Reference Interactions in the Digital Age: Revising the RUSA Behavioral Guidelines

Joe Janes said that if your reference librarians will not get out from behind the desk to “rove through the reference area offering assistance whenever possible,” as prescribed in Guidelines for Behavioral Performances of Reference and Information Service Providers, telling you that roving is unprofessional, you should fire them. His response to a question from the audience was the most electric moment of the two hour program Reference Interactions in the Digital Age: Revising the RUSA Behavioral Guidelines.

This program was a discussion of the updated RUSA Guidelines by a panel consisting of Joe Janes (associate professor at the University of Washington iSchool), Jana Ronan (librarian at the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida), Dave Tyckoson (librarian at California State University – Fresno Libraries), and Jo Bell Whitlatch (associate dean of San Jose State University Library). The panel discussed remote reference, staff training, and staff evaluation implications of the provisions of the 2004 update.

The members of the panel seemed to agree that the goals and objectives for remote reference are no different from those for face-to-face reference. The same behaviors are desired, but new skills may need to be learned to accomplish the same results – reference interviews in which the librarians satisfy their clients’ information needs.

Some observed problems stem not from the new technologies or from the behavioral guidelines, but from librarians failure to apply the guidelines. Whitlatch said that transcripts of co-browsing reference and instant message reference show librarians forgetting the niceties in their rush to try to answer the questions. They forget to identify themselves, restate the questions, tell clients what they are doing, and ask follow-up questions. Janes reported that when he used co-browsing reference, librarians pushed him new pages without asking if he was finished with the old ones. The librarians were not paying much attention to him.

Tyckoson said that librarians have not worked out their remote reference behaviors. In a light moment, he asked us what Alexander Graham Bell first recommended as the response to a telephone call. Janes knew the answer was not “Hello.” It was “Ahoy!” Librarians are like Bell, still seeking the proper responses. They have not yet adapted to instant message culture.

One of the more interesting discussions of the program dealt with the importance of accuracy, which has less emphasis in the new document. The panel said that the new thinking is that many questions have no right answers. Negotiating questions, helping the clients better understand their questions and information needs, and giving them information to make decisions will better satisfy clients than giving them accurate answers.

Approachability was discussed. In remote reference service, the key is letting the library users know the service exists. According to Ronan, academic and public libraries must market constantly to ever changing communities. Janes recommends placing links to services on non-library sites, such as local government, historical society, and other organization websites.

Roving was discussed late in the program. Librarians who are providing non-desk bound reference must be easily identifiable for clients to trust them. The panel agreed roving as defined in the guidelines is a necessity. California State University – Fresno Libraries are planning to free up the clients as well as the librarians, replacing all stationary computers with laptops.

Read these guidelines at http://www.ala.org/ala/rusa/rusaprotools/referenceguide/guidelinesbehavioral.htm.