About Timothy Hackman
Librarian for English & Linguistics, University of Maryland Libraries. Member of LES since 2006.
So another semester is under way, and with it comes the first few weeks of very…um, uneven service from the new student assistants at our reference desk. While they are learning the ins and outs of photocopy cards, printer servers, food and drink policies and the like, the student assistants expect to turn to their supervisors and peers for help with questions to which they don’t know the answers. But when it comes to reference and research questions, it seems to be a different story. With some exceptions, it seems that students are almost physiologically averse to referring questions to a librarian, even when one is sitting at the same desk! I have witnessed the following exchange innumerable times:
Patron: Do you have any books on my obscure English 101 topic?
Student (typing a few keywords in the Catalog): No, we don’t. Sorry.
Patron: Oh, ok. (Goes back to the dorm to cut and paste from Google results)
Granted, you’d think the patron would ask to speak to someone else about their question, but maybe they’re in a rush, or maybe they don’t want to hurt their fellow student’s feelings. (Graduate students and faculty seem to be less shy about asking for someone else’s help when their needs haven’t been met.) The ideal situation would be for our student assistants to know when a referral is needed, and to follow through appropriately.
Short of shock collars or Facebook-deprivation chambers, how can we better train our students to make referrals? One approach we’re considering at my institution is to employ more graduate students from the library school, who are a little more motivated to learn “the business” and to provide good service. But this can stretch the budget, and obviously isn’t much help for those universities without library schools. So what other suggestions do you have for approaching this problem? What sorts of training or guidelines have you implemented? What has worked well (or even not well, but maybe could be improved with some tinkering?) If you use a tiered (aka “Brandeis Model”) reference system, do employees at the first tier really make referrals like they’re supposed to?