My Name is Ellen and I’m a Librarian

Because of this status, my mom tends to think I’m a superhero. Instead, I sometimes exhibit not very heroic behavior where problem patrons are concerned. But, just as Wonder Woman had her lasso and invisible plane, and Superman had his Fortress of Solitude, I have a secret weapon that reminds me of the hero I need to be. It’s an article titled “Negative Closures: Strategies and Counter-Strategies in the Reference Transaction” by Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Patricia Dewdney. Published in Reference and User Services Quarterly in 1998, it won the Reference Service Press Award in 2000. The centerpiece of the article is the study of the negative behaviors librarians employ to end the reference interview including the infamous “without a word, she began to type” strategy. These behaviors have been observed by library school students employed in the somewhat controversial assignment of posing as patrons with questions. I won’t debate the ethics of the reference observation but I will note that I recognize the tactics employed by the librarians observed, not just because I’ve seen colleagues use them (in an eighteen-year career, I’m not naming names!), but because I’ve been guilty of using them myself. What are these tactics? I won’t cheat you of the pleasure of reading the article. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Okay, you’re back. In a nutshell, negative closure tactics include the unmonitored referral (sending the patron to another person/location without verifying the needed information is there), heaving the exasperated sigh “well, where have you looked?”, being dismissive of the patron’s question, expressing doubt about the likelihood of finding something before even beginning to search, and negative body language, turning away from the patron to type without narrating what’s being searched.

I’m one of those people who loves examples of what NOT to do. I used this article when I taught Reference and Online Services as an adjunct at Dominican and also when I moved to Baltimore and first met with the graduate student workers I’d be supervising. I’m a fan of positive reinforcement as much as the next person, but the examples in the article are so awful and yet so real that I thought the graduate student workers would appreciate the stunning lack of customer service and understand I wanted the opposite of these behaviors at the Information Desk.

So, why is this article coming up for me again? It actually came to mind after a frustrating discussion in our department about how to handle one of our problem patrons. Every library has them, and we’re fortunate that problem patrons are the exception, not the rule, in our place of work. Still, we’ve got them, and one in particular has us tearing our hair out. She’s an older woman who has had interactions with almost all of us. A non-affiliate, she  lives in the neighborhood and sees us as akin to the the public library. We’re open to the public and take patrons’ questions first come, first serve in the Reference Office, but I’ll be frank: this woman gets on our last nerve. She has called us and visited us to complain about a number of things that aren’t library-related (FWIW, we have no control over loud noises in the neighborhood). And now steam is coming out of my ears and I forgot my point. Oh yes, Ross and Dewdney’s most excellent article. We’ve employed negative closures to send this woman on her way, but she always comes back (and she predates my nine-year tenure so she’ll always be back!). We’ve let our personal annoyance with her distract us from helping her when she has a real question. And yes, sometimes she has real questions. Because everything can be traced back to pop culture, I think of a line in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy where a character admits he did something as a distraction, i.e., because I did this, I thought you’d be disinclined to notice that I was doing that. Because we sigh when we see her (much like the librarians observed in the article), we are already predisposed not to listen to her. So, I’m advocating a return to our Librarian Action Figure status, conducting a real reference interview with this patron, asking open-ended questions and then closing the interview when appropriate and making a monitored referral. Remember, Batgirl was a librarian, so superheroism is within our grasp!

This entry was posted in Reference Services, Tips & Tricks by Ellen Keith. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ellen Keith

Director of Research and Access and Chief Librarian at the Chicago History Museum, July 2012 to present. Reference Services Coordinator and Librarian for Sociology and the Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at the Sheridan Libraries, Johns Hopkins University, December 2002 to June 2012.

6 thoughts on “My Name is Ellen and I’m a Librarian

  1. Where do I find the form that allows patrons to nominate you (and your colleagues of course!) for sainthood? I think you deserve it.

  2. I know the patron of whom you speak, Ellen….she was complaining (again) in the Dean’s office about Odyssey students not being allowed to borrow books. Leslie was patient (as always) stating she was sorry but we did not set those rules. I’m praying that you seldom see her! LOL

    • Cheryl, she’s famous! Actually infamous :) We can go for a while without seeing her but a few weeks ago I mentioned we hadn’t seen her in a while and that was enough to invoke her. As you can see, I’m going to try to kill her with excellent service next time!

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