Reference by Walking Around: Blue Sky Thinking?

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Years ago I read an article about management by walking around that suggested managers needed to get out of the office and into the front lines daily to observe, to listen and provide guidence when needed. Its a good idea. But what’s it got to do with genealogy?

The other day at the library we were discussing reference by walking around. Instead of the genealogy librarian or library worker sitting behind the reference desk waiting for clients to approach the Throne of Majesty, the librarian goes to the client. Its certainly not a brilliant NEW idea, but it works.

For example, I came out of my office at the library the other day, spotted two staff members at the reference desk busy at something important but not that important, and four library clients working at tables in the room, and one in the stacks. Each had already been served at the reference desk. I went to each in turn and asked, “Are you finding what you are looking for? Can I help in some way?” From this came five reference questions.

In times when library reference statistics are declining, this sort of personalized help, going to the client as she is working makes sense.

And it leads naturally to the next step, the librarian as mentor. After a couple of encounters with the same client the librarian either has an idea of the clients objectives, or is ready to listen and learn in greater depth, offer suggestions on search strategy, suggest background readings etc. In other words, build a mentoring or a tutoring relationship: one-on-one guided learning for the client.

The next step may well be learned from my friend Jason, a new “business librarian” who spends a lot of time in the business community at “business breakfasts”, Chamber of Commerce luncheons, committee workk in the business community, etc, building a network and showing the previously uninterested business community what the library can do. A recent triumph was putting together in 25 minutes a package of articles on a particular business planning concept for a sceptical new client. Jason now has another convert. I can see the day when the genealogy librarian is out in the community like Jason, building networks, making friends, delivering reference service and mentoring genealogists and being paid to do this. Is this part of programming?

What do you think? I’d be interested in your thoughts on these ideas whether you are the library client or library worker.


3 responses to “Reference by Walking Around: Blue Sky Thinking?

  1. Christine Sweet-Hart, CG

    I agree with this approach to customer service in the library. Many times as a patron I have asked for information only to be pointed in the general direction of the area only. Many librarians are either too deep in conversation with each other about how busy they are, or not willing to get up and come out on the floor to help someone. As a patron, I am reluctant to go back to the desk and ask again if I do not find what it is I’m looking for and risk getting the “hairy eyeball” look as if I am less than intelligent. Prior to my genealogical career, we required our management staff to follow-up with our clients to ensure that they were finding what they needed, and that they had no further questions we could help with. There is a management technique in Continuous Quality Improvement training that requires the involvement of front-line staff to effectively change any process in business. I have found that involving the people who do the work (or use the service) is the most effective way of ensuring that the system you are designing is the one you think that you are designing.

  2. Christine, thanks for you comments. I have been doing “roaming reference” in the Prairie History Room at Regina Public Library. The result is always positive. And I do find that the effort changes the relationship between library client and library worker into the tutor or mentor relationship for many regulars. Further, this sort of relationship attracts repeat business. My colleagues in general reference though I was nuts giving “cadillac” service. Now they are planning the same.

    The challenge is to build relationships and teach /mentor folks about the tings they care about.

    Oh, and your librarians? Bring chocolate as a gift. Chocolate makes friends.


  3. Ken,

    You keep changing the web site format – I like each one better! This new one I can read without squinting…I think back to the first one when I had to use a magnifying glass.

    I was a great believer in “managing by walking around” – in my previous engineering life I was both employee and later manager – and it is the best way to effectively get to know the skills, strengths and weaknesses of your people.

    Likewise, the trend at libraries to have a “marketplace” with staff roaming the racks and aisles rather than waiting for someone to come to them. Our local library does this now, and I’ve gradually gotten to know most of the library staff, and they me.

    In our genealogy society, we have used the research group (basically round table discussions) concept to get to “know” the research problems of our active members. There are 5 or so of us who try to help others with their brick walls, and it works pretty well – people are making progress, and they are excited about it.

    We hope to have a “Family Genealogy Day at the Library” in October where we will schedule appointments with community families interested in their genealogy, and try to get them started off on research through consultations (with a mentor from our group), on the computer (with a mentor) and in the family history section of the library. It may be a way to gain new members and turn younger people on to the world of genealogy.

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