I Heart Poultry, or: The Importance of the Reference Interview

With Valentine’s Day coming up, this reference interaction popped into my head.

Now I normally don’t blog about specific patron encounters, but this one was years ago… circa 2003 when I was a newbie librarian.

A man approached the reference desk and asked a simple question:

Do you have any books on poultry?

With my newly minted MLS, I thought I better do a good reference interview:

Well, are you looking for books on any specific type of poultry: like chickens or turkeys? About farming, urban chickens, or feral? We have a fairly large agriculture collection. 

Wow, how self-important I sounded! It resulted in a quizzical look from the man. He said:

No! No! I’m looking for romance stuff.

At this point I’m confused. Chickens? Romance?

Then it dawned on me. He wasn’t looking for books about poultry. He was looking for books about POETRY. He wanted romantic poems. I misunderstood him.

You see, wanting to “impress” the patron with my knowledge, I should have just started the reference interview with a simple question: Can you tell me more about what you want to find? 

Problem solved and there wouldn’t have been a poultry/poetry dilemma. Lesson learned!

Reference Desk: What to Call It?

The phone rings at the Reference Desk. I pick it up to answer:

Me: Library Reference Desk, may I help you?

Patron: Umm…I don’t need you to be a reference. But can I ask a question?

Me: (Not missing a beat) Absolutely!

So, did the library patron really think the Reference Desk was the place to call to have someone vouch for them on a resume? Sigh.

What should it be called? Information Desk, Research Desk, Help Desk? I just don’t think the term reference registers with a lot of users. I also struggle with using the term reference when I do library instruction. I generally don’t even say “reference books”–instead, it’s background info, encyclopedias, dictionaries, etc.

I worked at a library where the Reference Desk was known as the “Research Assistance” desk. That made sense to users (this was an academic library). The students knew to go to this desk and get help from the librarian.

I also like “Information Desk”: questions = information. That’s easy to understand. “Help Desk” is a perfect description, too. However, it has been co-opted by information technology departments. Would users assume that a “Help Desk” is only for technology questions? Although, many libraries do already answer many tech questions anyway.

Which name do you prefer?

The library I currently work at recently installed a merged circulation/reference area. Now I struggle whether to refer separately to them as “circulation desk” and “reference desk,” (they are technically two desks, separated by small opening) or some new name?

After the re-model:

I’d love to hear from other librarians who have merged circulation/reference areas. What do you call it?