Essential Qualities of a Reference Librarian

There are five main qualities which are essential to being a good reference librarian. 
1.     The most important quality, which is also the most nebulous, is social in nature.  Reference librarians must have the people skills necessary to provide good customer service.  While in the early part of the century the ideal of this service was someone who could be a “gracious hostess to moral betterment” (Genz, 1998, p. 3), the current model is for librarians to “play the part of dynamic guides, joining users on their journey to knowledge” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.5).  But whether the librarian is welcoming the patron into the library or accompanying him or her on a journey, the essential style for many reference transactions remains “friendly and conversational” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.6).  Librarians must assess a patron’s needs and decipher the best path for him or her to take, all while maintaining the patron’s comfort and privacy.  Reference librarians represent the usefulness of the library in their interactions with patrons, and must deliver great service in order to represent the level of quality of the library itself.

2.       Reference Librarians must be knowledgeable in their field; they must have a good understanding of how to find information, how to evaluate the quality of information sources, and how information is organized.  As Green writes, the librarian “sees at once in what department of knowledge the description sought for may be found, and brings to the inquirer authoritative treatises in this department” (1876, p.78).  The reference librarian is in effect the translator between the language of a patron’s query and the language of informational organization.  While this quality has remained necessary over time, methods of organization have not.  Information (and research) is increasingly cross categorized and interdisciplinary.  The comprehensive access available within electronic resources (where every word may be searchable) as well as techniques such as tagging have created a world where information is less strictly defined within subject areas. 

3.   Reference Librarians must be good teachers, “demonstrating how, when, and why to use various reference sources in an integrated way that will capture the user’s attention at the teachable moment” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.7).  Not only must the librarian know how to teach information literacy, but he or she must exercise good judgment to know when a user should be taught and when a user just needs a quick answer.  This ideal of teaching has remained a constant across time, although it is no longer expressed as the Victorian ideal of helping “lowly people to grow in culture” (Green, 1876, p.79).

4.  Because “technology continues to change reference service” (Cassell & Hiremath, 2006, p.12), librarians must be curious and inquisitive with new tools and resources.  Technology has changed the patron’s expectations for service (with answers available at any time of the day or night via Google) and resource formats.  Librarians must be familiar with new developments because in many cases patrons already are; the ready access to information provided by the internet has democratized information and librarians must keep up in order to retain their status as experts.  Openness to technology is also necessary because “the essential part of reference work is to help users find information to fulfill their information needs by every possible means” (Luo, 2007, p.12), and librarians must be able to provide reference services in the ways that best suit the patron and his or her information need.  While technology has changed over the past century, the necessity for embracing it has not.  Librarians utilized new developments such as the telephone and the early forms of electronic databases, and must continue to explore developing tools such as chat and mobile technology.

5.  The ability to work within a team is also an essential quality for reference librarians.  While librarians have always worked in concert with their colleagues, at the very least within their own libraries, technological developments allow for a wider scope of collaboration.  Libraries can increase available resources, provide longer service hours, and access a broader field of expertise; as Luo puts it “reference collaboration among libraries has been brought to a new level by digital reference” (2007, p.21).

Cassell, K. & Hiremath, U.  (2006).  Reference and information services in the 21st century:
    An Introduction.  New York: Neal-Schuman.

Genz, M. (1998).  Working at the reference desk.  Library Trends, 46, 505-525.

Green, S.S. (1876).  Personal relations between librarians and readers.  Library Journal, 1, 74-81.

Luo, L.  (2007).  Reference evolution under the influence of new technologies.   (No. TR 2007
    03).  University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

King Dork

So I finished my database project (and the class) and I’m doing another YA write-up. What a nerd!
King Dork was recommended by my sister just a tad too late for me to include it in my project. It was on the 2007 ALA Best Books for Young Adults list (retrieved August
15, 2009 from Seth Gordon is in talks to direct a movie version, produced by Will Farrell and Adam McKay (retrieved August 15, 2009 from
Author: Frank Portman
ISBN-10: 0385732910 ISBN-13:9780385732918
City and Publisher: New York: Delacorte
Copyright Date: 2006
Author’s Website:

Reader’s Annotation: Although he is an outcast, disaffected high school student himself, Tom Henderson rejects the cult of Catcher in the Rye. He navigates his own way through loser-dom; deciphering the mysteries created by his dead father and semi-hot girls.

Plot Summary: Tom Henderson, known as Chi-Mo after an unfortunate middle school career counseling session, is the ultimate high school outcast. His dorkdom is so complete that if a poker player were dealt Tom’s card, the king of dorks, that player would automatically lose. In his freshman year, he must deal with deciphering the mystery of his father’s death, the make-out fake-out, and sadistic torment delivered by the school’s normals. Luckily his friend Sam Hellerman is always present for band practice, no matter what name they have decided on that week.

Critical Evaluation: King Dork‘s Tom Henderson is a cross between Adrian Mole and a Daniel Pinkwater character (Leonard Neeble, Walter Galt, Robert Nifkin…take your pick). His narration skitters and turns; it is easily distracted but authentic. King Dork provides a clear insight into the mind of a teenage loser. Tom is a character with whom readers will easily empathize. Despite the novel’s point of view and style, it falls a little flat. Nothing much happens; as Tom describes late in the novel, he doesn’t learn any lessons and nothing really changes. Nevertheless, King Dork is an excellent teen loser confessional. It also provides the world’s best recipe for adult embarrassment of a teen: wear a turban.

Reading Level/Interest Age: 14 and up
Curriculum Ties: King Dork’s preoccupation with Catcher in the Rye indicates an intriguing tie-in. King Dork would be an interesting companion volume, allowing students to examine themes of alienation and coming of age from a different perspective.
Booktalking Ideas: Ask teens to come up with a band name, logo and pseudonym. Talk about being a dork and give a short plot summary.

Genre: Realistic Fiction
Other Genres/Subgenres: Humor

Challenge Issues: Sex, drugs and rock and roll are both a theme and an actuality in this book. Violence, in the forms of both bullying and suicide, is a defining issue for the main character. A teacher is also revealed as a child pornographer, without graphic details. As a whole these challenging concepts mostly remain as concepts; they happen but are not generally intimately described.

About the Author: Although King Dork is Portman’s first book, he has already achieved notoriety with his band, The Mr. T Experience. His second book, Andromeda Klein, is scheduled for release on August 25th, 2009. (More info at

Virtually a Library

This is very wishy-washy of me, but I think that libraries should maybe participate in virtual worlds such as second life.
When they should:

  • If there is patron demand
  • If librarians are already skilled in the navigation and creation involved
  • If librarians serve a population that will benefit (i.e. technology students, students who already participate in simulations or classes in the virtual world)
  • If the library will benefit from the information and networking provided by interacting with other librarians and libraries already online

When they should not:

  • If participation is due to a desire to be more 2.0
  • If librarians have no idea if patrons would be interested
  • If participation is due to a desire to be more cutting edge

Second Life is currently a somewhat clunky program operates optimally with technology and skills above the level of an average internet user. While I do agree that libraries should sometimes take chances on cutting edge technologies, those chances should either directly benefit patrons or be easy to use. Virtual worlds do have the potential to enhance online experiences by providing a richer environment. For example, I am sometimes frustrated in web-conferencing sessions by the inability to gauge the responses of my classmates and being able to see avatars reacting to things would solve that problem to some extent. But the search for information is a more private act. The interactivity offered through a virtual world is not particularly germane.

What Social Cataloging Means for the OPAC

Social Cataloging websites, particularly LibraryThing for libraries, could be a great way for libraries to add functionality to their catalogs. One of the best enhancements is the recommendations feature. Library catalogs work pretty well for people who have a specific title in mind, but a lot of people got to the library to simply find a good book. This might be easy for people with time and a small enough library to physically browse, but sites like Amazon are increasing the expectations of patrons for immediacy and convenience in online browsing.

As libraries increase their electronic resources, the catalog needs to develop in step. Catalogs can no longer work only in the two dimensions of query and retrieval; they must extend into the third dimension of social integration. Social cataloging increases the ways in which a patron might find useful material. It allows patrons to contribute to, and take away parts of the library, in the forms of reviews and widgets respectively.

Moving Beyond "Get a Facebook Page"

I’m not a huge proponent of libraries joining social networks. As I discussed in my post on Twitter, I think the pleasure of social networks is that they are social, the richness comes from interacting with friends, not becoming a fan of your library’s latest marketing ploy. I’m not sure creating and maintaining library profiles on social networking sites is a good use of staff time.

I also have doubts as to the potential for library profiles to reach teens or non-users. For my YA Lit class, I spent about an hour observing teens using the computers at the Oakland Public Library (granted, that’s not a big enough sample size for a truly scientific hypothesis). The teens did spend a lot of time on MySpace, but it was all spent looking at profiles, pictures, and comments on the pages of individual users – the teens were interested in gossip and interaction with their peers. In my own use of Social Networking sites, I have become a fan of things (celebrities, bookstores, and food items for example). But I almost immediately turn off the notifications, because I feel like I am getting spammed.

I do think that social networking provides a valuable paradigm for libraries though, and I believe that librarians (especially teen librarians) should create and maintain their own personal pages- not necessarily to share with the public, but in order to keep abreast of online culture. Libraries can take away great lessons about how to provide interaction on their own websites. Websites are more fun, more engaging, and more useful when people can personalize their own content and interact socially with others. Libraries have a great opportunity to make their online presence a rich user experience.

I think libraries are falling behind a bit in the online world because they are trumped by Google and Wikipedia in terms of providing fast access to quick and dirty information. Libraries need to pump up their presence in order to remind people that there are different ways to answer information requests, and that the library is a valuable resource in many quests for knowledge. So if libraries need to pump up their presence on the web, what can they do besides creating profiles on sites where many people congregate? I was very intrigued by the idea of creating library widgets. This seems like a way the library can reach more users and further the goal of being a great information resource. If I can make a library search box, a list of books I’ve recently checked out, or an ask a librarian widget on my page, I show my support for the library to all my friends, add content that’s personal to me, and create a way for people to click back to the library website.

Libraries and librarians need to take and use the deeper lessons taught by the popularity of social networking. There are endless possibilities for patron and community service if we can get away from the idea that Library 2.0 means “Get a Facebook Page.”

Social Bookmarking in the LIS Field

Social bookmarking is beneficial to the LIS field in that it provides a new paradigm for the organization of information and that it provides valuable insight into how people who are not LIS professionals categorize information and resources.

While the joy and strength of the web is that it is a dense thicket of information, growing and changing rapidly, the sheer volume of dynamic resources creates a problem for human professional catalogers. While it may be possible in the future for this process to be automated (if the Semantic web project bears fruit), current attempts at cataloging the web are be limited both by the size of the task and the expense of paying those professional catalogers. Social bookmarking provides a way to harness the web’s strength by using the users/creators to create a map.

LIS professionals design organizational tools for users. In order to create more usable tools, looking at how those users (who are not LIS professionals) organize information on their own is a valuable model. It is good for LIS professionals to see a new organizational method- one that is informal, easy to use, and addresses the nature of digital information. For my 202 class we read Everything is Miscellaneous by David Weinberger, which discusses some of the implications of a new order of order. Whereas books can only exist in one particular space on the shelf, electronic resources may be classified into multiple places. Social bookmarking and its associated tool tagging, are methods of organization born of this premise. Although catalogers use things like “see also” references and faceted classification to help accommodate the fact that sometimes resources belong in more than one place simultaneously, social bookmarking by design identifies and harnesses the multiplicity of the digital order. Digital information requires a new way of looking at things, and social bookmarking challenges LIS professionals to use our expertise to come up with systems that work for the user. It also provides insight into how non-professionals categorize things, which gives us a great deal of informal data to use in shaping our methods.

For librarians in particular, it also opens up communication with patrons. Viewing the bookmarks of a community provides a look at what a community is interested in. If patrons in your community are bookmarking hotels and tagging sites “vacation,” perhaps it is a good time to pull out a display of travel books. Or to create and tag the library’s own list of vacation resources, which users can access from the web at their convenience. Social bookmarking is another way of discovering and addressing the needs of patrons.

Widgets! and RSS…

I respect the general stance of the ALA and public libraries on privacy issues with patron records, but I can’t help but imagine all the wonderful widgets the library could create for patrons. has a “recent reviews” widget so users can place a mini Google map of all the places they’ve reviewed on their blog (although it does not work with “environments”, as I discovered in last week’s lesson. It serves the dual purpose of providing an extra special customized service for the user and creating a publicity tool for Yelp. What if patrons could place a widget of “Books I’ve Read,” “Books I’d Like to Read,” or even “My Reviews” on their blog or start page? I believe some patrons would appreciate the higher level of service and it would create mini-outposts for the library’s web presence.

Widgets could also be created for use on city or community websites, perhaps a “San Francisco is Reading…” widget with a list of the top five checked out books. Local groups which meet at the library might appreciate a widget of their upcoming meeting times for their web pages, or children’s service organizations could have a widget detailing upcoming children’s programming at the library.

What I was most impressed with in this week’s lesson were the possibilities for republishing research oriented RSS feeds. The subject guides created by MIT using delicious in particular seemed like an easy way to create a very rich and easy to use resource.

In which I make a start page and try to figure out what they mean for libraries

Whew. I have a start page. It was a growth experience, as are many of life’s little joys.
I found Netvibes somewhat frustrating to work with. I had two main problems, the first being slow loading and the second being the widgets. Widgets! I knew what widgets were, but I had never knowingly put one anywhere, and I have very little idea how they work.

One of the first things I did was add Facebook and Twitter to my page, and that gave me the idea that I would be able to easily add all my social networking and personal sites to the page. That plan fell apart a bit with Yelp, Delicious and Amazon. As listed on the site, widgets for those items tended to give me other people’s lists, not my own. I ended up being redirected and signing up for, and eventually got my wish list added, I added Delicious as an RSS feed, and I threw my hands in the air with Yelp. It turns out that the Yelp Widget as designed by the Yelp people is not meant to be used in “environments.”

Ignorant as I am, I would have benefitted from a better preview for the widgets, to save me from the rigorous add and delete strategy. I was also bitterly disappointed by the options for crossword widgets. I wished there had been more games you could play on your page.

For me personally I think start pages perform the same tasks I ask of the browser, and not as well (although my familiarity may be part of that perception). While I am a devoted fan of RSS technology for not making me to go to 10 million different websites, I actually like being able to visit my different social networking sites. When I log in to Facebook, I get a delicious feeling of anticipation. Will there be comments? New friend requests? With a start page, the encapsulated widget ruins the surprise. My RSS feeds are safely tucked away in my reader, and I have so many I want them on their own separate application. Bookmarks and the history bar help me remember where I want to go.

All in all start pages for libraries are again something of which I am skeptical. In Planning & Pitfalls: Using Pageflakes for a Public Library Portal, Edward Byrne says “A web-based solution had obvious advantages in terms of time and staff involvement, as it allowed the Internet desktop to be managed centrally, with changes applied in one location taking immediate effect across the whole network of Internet PCs” I thought the Dublin library’s start page was excellent, but I wonder why they didn’t make a Internet start page within the library’s website including all of those links? From what I understand, many of the widgets available on Netvibes can be used on any web page. The library’s web page is still a centrally managed resource. I really like the content the Dublin Library provided, but I would like to see libraries improve their own web sites as resources.

When Libraries Blog: A Look at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress’ blog, written by senior public affairs specialist Jennifer Gavin and director of communications Matt Raymond, provides intriguing snippets about upcoming events, acquisitions, and developing programs at the Library of Congress. Posts are sporadic, but seem to have increased to two or three a week since the inclusion of Jennifer Gavin on May 4th. The blog is searchable, but a clickable list of post categories (tags) is also provided. The archive is not searchable by month however.

Both the page header and items within the posts link back to the Library of Congress. The page header has clickable buttons for Ask a Librarian, Digital collections, and Library Catalog, as well as the LoC home page and a search box. Posts link to sites both inside and outside the LoC website, such as the LoC’s Flickr photo stream or the Chronicling America page which allows users to do things like view and search newspapers from 1880-1910.
As of 6/14/09 GoogleReader lists 1,446 subscribers and Technorati gives the site an authority rating of 197 (contrast this with the Huffington Post, which is listed the most popular site with an authority rating of 23, 233). Not every post has comments, but many have at least two. The highest number of comments and trackbacks I found was 48 on the post announcing the LoC YouTube channel. These statistics suggest that while the site may not be the most popular on the web, people are intrigued by announcements from this institution.

I like the look and feel of the site. Posts often include photos, and are well written with a sort of public radio style. It is a fairly clean page, with a white background and very little clutter. The Library of Congress has some very cool projects, and I’m uncertain how to draw more people to the blog.

Should Libraries Tweet?

I have mixed feelings about libraries and Twitter. Certainly I can see the usefulness. I like the idea of updates for closures or reminders about programs. I also like the idea of getting a Tweet when new books come in.

One obstacle I see is information overload. Most of what I enjoy about social networking is the social aspect. I enjoy reading the silly things my friends say because they are my friends. I’m interested in how they’re feeling and sometimes even what they’re having for breakfast. But the library is not my friend. I like the library, and I support the library, but as I add more and more non-friend things to my online life, I begin to get overwhelmed with a glut of information. Social applications seem to have a critical mass – there needs to be enough interesting people doing interesting things in order for the site to gel, but then at some point there are too many people telling me what they had for breakfast and I can’t see the bagels and lox for the cornflakes. I like the idea that I could get a tweet when the library gets a new book, but there’s no way for me to specify that they only notify me about the vampire novels.

The New York Public Library has 2,797 followers as of 06/14/09. The city of New York has about 8.3 million people. Is that enough followers to justify the Twitter account? I’m not sure. Tweets don’t take very much time to write, so maybe that’s not a lot of staff time taken up. According to the NYPL website in 2005 the library had 2.1 million cardholders. Will Twitter bring more people to the library? Will it serve those who don’t have internet at home or on the phone? Or will the level of service for those who do follow the library be greatly improved? I don’t know, and I’m not sure how to justify it.