In which I shadow a (really cool) reference librarian.

Her official job title is Director of Innovative Family Services and it may well be the best job ever. Margaret Portier is the name of this fortunate librarian. I’m the lucky library student who got to shadow her at the Fayetteville Free Library (FFL) for three hours on Saturday as part of my IST 605: Reference and Information Literacy Services class.

Margaret Portier from the Fayetteville Free Library. Photo shared with permission.

During my observation, Margaret was nominally stationed at the library’s main Information desk, but assisting library members took us to several other areas of the library building, including a small, staff-only back office to reboot a server. The question-askers represented a range of ages and Margaret assisted them with everything from basic information (“Do you have this book?”) to more complicated technology issues (“Minecraft is lagging. Can you fix it?”) I could likely write a 10-page essay relating what I saw to the concepts I’m learning in class, but for this post I’ll limit myself to three areas:

Reference skills are customer service skills.
Although my textbook refers to them as reference skills, Margaret used what I – because of my retail background – call good customer service skills. She demonstrated approachability by making eye contact and smiling, greeting the library members (very often by name), and displaying relaxed but attentive body language. I witnessed examples of verbal acknowledgement (rephrasing what a person said to ensure understanding) as well as open questions meant to clarify the information being sought.

For example, a man wanted to find a book for his wife similar to one she had just read. Margaret began, before consulting a reference resource or dashing away to the shelves, by asking, “What about this [first] book did your wife like best?” Instead of making an assumption, she took pains to understand the user’s need more fully, and this was a perfect way to handle an imposed query. This may seem like a very basic skill in a simple transaction. You might take it for granted because it’s the sort of proficiency that’s not always noticeable until it’s absent. However, if you’ve ever felt frustrated by getting a not-quite-right answer, or suspected the person who’s “helping” you wasn’t paying attention to the specifics of your need, you quickly begin to value the good follow-up question.

Non-traditional reference: the coolest part.
Although Margaret does plenty of traditional reference, answering questions in-person at the Information Desk and over the phone, by far the most unusual (and fascinating) aspect of her job is her role as the library’s Minecraft specialist. In response to the needs of their tween/teen patrons, the FFL has installed MinecraftEdu (the classroom version of the popular game) on their server. Margaret has assumed responsibility for learning the ins and outs of the game from scratch (i.e. she didn’t come to the library an expert but learned it on the job) and serves as the players’ source of assistance in the library. She provides this help not only in person but also from within the game through the player chat feature.

MindcraftEdu image used with permission. TeacherGaming LLC 2015
MindcraftEdu image used with permission. TeacherGaming LLC 2015

Let me repeat: she is providing virtual reference services for library members through Minecraft as part of her job! [I don’t play Minecraft myself, but my nephews do, so I fully comprehend the marvelousness of this service.] I asked what reference resources she found most helpful for her non-traditional reference work and she pointed me towards the Minecraft Wiki and the MinecraftEdu Resources. However, she sometimes facilitates learning by connecting newer players who have questions with more experienced players who know how to get things done in the game. Minecraft wikis and local teens as reference resources? This is innovative librarianship!

They keep coming back.
We didn’t specifically discuss, at this shadowing session, how Margaret evaluates the reference services she provides. However, I took note of evidence that suggests library members value her assistance highly:

  1. At least 4 adult patrons made a beeline for her desk as soon as they walked into the library, and knew her by name. Previous good service clearly made them feel comfortable returning to her for future assistance.
  2. A woman looking for an audiobook recommendation went out of her way to tell me that “Margaret is great. She has never steered me wrong.”
  3. Margaret was the most popular person in the library with the Minecraft gamers. Granted, maybe it’s because they have no other choice of librarian with that specific knowledge, but I doubt it. It was obvious to me that the younger patrons had no hesitation about approaching her for help. She is clearly valuable to their library experience.

As you can tell, I enjoyed my Saturday morning at the main Information desk with Margaret. I’ll have the chance to shadow her for another three hours next month (at the desk in the teen space) and observe a one-on-one instruction session. In the meantime, I’ve signed up for a library card so I can use the computer lab, develop some Minecraft skills, and seriously impress my nephews. I also know which FFL librarian I’ll ask if I need help.

In which I am tempted to over-commit.

On the first day of Reference class, Professor Jill Hurst-Wahl shared a list she’d compiled of “Advice and Wisdom for New Graduate Students.” I’m finding it quite helpful. Take a peek and you’ll see that I’ve already highlighted a few of the most useful phrases. One of them is:

“Network, don’t be shy. Volunteer. Be active in any of the out of classroom activities.”

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not shy. Unless I’m feeling particularly introverted, networking, volunteering, and being active in extra-curricular activities are my idea of fun. And there’s so much to get involved with. I’ve been attending weekly meetings of the Library and Information Science Student Assembly (LISSA), the iSchool’s chapter of the American Library Association (ALA). As a result of those meetings, I’ve already signed up for the following activities:

Based on opportunities I’ve heard about elsewhere, I’d also really enjoy:

Completely reasonable, right?
Completely reasonable, right?

Oh, and I’m currently taking three classes and working 20 hours a week. I also have a husband I enjoy spending time with, a niece and nephews who live close enough to visit, and friends in Hamilton whom I miss. Do you see the problem? In the absence of a TARDIS or a time-turner,  I cannot possibly do all the mega-interesting things I’m convinced I simply must do.

Which brings me to the second crucial piece of Advice and Wisdom from the Reference class handout:

Don’t over-extend yourself.

I wondered (aloud, in class) how to reconcile those two contradictory bits of wisdom: get involved but don’t over-extend yourself. In response, I received the wisest tip yet, not from the handout, but from my professor:

You don’t have to do everything. It’s OK to say no to some things.

Simple advice, but will I listen? After a series of deep breaths and the donning of my thinking cap, I’ve crossed some non-essential items off the second list. (I’ll leave you to discover which ones.) We’ll see if I can become a more balanced person who commits just enough but not too much. Please wish me luck!

What about you? Do you over-extend? Wish you volunteered more? How would you prioritize my lists if you were me? I’d love to hear from librarians and non-librarians alike.

In which I disagree, but am hopefully not disagreeable.

I just read a post called “Where Reference Fits in the Modern Library” written by White Plains Public Library director Brian Kenney for Publishers Weekly. It’s a thoughtful and impassioned piece, although slightly woeful, in which Kenney suggests that library reference services have “just disappeared” and “no one in the library field seems intent on figuring out what happened.”

He goes on to talk about how library members have less interest in traditional reference resources, but do want help “doing things” (like using the technology that’s become ubiquitous in our daily lives) rather than “finding things.” With that, I wholeheartedly agree.  Kinney says that “it’s time to acknowledge that something else… is taking the place of traditional reference service in public libraries” and reassures librarians that there’s room for hope but that “the challenge isn’t going to get any easier until we start talking about it.”

I’ve never met Brian Kenney. I do know that he is an intelligent and highly educated librarian who started his library science degree while I was still in 3rd grade. I also agree with him that traditional reference services, with a stern-looking librarian sitting behind an imposing desk, are a thing of the past.

Stern librarian, surrounded by old books.
Stern librarian, surrounded by old books.

But I don’t see reference as having “disappeared” at all. Changed, certainly, but it’s not exactly hiding. Kinney’s examples don’t reflect my experience (either as a user, a volunteer, or a new professional) with libraries and their services over the past several years.

I’m not sure which library schools Kinney is referring to in this post, but I can assure everyone that far from “not discussing references services at all,” I’m currently taking a required course in library Reference & Info Literacy Services, learning new things, and enjoying it very much. In fact, one of my class assignments is to shadow a reference librarian for 6 hours this semester, and I’ll be conducting my observation at the Fayetteville Free Library which has three makerspaces on site and offers its members multiple resources for STEM learning, technology assistance, and job/resume/career help.

To me, the fact that library members seek help in using their digital devices is nothing new. My beloved Hamilton Public Library​ employs a Digital Service and Outreach Coordinator who offers technology assistance to community members. In fact, she’s offering an ebook & audiobook workshop on 9/17/15 and an internet basics workshop on 9/24/15.

Hamilton Public Library. Photo shamelessly borrowed from their Facebook page since I'm reasonably sure the Library Director won't mind.
Hamilton Public Library. Photo shamelessly borrowed from their Facebook page since I’m reasonably sure the Library Director won’t mind.

Most of the librarians I know (especially my friends Bev and Hilary) are certainly not “clinging to an outdated reference mission.” As a matter of fact, I don’t think I know a single librarian who is “carrying on as though little has changed” or expecting to remain stationary at a desk all day (wearing the stereotypical dowdy cardigan sweater and sporting a severe bun in their hair, whilst speaking quietly, and shushing people).

The mental model of the old-school library/librarian may still persist in our society, but mostly as a humorous relic of the past. When I tell people that I’m pursuing an MS in Library and Information Science, the majority don’t even mention books but instead comment on how important technology is in the field, and what a wonderful community resource libraries are. They know that libraries aren’t dead, but serving their communities in exciting new ways.

Brian Kenney has written a good article presenting his experience, and if it serves as a wake-up call to reactionary, heads-in-the-sand reference librarians who don’t want to think about change, all the better! My experience has been somewhat different. And, yes, I fully acknowledge that I’m only a first-semester LIS student approaching this as a library user, volunteer, and community member, rather then as someone who’s been in the profession for years. But a large part of the reason I decided to change careers was hearing and reading librarians talk and write about how the profession has been changing and how they’re dynamically meeting the challenges inherent in the seismic shift.

Maybe I’m inexperienced and out of touch. Or maybe I’m just phenomenally privileged to only know forward-thinking librarians who have been talking about these issues for as long as I’ve known them. Either way, I’m all-in when it comes to my quest for knowledge and my goal to become a kick-ass Super Librarian of the Future.

Please tell me what you think. Is reference dead? Disappearing? Or responding well to change and thriving? What’s your experience with library reference services? I’m eager to know.