Friday, October 5, 2007

Library Anxiety and the Reference Interview

Shelf of vintage books

What is "Library Anxiety"?

In 1986, Constance Mellon, a library science professor, coined the term to describe a phenomenon that she and other librarians observed when patrons were overwhelmed by libraries and too intimidated to ask for assistance. One of the ways that information professionals can counteract this common occurrence is to conduct the gentle art of the reference interview.

I went undercover in a bustling academic library to experience a reference interview from a patron's point of view. To conceal the real reason for my visit, I posed as a student and asked, “Where can I find information about herbal medicine, especially its history?” I was immediately aware of the librarian’s body language. I could tell that she was frazzled, but she greeted me with direct eye contact and a smile, which I returned, and it put us both at ease. Throughout the interview, she looked as though she was actively listening to what I said and talked in a friendly, professional voice. An open, willing-to-listen attitude and neutral questioning conveyed by search professionals contributes to the success of the reference interview.

Her first question was “When do you need this information by?” which surprised me until I realized that at this time of year, more students are asking for reference assistance to work on their final papers. I replied that I would like to access the information now, if she had the time to help me find it. She then asked about the uses of the information: “Why is this information needed, and what are you going to do with it?” I replied that I wanted it for my own knowledge and did not have any formal plans for its use. She then focused on the type and amount of material I needed: “What type of information would be most useful?” and “How much information do you need?” She asked about the gaps of my information: “What sources are you already familiar with?” I said that I was primarily concerned with books that the library owned, and that I had general knowledge of the history, but had never taken out books about the subject before. She then asked, “What regions do you want to focus on?” and I replied that I wanted to start with the United States and Europe.

She conducted a simple keyword search in the library catalog using “herbal medicine” and “history” and received these results:

Green Pharmacy: A History of Herbal Medicine by Barbara Griggs
Natural History of Medicinal Plants by Judith Sumner
Nature’s Pharmacy: A History of Plants and Healing by Christine Stockwell
The Story of Taxol: Nature and Politics in the Pursuit of an Anti-Cancer Drug by Jordan Goodman and Vivien Walsh.

Looking through the citations, she found the keywords “Materia medica” and “Herbs Therapeutic use History” which she also searched for, resulting in a promising title:

Heal Thyself: Nicholas Culpeper and the Seventeenth Century Struggle to Bring Medicine to the People by Benjamin Woolley

During the search, she asked if I was interested in finding information on homeopathy or the use of ayurveda or Traditional Chinese medicine in the West, which I declined.

Although the interview only lasted five minutes, there were two other patrons waiting for reference assistance. I wrote down the call numbers, and the librarian asked, “Do you think these will be helpful?” It was the only closed question she asked and signaled the end of the interview. The question made me realize the importance of proper closure to the reference interview. It must be done in a manner that will encourage the patron to either revisit for more help or return in the future with another question. Since I was giving her feedback that the books she found would be helpful (by writing them down), she noticed my physical cues and queried me if I was satisfied.

As I left the interview, I realized that the librarian could have simply directed me to the library catalog to search for myself, as my query was simple and straight-to-the-point. However, she conducted the reference interview in such a way to make me think deeper about the question I approached her with. One of the hidden bonuses of neutral questioning allows the patron to ponder the Big Question she wants the librarian to answer, as well as raising other deeper questions of the information request.

Later, after I retrieved the books, the librarian passed me and asked, “Did you find everything okay?” The question made me feel comfortable approaching her again to revise or redo my search results in the future.

Overall, I left the reference interview satisfied. Although the interview was brief because of the other patrons, the librarian presented herself in a professional, efficient, and friendly manner by using a majority of neutral questions.

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