Reference Policies

Tricky situations at the desk

Many situations arise at the public desks that donít have clear-cut right or wrong answers.

Some possible solutions are listed in the following pages, but your own library's policies should be your final guide.

Feel free to discuss points like these with your supervisor, and don't hesitate to call for help if you find yourself in a situation you are not sure how to handle.

No policy can cover all possible difficult situations. You will be called on often to use your judgment both in new situations and in applying guidelines to common ones.

It will help if you:

  1. Remember that service to patrons is our primary responsibility.
  2. Apply the professional ethics discussed in Chapter 2.
  3. Are positive and helpful.

Too many people and not enough time

All librarians who work at public desks are at times faced with several people waiting for our attention. You can only serve one person at a time effectively, and you should always fully serve the person in front of you. Some tips for handling lines at the reference desk are:

  1. Asking if anyone has a very quick question - like directions to a part of the library - that can be done right away. Sometimes a patron may think they have a quick question that turns out to be a long one! In this case you may have to return to the patron who was next in line and get back again to the "quick-question" patron.
  2. Acknowledging the people waiting. Let them know you are aware of them and will get to them as soon as you can.
  3. Being frank with patrons. Let them know that this is a busy time and that you will be glad to do what you can now, but that if they contact you at a less busy time, you might be able to provide more in-depth assistance. Let the patron choose what he would like.

Juggling telephone calls and in-person users

This is a case where you need to know your own library's policy. Some libraries give preference to in-person users since they have taken the trouble to come to the library. Others treat telephone patrons and in-person patrons equally, and take them in order. It will save frustration on your part and your patrons' part if you are clear about how your own library handles this area. All staff should be consistent in the approach to this problem.

Some tips include:

Staffing the Virtual Reference Desk

Virtual reference requires staff to be at or near a computer. Library staff could be doing other things at their desk while they are staffing virtual reference. Some libraries have found it unwise to accept telephone calls while they are at the virtual reference desk because the staff gets involved with the online patron and the person on the telephone or in-person does not understand.

The ideal is to create a separate schedule for your library's virtual reference staff.

The virtual reference desk section is from "Virtual Reference 101" presented by Carla Pfahl and Karen Docherty, MINITEX, Fall, 2003.

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This page was written by Mark Ranum, February, 2003. The virtual reference desk section was written by Rebecca Patton, Arrowhead Library System, on October 27, 2003.