I do a lot of training with librarians and information professionals on reference desks skills, enquiry desk skills or customer service skills. My sessions don’t involve me showing people how to answer enquiries as I’m not the expert in that, they are. After all I don’t work in their library, I don’t know where the journals are or how to access an e-book.

Image of a Library Enquiry Desk
Flickr CC: Loughborough University Library.

What I do cover are things like what do customers really want, listening and questioning skills, empathy, how to manage our own emotions and those of others. We discuss issues such as the wide variety of people coming into libraries and the differences in their library experience. Have they ever been to a library before? Could it be an overwhelming experience? Are they frightened of approaching the desk and interrupting an obviously busy librarian/library assistant? Do they feel that they shouldn’t really be there? Are they worried about asking a stupid question? Do they think that everyone else in the library knows what they are doing, apart from them? Do they know what is expected of them? If you’d never been in a library before, would you know what to do?

Do we have unrealistic expectations of our users?

I think we do. As many of you may know I’m involved in the CILIP Information Literacy Group and I’m the LILAC Chair. So information literacy, (IL, infolit, digital literacy, user education, information skills, study skills, teaching people how to find information, managing information, or anything else that you would like to call it. Is it anyone wonder people aren’t always sure what librarians do?) is very close to my heart. I’ve always felt that whenever I interact with a user that it’s my opportunity to do a bite-sized chunk of IL training.

With all of the sessions I’ve been doing recently I’ve been reflecting on and discussing my experiences of ‘being on the desk’.

I’ve been particularly thinking about when I worked at Dubai Women’s College (DWC). My supervisor (*waves at Garry) introduced Roving Reference soon after I arrived. I wasn’t really sure at first as I’d never done it before, but I was willing to give it a go.

Just to give you a little bit of background, DWC is the equivalent of a further education college for 16-20 year old Emirati women.

For some of our students this was their first experience of a library and often their first experience of being in an English speaking environment. Just to put that into context, the UAE had a predominantly oral culture and some of the women were only the second generation of people in their family who could read.

In the first couple of weeks I was there, we were still on a traditonal enquiry desk system. One of the things I’d noticed was how apologetic students were if they came to the desk.

I’m really sorry to interrupt Miss, but I’m looking for a book?

I realised (with the help of colleagues who had been working in the UAE longer than I had) that it was felt to be incredibly rude to interrupt someone in authority when they working. Also, we weren’t getting that many enquiries. So we started roving and what a difference…

It took a few weeks. We had to hit our stride and the students had to get used to us ‘bothering’ them. But I found out that I loved it. We simply walked around the library asking students if they needed any help. At first all we got was giggles and ‘No, Miss’. As they were always very polite, there was only a slight undertone of ‘go away’.

But ‘Do you need any help?’ turned into conversations. Conversations turned into rapport. The rapport meant that other students could see us helping their peers and that we were friendly. The students soon got used to us asking and it really developed their confidence in the library service. They were happy to be asked and started to chatting to us more openly about their work.

This meant we had more intel on what work the students were being given, which meant we could get more relevant resources for them. It meant that we started to get more and more enquiries. Not just for help with assignments but we were also being asked for recommendations on fiction and dvds. It meant that I could develop better IL instruction because I knew more about my students and their level. It also meant that we got more complicated and interesting enquiries. After all, particularly in a college, the first time you help a student, it’s usually for something relatively straight-forward, but as their confidence grew so did their skill in finding basic stuff. Then they could move on to finding more complicated information.

The other great side effect of roving is that the more information we had on what the students were doing, the more  we were able to develop our liaison with faculty. It meant we could go to them, tell them about what we could for them for their next assignment and make the first contact and then develop a stronger relationship for the good of the students. A better relationship with faculty also meant that I started giving more IL classes.

At DWC, roving helped us to run our library service. It fed into our strategy, and allowed us to be more customer-focused. It allowed us to create more targeted policies for collection development, induction, IL instruction, academic liaison and of course answering enquiries. It was also a lot of fun.

This was in 2004. I’m sure roving must have developed in leaps and bounds since our early days of simply wandering around a library asking ‘Do you need any help?’

I’m now (belatedly) really interested in this area.  So I was wondering what your experiences of roving were?

Do you rove? What do you get out of it?

What are the issues? Difficulties? Stresses?

What happens at different levels, schools or universities? Does anyone rove in public libraries or health libraries?

Is there advanced roving? How have you taken it forward?

To quote Sam from Lost Boys, “Inquiring minds want to know”.

or should that be ‘Enquiring’?

    • My pleasure – glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for the link too, it looks really useful. I need to time to have a proper read but already I can see blog posts and articles I need to see!

  1. We don’t ‘officially’ do roving reference, but I always have half an eye on anyone who happens to be in the reference/computer area. If someone looks lost, or obviously is having difficulty with a machine, or clearly cannot find what he or she is looking for, I’ll jump up and go over to ask that person if I can help. I don’t know what my colleagues do – I am usually on the desk alone – but I think you’re right that people are sometimes hesitant to approach the staff or don’t want to seem stupid or whatever. This way I can spare them discomfort, help solve their problems, and perhaps make it easier for them to approach me next time.

    • Sounds great Lynn. I think being aware of what’s going on is really important and that way you can help when you’re needed. 🙂

  2. Pingback: Roving, roving, roving. My experience of roving...

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