by Celia Hales

Note:  These reflections are designed for individuals in the work force who have an affinity for A Course in Miracles.  The examples are from the profession of library science, because that is my profession, but the conclusions should work for any position.  The ideas are applicable to current students who are preparing for the work force, those who are changing jobs and want to get off on the “right foot,” and others who may be currently having political problems at work.

I should note at the outset that every work setting is different in regard to social climate, and each type of work environment has its own challenges.  These comments are written from the vantage point of 22 years as a reference librarian and bibliographer in libraries at  two different universities, and to some extent draw upon previous, disparate settings of my work history inside and outside libraries.  The most important point that I want to make is that most basically social interaction is necessary in any work setting, social interaction matters, and one cannot look to the job professionally as a solo player.

The nature of work demands cooperation and teamwork, and if one does not find a congenial “home” with her colleagues, she will be at a distinct disadvantage professionally, regardless of objectively how good her work is.  In fact, her work will normally not be considered objectively at all; this is the strength of the social.  We will take a look at communication among colleagues, the pitfalls to avoid if one is “new,” human nature factors that impinge upon the daily work, the role of competition in the workplace, and, finally, the all-important merit review and its role in improving performance in one’s work.

Communication among Colleagues

One of the primary problems which individuals in my library have noted is the breakdown of communication top to bottom as well as horizontally.  And this despite a flood of electronic mail that come our way every day.  I have come to believe that people do not want communication so much as simply being listened to and being made to feel that their opinions are valued by their colleagues at every level and that these opinions are duly considered in decisions.  This is the largest definition of “communication,” and it is far beneath the surface issue of whether or not one actually knows “what” is going on in a given library.

In my library, I have learned that a certain amount of self-disclosure makes others more trusting of my opinions; they know “where I am coming from,” and they are not therefore so much trying to read meanings into what I am saying–because I have given the context.  I do not mean inappropriate or unprofessional self-disclosure, of the type that might take place in counseling sessions–just a willingness to talk openly and to show that one is human with human faults (and assets) and carries the basic idea of the long-ago bestseller, I’m OK, You’re OK.  Saying what one wants to say with genuine goodwill and a smile mean a lot; there is an old folk saying that is applicable:  “One can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

There will be time, if one is high-spirited or has a temper, that one will speak in anger or provoke discord, and then regret it later.  It is never too late to apologize, and ti is not a sign of weakness to do so.  Smooth interactions keep people happier on the job, and a happy worker is much more likely to be a productive one.  It is self-evident that fuming and fretting and agonizing take time away from the actual content of a job well done.  If one needs to do so, reconsider your actions, express regret for the action or word, and then quietly put the matter to rest.  Forget it as quickly as possible, for with a clear conscience you have done all that you can.  In fact, practice forgetting the irritations of the daily work as you leave the office at night.  If you do take work home, tackle it after having as relaxing a meal as possible, and approach the task as the start of a fresh project, no longer looking back to any animosity that might have developed from the earlier part of the day.

Noticing the Possible Pitfalls

The emotional tone, the tenor, of various work settings is profoundly different, and this difference varies from individual to individual because people react differently to the same or similar stimuli.  What works fine for one doesn’t for another, as we all know.  But perhaps we are too eager to get a given job to take the emotional tenor into account during the interview.  We do need a job, of course, but we need one that we can stay with for a reasonable period, and we can intuitively grasp some of the intangibles during the interview if we are open to seeing them.  Most of us refer to this emotional tenor as the “vibes” of the place, and I believe that this is more important to success, for a given individual, than almost anything else–including ability.  If one does not fit into a given environment, the work will not be longstanding, or, if longstanding, will not be pleasant.

It is not easy to sort through the feelings that one has on an interview, especially if this job, on the surface, seems like your dream job.  But do try to be open to the pace of the interview, interact with as many people as you can, and stop to react to their responses to you.  Do they seem competitive?  Are they a bit withdrawn with you?  Do they seem to take themselves (and their work) too seriously (and that is possible)?  Do they genuinely seem to “like” you?  First impressions can be and often are misleading, but a false impression will nevertheless be the starting point for future interaction until you know the people very, very well.  This is the time to listen to your sixth sense.

Let us say that the interview went well, you felt at ho me with these people, and now you are on the job.  How do you proceed in those all-important first days?  I would counsel that you take your cue from the reactions of others to your initial responses to their questions.  Do they seem eager to hear your opinions, or do they seem to believe that they know the situation better than you as the “new authority”?  If the latter, they, of course, may be right.  But even if they aren’t, and you do know much better ways of handling a given procedure, it might be wiser to delay introducing your concept.  On the other hand, if your new colleagues actively ask for your advice and suggestions, do not feel shy about giving them a kind, but honest, opinion.  I have been in both situations in different workplaces.  One setting didn’t welcome input, but as a reference librarian, I did not see this until too late, and it colored my whole tenor on the job.  The other setting was looking for change, bringing in new people for their new ideas, and wanted to hear from us.  I even heard another colleague mildly criticized for not saying very much at all/  So the climate of these two places was not compatible with each other, and the reaction expected from me was totally different.  Such differences exist across the board, and it is a wise worker who reads the signs and adjusts communication behavior accordingly.

Human Nature–Lubricant or Irritant?

Much has been made of “Monday mornings” on the job.  We are all supposed to be typically irritable and down in spirits.  But this negativity can strike at any time, and is more a function of personalities rubbing against each other than of the change from free time to ordered time.  There will always be people with whom we work smoothly, and those with whom we find it difficult to accept and to appreciate.  This should not deter us from working for a humane environment in every case.

The differences in personality types, whether we take the Myers-Briggs or the “Type A” vs. “Type B” categories, or something else entirely, are a fact of working life.   We are thrown in together with an assortment of ;people who stem from varying backgrounds and have hidden agendas, and only over time do we learn where we stand with any of them.  We need to be sensitive to the personality quirks that we observe.  Does Melanie seem upset when approached first thing in the morning?  Maybe she needs a moment or two to collect her thoughts as she moves from family duties and fixing breakfast for her young child to thinking about librarianship.  This particular example is an easy one to remedy:  Simply wait 15 minutes to approach her next time.  Try to get your hidden agendas out of the way as much as you can.  You have certain needs to get work accomplished, but work is an inanimate object, and human beings vary, and, moreover, they get the work done in a more efficient way if we work around their problems and not add to them by being insensitive to their work habits.

There will always be people who are more neurotic than others part of the time, and even all of the time.  People have another life outside work, and most frequently they are not going to tell you of a nagging worry that they should visit a physician for a “small” symptom, and, as another frequent example, they are not going to tell you when they fear that their marriage is failing.  If work seems to be suffering, that is a matter for the library administration to handle, while we as peers are reluctant to criticize and more helpful if we, insofar as possible, work around the problems.  If you feel that you are the only one hampered by a given person’s strange actions, please know that you are not–you very likely have plenty of company, but in the interests of good working relationships, most people don’t comment on each other.  (I do acknowledge that some working environments are more gossip-prone than others, but a professional setting is normally very accommodating.)

Finally, let us consider the real personality problems, the colleagues who make life miserable for themselves and others at the same time.  Consider this a chance to shine your halo, because such fantasies may be all that get you through a day without ruining it for yourself.  Do remember that the real neurotic is making herself far more unhappy than she is making you–though this may be hard to believe in the heat of the moment.  A sense of humor is a saving grace in many life situations, and neurotic behavior certainly qualifies.  And try to forgive the unfairness of it all; life does not handle well the keeping of a grudge, one against the other.  bitterness is one way to spoil one’s own emotional and physical health.

The Bugaboo Competition

Work settings differ dramatically in how competitive they are, but virtually all settings will turn negative against you personally if your drive to succeed is perceived as an attempt to outdo everybody else.  In academic libraries, especially, the vast majority of librarians (and library assistants) are extremely hardworking, and they do not take kindly to the implication that other people may outshine them.  Academic settings, in fact, are especially bad in this regard, because the people who work here are intellectually oriented, usually they were good students in years past, and they carry off part of that achievement motivation into the present environment.  Reference settings are wonderful training grounds for cooperative work, for rarely does anything in a reference setting get done unless a group of people agree on how the task will proceed.  In the instance of competition or lack thereof, therefore, reference work is a particularly good place to evaluate one’s own propensity to compete.

The best settings are those in which everybody tries hard to work together in a cooperative fashion to provide a reference service that succeeds for library users.  Being congenial with one’s colleagues is a particularly prized quality, because the negativism that can engulf a reference unit frequently spreads from one person to another.  The best type of competition, therefore is competition with one’s self, trying to improve with each passing month and year.  Backbiting, it goes without saying, is a negative that helps no one, and is extremely detrimental to the functioning of an optimal reference unit.  If it did not matter so much how one interacted with another, then reference social interaction would not be of major concern at all.  Faculty in individual classrooms can function very autonomously, but reference staff have to swap desk times, work together on committees that help the library to do its daily work, and frequently as well work together to team-teach library skills.

Pride is a factor that normally goes hand in hand with competition.  Even the best librarians can be guilty of intellectual pride in their work, and it is not always easy to separate healthy pride and unhealthy.  Certainly we all want to do a good job, but how we talk about our work can present problems if we appear to call attention to our great deeds in a braggadocio way.  Modesty is a value more respected in the workplace than is pride, and one much more conducive to the better side of competition.  Do your best, but take care that you aren’t always talking about it.  To do so is to invite the unhealthy envy that disrupts reference units and causes animosity that will undermine the greater good.

If you find yourself in an especially competitive situation, and particularly if you now recognize that you have made wrong decisions that brought  out an unhealthy competition in yourself, it is, nevertheless, not appropriate in a reference unit to withdraw and try to do one’s work, as best one can, alone.  Even if the other staff members turn negative or even hostile, it is still part of one’s job responsibility to work cooperatively.  If everybody worked in a solitary fashion, the best service could not emerge; this is contrary to the classroom, where faculty can disregard hostile politics and be alone with their students, to produce the best teaching that they can.  In a reference service, the staff members need each other; working together gets the job done, and working alone does not.  So try to use one’s best manners and act well even if met sometimes with hostility.

There is one place to take exception to these suggested rules–in the annual merit review and in performance appraisals that lead to tenure or to continuous appointment.  And in that situation one is compelled to put her best foot forward, and not to be shy about touting accomplishments.  We discuss this aspect just below.

Merit Review–Bane or Opportunity?

The most important advice that I would like to give any newcomer to the field, or even any veteran who still worries about an annual review, is my own truth that the only important rating is the one that you give yourself.  Anything else, even if that “anything” involves the very retention of the position itself, is secondary.  If one goes through life quaking at authority (when administrators assume the role of stand-in parental figures) or peer evaluation (a concept that will bring back the awful need to belong that characterized our teen years), then the life on the job does not fully belong to you, and if one is to achieve one’s best, that life should be personally owned.  Before you write your part of the merit review, ask yourself a few very basic questions:  Have I grown in my knowledge of library science, and thus in my career, this year?  Have I endeavored to keep current, though computerization is a moving target?  Have I tried to assist my colleagues in their work whenever possible, being cooperative and helpful and occasionally walking the extra mile?  If you can truthfully answer “yes” to these questions, I would suggest that you have succeeded in the last year, whether or not you receive the highest rating that you might wish.

It is good to recognize that even under the best of circumstances, ratings are subjective and often very political.  One needs to achieve, but not too much, or envy will mean that peer evaluations are not the best.  One needs to accomplish a great deal of work, or the quantity will not impress higher-ups (quality in this ear of lean and mean work setting is not perhaps given its fair due).  In my own case, I received my best ratings from an administrator who clearly liked me personally, and I have received my lowest ratings when politically I was not fitting into the climate of the workplace.  And there are all kinds of variation in between.  As the years go by, an attitude is developed about you as an employee, and if this attitude should become negative, then the perception will color the rating to the degree that superhuman efforts might not amend.  So it is always wise to keep a level head, and not to bend to the negative whims of either administrators or peers.  Conversely, there is a halo effect that will follow you everywhere if you are well-liked, and also happen to develop into the career worker that is well-respected in  your given environment.  This halo effect is certainly not a bad thing, because then you receive kudos in good years and bad, and certainly as your career develops, you will have some of both.

So back to my first point–keep your own rating as the most important.  Aside from this, there are pointers available for making the best impression as a worker.  Keep good documentation, and see that your accomplishments are showcased each year.  It is best to keep a running tally of what you accomplish each day or week, because otherwise it is virtually impossible to retain in memory the myriad of details that makes a report outstanding.  Often the administrators reading your report will not have first-hand knowledge of your work, but only impressions, and these impressions will be influenced by the presentation of your work record in a readable and cogent fashion.  Don’t make your report too lengthy, or it will be simply scanned–to your detriment.  Try very diligently to fulfill all of the goals and objectives set the previous year; after all, you and your supervisor agreed upon these goals, and it does behoove you to take them seriously.  Carefully point out if the failure to achieve a given goal was taken out of your hands by a change of programmatic policy by a higher-up.  Otherwise, the failure to achieve a goal will look like a personal failing.  It is very likely that the evaluation written by your superior(s) will be written rapidly and under duress.  She has many other reviews to write at the same time.  If yours is clear, well-written, and appears to fulfill your goals without too many excuses, you will fare better in her review, as well as in he rating.

An important point to keep in mind is that ratings are linked to the merit money, and higher administrators are actually rewarded for keeping salary savings high.  So it is wise to look at one’s final rating with a jaundiced eye; if a higher-up lowers your supervisor’s rating of you, it may have absolutely nothing to do with your merit in her eyes, and everything to do with statistics.  Administrators try to give out very few top ratings, and in the library science profession, these normally go to other administrators, who are perceived to be carrying forth the greatest weight of the library’s well-being.

Summing Up

Thus we have reflected on the communal nature of the reference position, and I hope that you have come to see that getting a long with others on the job–the social interaction itself–is vitally important to your success.  Other reflections have emphasized the communicative aspects of the workplace, but I hope that you have seen that social interaction has advantages that go far beyond simple communication.  A humane work environment can make all the difference in the success or the failure of an enterprise, a non-profit library being no exception.  It is helpful to let your colleagues and administrators know what you feel about various issues that arise, to make statements that contribute to the common goal of excellent library service.  If one tries too hard to stand out from her peers, competition can be a two-edged sword; it may win great superiority in performance, but in reference that is not the only factor controlling success–being a team player counts for much as well.  There is simply no way, as we have seen, to do your job well in a vacuum; the skills that we gain from interacting with others in a productive way can be tremendously life-enhancing for us as well as for our common mission in the library.  Sometimes one must move slowly when new in the position, lest we be accused of being “new authority,” and therefore being perceived as someone who as yet does not know the scoop; not listening to the thoughts of others can easily lead one to recommend courses of action that have been tried and have been seen to fail.  Ultimately, though, in the reference position as in life, the grade (or rating) that one gives one’s self is the most important.  Don’t give your power away by trying to please in order to get the highest merit rating; you may lose yourself in the process, not being true to one’s self, and even lose the high rating as well.  Self-respect requires that we do what we consider our best; other opinions should always remain secondary in our own minds.  “To thine own self be true,” has been the Shakespearian wisdom of the ages.

Consequently, if one wishes to excel in reference librarianship, don’t lose sight of the big picture, and the way that one interacts with other people in that picture.  In a classroom, one can operate in a solo fashion, but this simply cannot happen with reference work, and in the end this is one of its greatest advantages, personally as well as professionally.  You will find in your daily work that two heads really are better than one in a problem-solving work environment.


by Celia Hales

Previously published under another title in The Reference Librarian, 2003.  Copyright permission granted for web reposting from the following web site:

NoteI prepared to write this library-oriented article by first taking notes form the early work of both Hugh Prather and Jerry Jampolsky, work that was based on ACIM.  Their books provided, at the time, a remarkable summary from which I could steep myself in Course-related ideas that applied to my daily work life as a reference librarian.

SUMMARY:  The reflections penned in this article began as a single paragraph contributed several years ago to Charles Anderson’s “The Exchange,” a column in RQ (now Reference & User Services Quarterly) (Anderson, 1995).  I elaborated upon the concept through further reflection and augmented the ideas through a literature review.  These ideas are meant to spark interest among library school students, new reference librarians, and veteran reference librarians who perhaps need new reason to show up with a positive attitude at that next reference shift.  The thesis is that this moment in time within a given reference interview occurs only once, regardless of how many times a librarian has heard the question.  We as librarians must always be alert to respond appropriately to the distinct contributions that the given library user brings to that question.  In the process, we are equals in that the librarian knows more of the research technique to uncover the appropriate sources, but the library user knows more of what his specific slant on the topic will be.  We would be wise to stay diligent, to listen well, and to take nothing for granted.  The reference interview then becomes a lively, energetic, and stimulating discussion meant to lead to library research at its best.

KEYWORDS:  Reference service, reference interview, reference desk


Arguably the most important part of reference service, if the librarian is past the initial phase of gaining her skill, is the reference interview–the way that librarian and user interact to bring about a successful experience for both.  Several years ago Thomas P. Slavens (1994) wrote a definitive monograph that is still useful and ought to be consulted by anyone interested in this topic.  In addition to Slavens’s monograph, there are a number of aspects to this relationship that have received attention in the literature over the years.  The following more fully explores these aspects.  User and librarian are essentially a partnership, and nothing good will ultimately come of something that is perceived in any way but equality between these two  individuals, meeting in time in one moment.

There is a great abundance of scholarly analysis of the reference interview available:  In the last ten years, these authors include (in addition to Slavens, described above) Marilyn Domas White (1998); Sara F. Fine (1995); Carol Kuhlthau (1994); Catherine Sheldrick Ross and Patricia Dewdney (1994); Karen Williams, Janet Sue Fore, and John Budd (1993).  (Other seminal articles are included in the bibliography.)  For the most part, the philosophical underpinnings of the reference interview are not covered explicitly, and only a careful reading suggests the underlying philosopphy.  In this article, I would like to make explicit that which has gone unstated, perhaps because we fear that our understanding of human nature will in some way undermine our rationality and our objectivity.  It is my belief that our personal philosophies (whether purely secular, scientific, religious-attuned, or eclectic) are the prime framework within which we operate, and until these concepts are examined, we will not be fully aware of why we do what we do at the reference desk.  I will also argue that a model of partnership is the very best philosophy upon which to base a reference service, and to this end will draw upon the model of cooperative learning in public education that is popular in the United States.


Cooperative learning is a method used increasingly in classrooms across the United States, from kindergarten to graduate school.  Its chief proponents, Roger and David Johnson, have conducted extensive research across the country to prove that cooperative learning meets the needs of students better than the traditional lecture (1998, 1994, 1991, 1989).  (For an extensive discussion of cooperative learning as one of the “greatest success stories in the history of educational research,” see Slavin,, 2003.)  In cooperative learning, students meet as groups to discuss the lesson, and in so doing can often learn as much from each other as from the teacher per se.  Yet it is the teacher who guides the learning at every point.

The cooperative learning model applies well as the reference desk.  The librarian currently knows more about the library, but the user knows more about his research need.  As Hicks has pointed out, we work together in a “mediated” setting (1992).  working cooperatively, we will be much more likely to handle the reference interview in a manner consistent with good reference practice as well as genuine encounter on a personal level.  We need to examine three areas primarily:  (1) the expectations that each brings to the encounter and, particularly, how the initial interaction determines the outcome of the interview; (2) the fact that both librarian and user are actually equals in the process; and (3) the important point that we are engaging in a single moment in time that will not recur, a moment of which we are advised to consider not lightly.  Many of these concepts relate to the emotional tone of the interview, and it is largely up to the reference librarian to take the initiative in adopting the right modus operandi  in the exchange.  The reference librarian is the information intermediary, the one who really makes the difference in what will result (White, 1992).


The librarian and the user have brought to their encounter a set of assumptions that will determine the fate of their discussion.  It is clear that there are steps that we can take at the outset to be sure that the encounter will work for the best of everybody involved–librarian, user, and even reference colleagues and other library users who observe the encounter.  It is sometimes said that one makes an impression in the first 15 seconds of interaction; if true, it is no less true in the reference interview.

It is sometimes thought that dress, manner, and the first words that one speaks are the most important indicators of the impression that one makes.  But there are many other aspects.  S. D. Neill (1985) relates a complex model of user/librarian characteristics that influence the reference interview.  Among these, for the inquirer as well as the librarian, are the following:  character, personality, values, age, education, cognitive abilities, communication abilities and style, appearance, perception of and assumptions about libraries and librarians, etc.  We will focus on appearance first.

If in an academic or school library, the librarian is likely to be less casually dressed than the user; this is frequently true for public libraries as well, but generally not true for special libraries.  In that opening instant the user decides whether or not someone dressed so differently (i.e., professionally) can be on the same wave length as herself.  The dress may suggest authority that will need to be de-emphasized by manner and words if the encounter is going to be empathetic.

The “manner” of the reference librarian–that she is open and approachable–is probably the most important aspect of those crucial 15 seconds.  This involves body language, an open posture and an inquiring face and friendly smile.  We will duscuss in detail below the assertion that the librarian and user are actually equals in their exchange; yet equality of librarian and user is the most important aspect of the interaction to be made clear at the outset.  Let the user know that you respect her question and that you are giving it your full consideration.  Listen for the tone of the words that the user uses; if she is hesitant or timid, you must do what you can to put her at ease.  You too must be at ease, to allow an answer to arise from the subconscious mind, where all that education and experience for reference work resides.

As the above illustrates, it is primarily up to the reference librarian to influence the course of the interview.  As White (1981) says, the dimensions of the reference interview are “influenced by decision made during the interview, usually by the librarian.”  The user will determine if he has found a sympathetic listener in you.  Nearly every user wonders internally if he dares to express ignorance (which in class might get a lower grade).  Is this librarian a friend to me in my information need?  Virtually none of this internal conversation is at the conscious level, but it affects the entire exchange.

The first words are crucial, in that the right type of open question will ensure that the librarian correctly elicits from the user her “real” question.  Going fairly slowly at this point is recommended, because to forge ahead is almost to ensure that the wrong question has first been aske and answered, while the “real” question goes unrecognized.

As one moves past the opening 15 seconds, it is important to listen carefully, but not so carefully as to make the user uncomfortable.  Also, it is quite possible that too much intensity will break your stride.  One works more easily if one is relaxed enough to listen to all of the mind, subconscious as well as conscious.  You will probably begin thinking of your strategy very quickly as the question unfolds.  But this is not the time to jump to conclusions, because the research supports the fact that a careful interview is vital to a successful reference encounter.

Many years ago, Braun (1977) published an impressive short piece that illustated the role of  Transactional Analysis in the reference interview.  this focuses on the librarian, the user, and the various ways in which the “Parent,” “Adult,” and “Child” interact to bring about a successful or unsuccessful conclusion.  We will emphasize mostly staying in the “Adult” frame of reference, keeping the content on a rational plane.  To this end, hear out the user; ask questions; move fairly slowly so that he has time to think of the right response.  If you are too quick in these moments, or try to put closure on the question too early, you may find an answer, but the interview may have failed because it is not the answer that is needed.  And the user may never tell you!  That is how intimidating libraries and librarians can be to the typical user.

As you begin to frame an answer, let intuition rise to the surface.  We all have it, even if it has been let to lie dormant in our all-too-rational world, and it can be a vital link to those storehouses of reference knowledge that have come from library school and some years of reference experience (Neill, 1985).  It is likely that you will respond to intuition when needing to know how much information to impart, and how fast to impart it, rather than what the specific information might be.  Look into the user’s eyes; the familiar “glaze-over” is, of course, certain evidence that you are losing her.  Sometimes this intuitional response will indicate giving less information that you might think best; but it is also very possible at this point that you are giving all that the user can absorb.  Each person will receive the maximum that she can at a given moment.

Your intuition can not only give you clues about the user’s rate of absorption, but it will also give you hints when you are simply giving the wrong information–without realizing why consciously (Burton, 1990).  Remember that we do in reference work have that research finding of approximately 50 percent inaccuracy (Benham, 1987).  We can improve our average by being more attentive to the moment, conducting a thorough reference interview.

It is suggestive to realize that this encounter is not necessarily a coincidence.  Why did the person select you rather than other colleagues at the desk?  While it may often be that you are the available person, there are also many times when the user has a choice of whom to ask.  There is something about your manner or your appearance that is attracting to this particular person.

One should note how often a question seems to be tailor-made for the knowledge that you yourself personally has.  How many times has your best short-answer librarian picked up the phone and gotten the question that she is most equipped to handle?  How many times have you felt an empathy for the reference question that you are asked–the reference question that picks up on your own interests and is startlingly apt for you?  When one develops an easy flow in reference work, one will be aware that these types of “highs” occur daily.  It is far better not to look on your reference encounters as purely “chance,” but to tentatively hold the hypothesis that there is meaning to be derived for both of you from this encounter.


In the best reference settings, it is not a demerit to ask for help if one does not know where to find the answer.  Cooperative reference service is the best way to go (Orgren, 1994).  If this acknowledgement seems to be a demerit in your setting, then perhaps change is required.  If we do not work cooperatively, asking for assistance as needed, the patron gets poor service.  if we are too afraid to ask for help, perhaps because asking appears to be too threatening, then the climate of opinion in a given reference service is fearful.  There are many causes for this attitude, but peer evaluations are one major cause.  Certainly this method of evaluation is widely used in libraries, but if it sets up individuals as competitors in the reference process, it has gone too far.

When reference staff cooperate, the reference service is strong.  Eventually we will have a truly expert group of individuals, ready to handle diverse questions.  In trying to gain the courage to express ignorance about various questions and to get help from colleagues, remember that reference is set up to be a very humbling experience.  We have our entire minds on the line every time that we say, “May I help you?”  That takes a special kind of courage, and support from one’s colleagues goes a long way toward making the pressure bearable.

The best reference librarians are keenly aware of how much they do not know, and usually they are quick to acknowledge their weaknesses (perhaps in part because of their confidence that in many areas they are strong).  The reference librarian who covers for a lack of knowledge by never referring a question is frequently new to reference.  Yet we must help such colleagues to feel welcome in our reference setting, and this includes acculturating them to the advantage of saying, “I don’t know, but I will find out.”  This, after all, is the best automatic response when faced with a question that one cannot answer, and one of the best ways to learn.  Such a response also does not ill-serve the reference user (Pauli, 1992).

If we take the time to think about our reference interview, it becomes obvious that we are in a teacher-learner relationship.  It is not obvious, however, that we both learn from each other, and it is not obvious that what we “teach” (i.e., what we answer in the reference interview) is what we reinforce in our own minds.  We are both learning from each other in every encounter, and the content of the learning is nonverbal as well as verbal.  We as reference librarians also learn even better than the listener, because we are learning from our own words by reinforcement.  This phenomenon is an aspect of cooperative learning that is just now being explored in education at all levels, and it is a powerful argument that the better students do not lose in a setting of cooperative learning (Johnson, 1989 and 1991).

Moreover, we are not teaching solely the content of our answers, the words that we use and their meaning; we are making an impact by the nonverbal aspects of the exchange.  These nonverbal aspects frequently have a stronger impact than the reference answer itself; they correspond to the manner and style that we demonstrate.  If we do not convey patience and kindness, but seem hurried or impatient, we will be “teaching” that the question (and, by extension, the user) is not very important in our eyes.  what librarian wants to let such an attitude spill over to the students in an academic library, or the citizens in a public library?  None!  We are expressing opinions about another in virtually every nuance of our public stance; it behooves us to be as benign as possible.  The content of the reference question/answer may only be the vehicle for teaching greater truths about living–truths such as patience and tolerance.  We rarely think about such intangibles in our mundane daily activities, but would we not be better off if we did think about such issues a little more?

It is sometimes true that we look at our users with fear, and that we impugn  negative traits in them that they do not have (or if they do, that should be overlooked).  This fearful stance is caused by our sense of being threatened; it is informed, to a great extent, by project of our own inadequacies and insecurities.  In an academic setting, for example, the approach of a faculty member who has previously been demanding in regard to her reference assistance will cause a tightening of emotions and an immediate bracing for the worst (Baker, 1995).  If, instead of seeing this person as a demanding and hostile user, we instead see someone who is fearful pof failing to get tenure, our attitudes will change.  We will smile in warmth, trying to assist him indeed to “make the grace” with his peers.

It is also never helpful to attempt to correct another person who is being difficult.  We do not usually do this in an obvious way, but we may subtly express our disapproval of a public library user who seems to have some hidden question that she does not want to share.  We think, “How can I help if she won’t tell me what she wants to know?”  We may then turn testy, and this type of behavior is some of the worst that can be observed at the reference desks across the land.  (It also, not incidentally, has the tendency to spread among colleagues, so that one testy librarian breeds another, and eventually the service itself has taken a downward turn.)  We can abrasively ask leading questions, and  then “turn off” ourselves if the user doesn’t “open up” to our satisfaction.  This type of behavior is quite counterproductive.  Just let the person “be,” keeping a tolerant air always, seeking to answer as much of his question as th elibrary user is willing to share.  If the user recognizes that he has a friend in you, it is almost certain that more will be shared, making it possible, actually, to answer the “real” question.  Even though you may appear to be only helping the user in such a situation, you will actually be yourself as well.  Any teacher-learner situation works in both directions, as we have suggested.  What will you be teaching yourself?  Certainly, two aspects that troublesome interviews bring out in the librarian are patience and forbearance–traits that good reference librarians always have in surplus (Gothberg, 1987).

As the interview gets underway, and you are sorting through ways to answer the question as well as seeking to be empathetic, always seek to find peace in the moment.  One never does her best when under pressure that is frequently tinged with fear or anger.  When relaxed and at peace, though, the encounter is beneficial to your user as well as yourself.


We need to emphasize that librarian and user are actually equals in the interview process.  Although the librarian knows more about the library, the user is the expert in what she needs to know about the subject.  This “expert” status even includes the bewildered student, who can be helped to understand her information needs by careful questioning.  She may not come to the reference desk with a caarefully-worded statement of need, but the student still has attended the class and knows more about the instructor’s assignment than does the librarian.  The degree of information that we have varies; yet iinformation does not set us apart as adversaries, nor does it suggest special favor  And the student is always particularly reluctant to express ignorance, which in the classroom might mean a poorer grade from her “class participation.”  As Cummins says, “They [the students] must go to a relative stranger who knows things that they do not know.  They must admit ignorance and ask for help”  (Cummins, 1984).

Even though we have the M.L.S. and one or more other college degrees, and we have (likely) years of experience as a reference librarian, it is well to note that an egalitarian attitude works best at the reference desk.  The user is not “less” than you because at this particular moment, you are in the position to be of help because of (presumably) greater knowledge.  To invite the reverse attitude is to suggest an authoritarianism and an arrogant air that will undermine any empathetic attitude that might develop o therwise.  At this moment, you temporarily have more, perhaps, to give than to take; but you are not superior to him.  The two of you are in this together!

Moreover, you are certainly NOT the expert in what the user needs.  If you even attempt to second-guess her, you will be in for rather rude awakenings.  The user wants the information that she has requested; this is important.  Even if you don’t think that it is the “right” information; or if you think that she is taking a wrong tack, these judgments should not be the immediate part of your assistance.  Sometimes you can offer a given reference book that has been asked for, and then turn the conversation to “But do you need something more specialized, or more advanced, than magazines?”  You do the user a service when you acknowledge her question with a response, and then, if necessary, steer the dialogue to something that might assist more.  Note the word “might”; and remember that it is up to the user to make this assessment.

Remember that in this exchange the user is “teaching” you as well.  He is telling you more about particular needs, and you are learning how best to help.  He is also influencing your day by the emotional tone that is being developed between the two of you.  Mutually you have come together with this other person to make a change, move toward improvement of some kind, and all the while simply to enjoy each other’s companionship.  Anything less than this optimism will not have formed a good exchange

As mentioned, it is truly that the “two of us are in this together”  In the model of cooperative learning, teacher and student come together to learn; the teacher looks to the student’s contribution as good in and of itself.  The teacher is not trying to get the student to regurgitate the comments given by her as the superior in the relationship.  It is not necessarily a matter of the librarian “fixing” the problem of the student–much as one might take a car to a mechanic or your body to a physician.  You are there as a consultant, surely, but the contribution of the user is very, very important and will lead to the optimal outcome for the encounter (Lucas, 1993).  All too often a user is likely to try to “hand over” the problem (the reference question) to the librarian and, in effect, ask her to “fix it” (provide the detailed answer to the need) without making substantial contribution at all.  This is particularly true in the academic setting, wh en the student may not even havae read her assignment very carefully, and comes with assignment in hand, so that the librarian can read it and give a “diagnosis.”  In the best world of reference, this simply would not happen.  But since it does happen, and with some regularity, we must be ready to turn the question back to the user and ask for her best judgment about what is really needed.  The responsibility is to be shared equally between librarian and user; no abdication on either side is allowed!  As described earlier, the librarian knows more about the resources available in the library, but it is up to the user to know more about her particular research need as well as the particular slant to the topic that she wants to explore.  So the user is teaching us as well, factually in regard to the reference question as well as in more subtle ways that approach a relationship to life itself.  Obviously, this attitude does not foster a “winning” or “losing” approach to the interaction; both are equally winners or losers–depending on the success of the mutual encounter.

It is likely apparent that we are viewing librarian and user as “joined” in the sense that their goal is a shared one (to find the right information to answer the need); their emotional tenor affects each, many times in subconscious ways; and they will take away from the exchange a better attitude toward their living that day–or a mixed jumble of negative emotions that will hinder the living of the rest of the day.  If you as an experienced reference librarian, think a moment about how many times an unsatisfactory exchange has colored the rest of the reference service desk slot?  If you are so affected, think how much more will be the user, who is likely somewhat intimidated by the process anyway?  (As we all know, many users appraoch a reference desk only a very few times in their whole lives.)  This joining, therefore, takes many forms, but at its base is the fact that communication goes on through many channels.  The right kind of communication will produce peace of mind; the wrong kind, a wastebasket of negative emotions that will include defense, attack, fear, and retaliation.  Sjurely we want to avoid the latter and seek for the former at every possible junction!

What aspect of interaction that we want to avoid at all costs is our own sense of judging the question, and, by extension, the user who asks that question.  Judging, or evaluating the worth of a question, is absolutely none of our business!  It is true that if a student has selected a point of view that will be hard to support from the literature, or (more frequently) has selected too broad a topic, we can suggest alternative ways of handling the same material.  But the question itself and the person asking it need to be respected at all costs.  This is particularly important when questions of religion and politics come up.  It is quite typical to encounter an international student who wants to research a political question from the standpoint of his country’s point of view; we will personally not always believe that various countries take are defensible, but this does not allow us to engage in influencing that student (Lopez, 1993-94).  This opinion is an age-old reference maxim:  Give the information asked for!  And don’t insert personal opinion.

Here, though, is another aspect highlighted that is slightly different from that age-old maxim.  We may, like a good reference librarian, not seek to alter a person’s attitude, but we may be more prone to judge it if we do not agree with it.  It is very important to realize that that sense of judgment will be felt by the user, whether or not we actually say anything aloud.  This is why judging another is so destructive.  We certainly don’t change people in this way, and we set up a situation which is adversarial.  Because so much of this behavior may be subliminal, we may never realize (nor may our user) why we are having difficulty communicating.  The user is likely simply to feel that she “doesn’t like” that librarian.  And we will feel rejected thereby.  We need to give peace away, not judgment, and join with our users in a oneness that means that both of us have the same end–a satisfactory exchange that will give the user the means to find the information that she needs.  To give peace away in the exchange means that we honor the exchange; we see the relationship as an “I-Thou” relationship (as Martin Buber might say) (Buber, 1970) that is respectful in the extreme.  To do so may challenge us to greater acceptance than we normally know how to give, but it is a vlid exercise in accepting our fellowmen and women.

Remember, too, that the individual who holds a different political or religious opinion than yourself, even an opinion that feels (to you) morally objectionable, is truly a seeker in her heart.  The seeking may at times take a tack that seems contradictory to morality, but that is not for us to say.  Respect the rights of others in ways that you don’t personally take in your life.  Maybe you are wrong about your own values; or maybe you are simply actualizing a different set of values that are in no way better (or lesser) than those of your neighbors (and users).  As a librarian, it is likely that you place great value on the things of the mind–the intelle3ctual practice of book learning and greater education.  Try saying that to the sports figure on campus, who has won great kudos for his athletic ability and his point-scoring!  Society itself is more likely to reinforce his values than your own.  This small example illustrates the dangers of expanding one’s personal view to the whole wide world.

If we don’t judge, if we seek always to help, it is likely that from time to time we will enjoy a brief moment in time that indeed is existential in nature.  But we don’t have to subscribe to existentialism to recognize that the Now of a given reference exchange is all the time that matters.  If we don’t answer the question well right now, there is no other opportunity.  And we can’t answer the question well if we are judging it or its asker.  Step back ad let the library user show you the way; take your cues from him; and your answer will fall more in line with that library user’s real need.


Let us explore the thesis that the present moment is a unique experience–never before met and never to be met again.  If the librarian keeps this fact in mind, she is less likely to be subject to burnout as she answers those repetitive questions.

The best way to approach the reference desk experience is to realize that you are “caught” in a series of moments of Now–a string of isolated moments in time that will never recur (Sartre, 1968).  This particular instant in time is all any of us have, but it is all too infrequently that we live in the present.  For the best reference service, it is essential that we try to let go of the past and the future (i.e., one might say the past reference question and any reference questions yet to come) and focus on the particular need directly in front of you.  This involves slef-awareness, which Charles A. Bunge suggests is the most important antidote to the “cycle of unhappiness and frustration in reference librarianship” (1984).

How does living in the present mitigate against burnout?  It is very, very helpful to recall that even though you might have answered this question (e.g., How do I find periodicals on the OPAC?) a thousand times, for the user it is the first time that he has ever asked the question.  Your job is to fall in line with the emotional tone that he has, to answer as fully as possible (but not so fully as to “lose” the user), and in terms that the user seems to be comprehending.  This requires much feedback from that user, and you should be attune to nuances of body language and eye contact that tell you if you are getting through at all.  (We are familiar with the “glaze-over” that tells us that we have lost him!  This is the just the most extreme example.)  If we are able to see the experience as unique for the patron and to focus on those aspects of the interchange that make it unique to you, then the interview says “fresh,” challenging, and not the kind of boring interchange that cries for retirement to arrive soon!  Remaining interested in one’s work is a primary way to avoid burnout.  It is only the stale and the stressful that moves us toward that undesired end (Miller, 1992).

Seeing the Now of reference service means that you will close off all past and close off all future during the moments of excchange with your user.  Practically-speaking, you focus ono her needs only, and you forget the details of what has just preceded, and you don’t look ahead to what will follow.  This makes for a real experience in the present, an experiment tailored to what your user needs most–not by theory what you think that she might need..  And, if the person appears befuddled, and unable to articulate what she needs, you quietly forgive the confusion and dodn’t hold it against her as you try to help.  You are patient in the moment, because you are not trying to get through it quickly to answer the next person in line.  Remember–just this one instant–to be lived through and enjoyed!  The future is only a string of these moments, and if each one in turn is handled well, the future will take care of itself.  This will make all the difference in keeping reference fresh and a new experience each time that you take a turn at the desk.

In order to live in the Now, a librarian must give undivided attention to the person before him.  All too often we resist this, and sometimes interrupt the user because we are pressed for time (or just impatient) and think that we have caught the gist of what he has to say.  (After all, we have answered this question before!)  Big mistake!  The best that we can sometimes do for another is to listen quietly, and not with the intention of just waiting out the words so that we can add some of our own.  Really listening takes practice, but the rewards for a reference librarian are many.  All the knowledge of reference materials in the world won’t solve a given  user’s problem if we give him books that don’t meet the precise need; hence, the importance of listening carefully to determine what that precise need really is.

I also counsel listening to one’s intuition in the reference encounter.  If you suspect that going on and on about a given source, even though it is the “best” one, is not going to meet the need of this person, then stop!  You are probably picking up on messages of body language or facial expression that tell you that you are giving her more than she can absorb, or what she doesn’t really want at all!  I have learned that the user usually wants to be shown, at least, the source that has been asked for.  If the user comes in asking for The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature, I automatically show it to her, but all the while I am plying her with more questions that might ensure that she actually gets the best tool to answer her research need.  This is an obvious response, to be made on a regular basis.  Intuition about the interview can take other, less obvious forms, though.  Learning to listen with the inner ear is eminently rewarding, and one will find that one gives the best service when this is the habitual modus operandi.


With these concepts in mind, it will be cleaer that the interaction between librarian and patron is essentially a partnership, and nothing good will come of something that is perceived in any way but equality between these two individuals, meeting in time in one moment.  We do out users a tremendous favor by “honoring” them as individuals, not seeing them as “just” so many reference questions.  When we truly see another, we are open to all aspects of their interaction to us, and thus we are ready to offer the best service because we are more aattuned to the whole of the encounter.  We are leaving aaside our personal prejudices, viewing the person with an open mind, and bringing to bear upon this moment all of our experience and education to date.  It should be obvious by now that an understanding of human nature can make or break the reference encounter.  Our sensitivity to these issues of partnership as equals and meeting in the present moment are a prime way to avoid the negatives that may pile upon us as we gain years of experience in the field.  Living in the Now is the most powerful way to keep one’s living fresh and untarnished by the wounds that come upon just by living in this difficult world.  Carry a bit of optimism with you as you go about your reference desk duties, and see if it doesn’t rub off on your users, your colleagues, and yourself as well.  Above all, keep humanistic your experience of reference by concentrating on the Now as pivotal to right living in this age of conflict-riden, technologically-oriented information.


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