Hi, my name is Jo and I'm a newly qualified librarian working in several academic libraries in Cambridge.

I originally created this blog as an electronic learning journal whilst participating in an extended shadowing programme prior to starting the MA in Information Services Management at London Metropolitan University.

The views expressed here are entirely my own.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Extended Shadowing Programme: Session Six - Observing the Enquiry Desk

Yesterday lunchtime I observed the Academic Liaison Librarian, Arts, Law and Social Sciences (ALL (ALSS)) at the Enquiry Desk for two hours. As the first hour was very quiet I took the opportunity to ask her about her previous career in Public and Further Education libraries. Having only worked in one library, and not having any fixed ideas about which sector I would like to work in, this discussion gave me a useful glimpse into other areas of the profession.

Customer care
We also spent some time discussing how she prefers to work at the Desk and deals with waiting customers. Like the ALL (A&L), the ALL (ALSS) tries to acknowledge anyone who is waiting and will use her judgement whether to ask the reader she is engaged with if she can deal with waiting customers she suspects can be dealt with quickly. If an enquiry is particularly complex, she tends to ignore the telephone but if she has just finished dealing with someone, she will answer the phone before moving onto the next person. The ALL (ALSS) also makes a concerted effort to educate readers so that they don't become dependent on library staff and gain the confidence to use the library independently. For instance, our students often don't realise that they can request items from our other sites. The ALL (ALSS) therefore tries to make sure that readers are aware of this and shows them exactly how to place a reservation.

Difficulties and recurrent issues
It was also interesting to compare common and particularly difficult issues that arise at both the Reception and Enquiry Desks. As our university has a high percentage of international students, issues frequently arise due to language barriers. Although it is sometimes embarrassing to ask someone to repeat themselves several times, it is important not to assume that you have understood or to guess what the reader is asking for. The ALL (ALSS) also explained that libraries on the continent are often organised quite differently and tend to put less emphasis on self-service and user education. This can lead to different expectations of library staff and perceptions of unhelpfulness, particularly for those working at the Enquiry Desk.

Other common problems relate to fine disputes and readers' behaviour, particularly with talking and eating in inappropriate areas of the library. In some respects it was a relief to know that even experienced and senior members of staff find these situations awkward and difficult to deal with. It was also reassuring, although also slightly depressing, to know that the often discourteous and disrespectful attitudes of some of our readers are not reserved exclusively for the Library Assistants!

What was perhaps more depressing than this was an act of vandalism that was brought to our attention by one of our Ophthalmology students. A whole chapter had been deliberately cut out of a brand new book. Like many of the Ophthalmology titles, this was a particularly expensive book which now leaves the Subject Librarian with the dilemma of whether to make all copies counter issue only, which will cause inconvenience to innocent students.

So far, my observations of the Enquiry Desk have shown me the positive aspects of the librarian's role and the rewards of helping readers to resolve their queries and to make the most out of using the library. This session made me think about the less favourable aspects of the role and some of the difficult issues that I am likely to face if I am to pursue a professional career in library work. I do, however, think it is important to reflect on this and to honestly consider whether I am prepared to endure the downsides of the profession. I am happy to say that, on balance, the rewards still appear to outweigh the negatives and I haven't been deterred from pursuing my goal of becoming a professional librarian.

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