It’s not in their job descriptions, but reference librarians regularly morph into mind readers, interpreters or Sherlock Holmes wanna-bes when patrons have problems articulating their needs. Reference questions can start out as obscure queries and wind up far afield of the information the patron is actually seeking. Given that dilemma, librarians need special skills to master the art of unraveling requests so nobody winds up frustrated. If you want to be a master at breaking down common communication barriers, understand the obstacles that create a wedge between you and your patrons and everyone benefits.
Barrier #1: Turn off the Clutter. It’s almost impossible to understand what a library patron wants if you’re also trying to answer the phone, deal with staff chatter, complete an Internet search and contend with disturbances that can erupt when a library full of after school researchers occupy the premises. Give the inquirer your undivided attention by putting the caller on hold, leaving the website or asking for quiet. Understand the question the first time it’s asked and you’ll master one of the most vexing dilemmas confronted by reference librarians who strive for great communication: Eliminating noise clutter. By the way, listening without interrupting is another great communication tip that will serve you well.
Barrier #2: Surmount Towers of Babel. Non-English speakers do the best they can to communicate, but not all of them are skilled at articulating their reference needs. If your library serves a diverse community, having one or more native speakers on staff can go a long way to overcoming communication barriers. The next best solution is having native speakers on speed dial for a quick translation. Choose from these resources to find translators: language clubs, colleges, embassies, organizations devoted to the welfare of immigrants or ordinary, philanthropically-minded citizens willing to be your library’s go-to translator. Make every non-English speaking patron feel welcome and as a bonus, your kindness could encourage him to become proficient in English.
Barrier #3: Master Question Probes. Ask a therapist about the importance of probing questions and she may tell you that this type of query can mean the difference between resolving a bad situation and allowing it to continue. There’s a fine line between the way you communicate with someone who understands how the library system works and someone who is clueless. Your job is to put on diplomatic robes when probing so a patron in need of resource material neither feels “talked down to” nor wastes your time. Ask open-ended, probing questions before you start your search so your efforts prove efficient, productive and beneficial.
Barrier #4: It’s Okay to Ask Why … A student asks for copies of “The Nation.” You direct her to the periodicals, but she’s back in short order, scratching her head because she couldn’t find data on the positions of current Republican candidates for office. In that moment, you get the disconnect. The Nation’s editorial bias is decidedly left and likely short on data useful enough to evaluate Republican candidates. That’s why it’s okay to ask a patron why she needs a resource. The American Library Association lists five skills most needed by a great reference librarian: approachability, interest, listening/inquiring, searching and follow-up. Employ them all, add a healthy dose of compassion, and communication barriers can literally disappear.