Every week, I have the opportunity–often the opportunities–to provide on-the-spot reference services at a local coffee shop. Among other morning caffeine inhalers on hand as I make use of my own most portable electronics, some shyly ask about the rudiments of choosing and/or using specific creation-enabled tools (iPad, smartphone) . Others ask for help altering the settings on their ereaders. Another kind of query relies on my ability to connect them to online resources when they’ve been stumped by their own efforts to find the very specific information they’d like to uncover.
This morning’s exchange began with an elderly woman who is in the market to replace her laptop, which has become a burden for her to haul around. We toured the possibilities a tablet would allow: document creation and editing, document exchange, searchable pdf files of publications on the iBook shelf, the keyboard’s utility, and, in this case, of course, the heft of the tablet itself.
Not for the first time, I regretted that I have no business card from the local public library (the main branch of which was three blocks away and open) to offer her, with the suggestion that she could follow up our discussion, if wanted, with further exploration with the reference staff (Saying and supplying a card with hosting invitation are two very different messages). What would be welcome here, of course, would be a real presence by reference staff, equipped to guide, to explore database possibilities (in response to some other reference interviews I have carried on over my glass of coffee), and to hear what community members are wanting and needing on the spot.
It’s a two-way street as well: in this venue, I have had the opportunity to casually listen in while groups of teens from the local high school discuss what they are reading for pleasure; I’ve heard and been able to ask questions about what undocumented detainees can expect to happen before a judge (from a court-sanctioned interpreter and one-time high school teacher and professional actor, demonstrable skills for a public presenter); and how changes occurring in university library public staffing practices have affected alumni efforts to pursue scholarly research of their own. If I worked for the public library here, I would be gaining valuable insights that range from traditional collection management to the real deal behind the policies of other agencies and institutions that should be impacting service provision plans in my own workplace.
There are public libraries that have taken the step of stepping out, assigning and supporting trained staff to move from behind the reference desk and out the door of the building to be where the action is. Staff visits the local food pantry to see what groceries are going home with those in need that week that will most likely require recipe help for consumers unfamiliar with canned garbanzo beans or bulk buckwheat. Others hold down booths weekly–not just for special events–at farmers markets, prepared with netbook and ready to aid other market regulars with non-market information needs. You can read about the theory and forty-year-old practice of this kind of where-the-action-is library service in John Pateman and Ken Williment’s new book, Developing Community-led Public Libraries.
There is opportunity for the evening library staff shift as well. Bar customers famously lay bets in need of demonstrable settling, if we are going old school, and those of us who read in them are regularly approached for advisory help–real advisory help, not just “Would I like the book you’re reading now?” (Bars, by the way, serve soft drinks unblinkingly, so the on duty staffer need not imbibe on work time).
A challenge? No more so than evaluating the traffic–both volume and professional need–at your current information or reference desk, and sorting service priorities to address the reference needs where staff probably already drink during breaks, before or after work. Scary? Probably for many, administrators as well as staff. Training is involved, but so, too, is valuing proactive library service over maintaining a line that has become a kind of monument to pre-wired days. Come on, I know you can do it. I’ve seen it done. I’ve done it myself, both as an administrator and as frontline librarian.