I am adopting a child. Ok, more like a volunteer, but I'm getting a kid to work with me at the reference desk. I will sit there in my black tunic and a clean-shaven head (sorry, Farrah hair, we both knew it couldn't last). My child assistant will greet each patron with the words: "I interpret for Master."
After the patron tells my assistant what she wants, he will lean to me and whisper some nonsense in my ear.
Then I will search. My assistant will then say, "Master says the cookbooks are on aisle twelve. Come, Master will lead you."
After I find her cookbook and she thanks us, my assistant will finish with, "Also, Master says, 'nice pin.'"

and this:

Our credit union uses video cameras and tiny tv monitors to keep people occupied while the teller works. And she's only two inches away behind some cheap wood paneling. I can see her through a tiny crack next to the video camera. Well, if she's so close, then why the charade? Why do I need to talk to her through a video phone? Because she's working. She doesn't need some panting, coughing sweaty person glaring at her while she counts twenties. And I have money in that bank. Lots of it. Yet the credit union still feel justified in shielding their workers from prying eyes.

If the library can't afford to hire greeters who smile and tell patrons that the librarian will see her "in just a moment," then we should be able to get little tv monitors at the desk to distract the patrons for that period between the time they ask a question and the time I have an answer. Or let them play Wii Darts. Or anything except continue to bother me.

Because, guess what, I'm working.

"I'm not really here."

There are times when I feel retail can take some lessons from me and my colleagues. We work hard and try our best to fulfill patron needs. In retail, more often than not you're lucky if you're acknowledged. The blending of retail and libraries demonstrates that consumerism makes the person or in other words, they have us well-trained.
The retail model works in a library if patrons are picking up the latest best sellers (print or audiovisual) but if they're in need of materials for a research project, they should understand that it's not like Crackdonald's where you get your Big Mac, Coke, Fries and you're on your way. Research requires time. Usually print *and* electronic resources need to be consulted. Materials need to be identified and sometimes retrieved. We can bring an almost conceirge like service to a patron but they have to give us the time to do it. "The project is due tomorrow" is the phrase I dislike the most.

We cover similar ideas over at Designing Better Libraries -

A recent post discusses the three things libraries can do to differentiate themselves from other information resources such as search engines or ask a services. Certainly, focusing on the building of relationships is a critical factor. It's not necessarily a retail model as not every store focuses on these techniques.

Steven B

There's some cross over. I was amazed how when I was multi-tasking customer requests in classroom scenarios it seemed to stun the people I was around. I wasn't as impressive at formal writing as they were. One day our undergrad degrees came up. Mine was in Parks and Rec from a very alternative college. Theirs were mostly in English or History from traditional colleges. I was trained to manage the people end of weddings and summer programs. They were trained to read and write. You need both at the reference desk, but I think libraries end up with less people who are trained to specifically work with people at their most crazy and more people who are focused-trained to work with the materials.

Just a thought.

My background is Biology and my after college work experience was commercial horticulture. Working at the nursery, I was tasked with running work crews (both English speaking and non-English speaking), maintaining watering schedules, and checking in on individuals doing various tasks. Now, as I apply those skills to my library, I can see projects in terms of manpower and time and imagine different schedules and tasks from a 'top down' viewpoint. It makes sense to me.

To a certain extent, you can't teach people skills. You can teach people how to cope in the face of patron adversity, but that's about it.