Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Children @ Your Library

I hardly ever went to the library as a child so I don't have any anecdotes about how great the children's librarian was and how she got me hooked on reading.  Almost everyone has one of these nostalgic stories of the children's librarian of yesteryear which leads me to my point that librarians should be memorable to kids - and not in a negative way.

Understanding that the importance of a child's reference question ranks just as high as the adult customer standing in your line is a good start toward making a positive impact on that child.  A guest writer for Letters to a Young Librarian, Jenn Estep, commented on what it takes to be a good children's librarian and the points she makes are very valid. If your library is lucky enough to have a separate children's department and librarians who specialize in this area then you may not find what I have to say particularly helpful.  If, however, your library is a branch like mine with no one particular person to handle children's reference, this post is a good starting place.  Jenn Estep's post assumes that you actually want to be a children's librarian, and maybe you do, but maybe you don't.  Maybe you just want to survive the amount of time it takes to shelve the cart of juvenile books and the numerous questions you will surely be asked during that time.  Whichever lofty goal you have set for yourself, allow me to offer some non-children's librarian tips for handling children's reference:

Children Are Customers, Too
Treating a child's question with as much care as an adult asking about your business resources is the first step toward engaging the child.  It is easy to overlook their needs because children are less likely to complain about being ignored. But as advertisers will tell you, children are the most powerful customers of all and warrant your full attention.  So often, I see the library staffer approach of only speaking with a parent and never acknowledging the child standing right next to them.  In a scenario like this, I wouldn't blame the child for never wanting to step foot in a library again.  If you can make a genuine connection with a child, however, you have a customer for life.  And what parent can say no to a child begging to go to the library?

Your MRBs Are No Good Here
Children's librarians take special courses in child reference behaviors during library school.  If you work in a library, you probably had training on Model Reference Behaviors and it may or may not have included a section on children's reference questions.  One of the key points drilled into our heads regarding MRBs is to ALWAYS ask open ended questions.  But for children, who are still developing language skills, answering open ended questions can be difficult.  Instead, I recommend asking multiple choice questions to prevent a game of 20 questions.  Here is a great example:

Child: Where are your books on dogs?
Librarian: I have lots of books on dogs.  Do you have a dog or do you just like them?
Child: I have a beagle.
Librarian: That's awesome!  I wish I had a dog but I'm allergic to them.  Did you want to look at books about Beagles or learn about other types of dogs?
Child: Beagles.
Librarian: Let's go look and see what we have. (As you walk to the books ask other questions such as, "do you have to take care of your dog," "how old is your dog," and/or "do you have any other animals?" The answers to these fun questions will help narrow the specific type of book the child is looking for)   

Most children are succinct in their answers and the only way to get them talking is to make a connection on a topic they love.  By having a conversational reference interview, you put the child at ease and increase the likelihood that the child will return to the library.

Early Childhood Literacy Matters
My wonderful coworkers, who have much more knowledge about children's reference than I do, have worked on several projects dealing with Early Childhood Literacy that really makes a difference.  From reader's advisory workshops to a literacy station in our juvenile collection (right,) children feel at home in the library even if they never seek the help of a library staff member.  Hopefully, I will be able to share the reader's advisory workshop with you in the near future, as well.

Working with children can be so rewarding if you let it.  It is impossible for me to cover every single nuance of assisting children at your library, but I certainly hope this gives you a jumping off point toward understanding our littlest, and perhaps most important, customers.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

ESL Expectations

My library will soon be starting up its fall session of Let's Talk, a session of English conversational classes that we host each Fall and Spring, and this has got me thinking about how libraries assist the ESL community as a whole.  If your library is like mine, it may offer something similar to our Let's Talk classes or may even provide citizenship classes.  All of it is great, but it's not the programs where libraries seem to fall short.  The regular, day to day interactions we have with ESL customers has a huge impact on both their library experience and their cultural experience as a whole.  If we, as librarians, fail to meet their needs in the most simple of information exchanges, that is one customer we have lost that even the most promising of programs cannot bring back.

It's All in the Smile, Except When it Isn't
A smile says a lot and it sure helps put customers at ease, but it cannot translate what a customer is trying to tell you.  You may be familiar with the frustration of assisting an ESL customer when you are not quite sure what they need.  If you've experienced this frustration first hand, imagine instead that you are the customer and your language limitations have been reached.  You've already embarrassed yourself trying to communicate and you see that the Librarian has no idea what you need.  The easiest solution?  Just saying yes and accepting whatever the Librarian gives you knowing that, in the end, you will have to help yourself.  This customer will most likely not come back and, if they do, they will not be asking for help in the future.

Because the ESL community spans the entire scope of languages and cultures, it is important to approach each customer as an individual and meet their specific needs.  But how can you know what the need is if you cannot understand?  I suggest following these Model Reference Behaviors for ESL customers, presented in an InfoPeople workshop on Customer Service Skills for Culturally Diverse Communities.  Here are a few highlights:

  • Yes Sometimes Means No - Either out of respect to you or because they are frustrated, a customer may respond in the affirmative when it is really not what they need.  When you see the eyes light up, you know that this is a genuine YES!
  • Speak to the Individual, Not the Translator - Out of respect for the customer, you should look at them as you are speaking even if they do not understand a single word.
  • Listen, Listen, and Listen - Get to know the individual.  Understanding a little about their history will give you insight to what they want for their future.  It will also help you understand other customers who come in with a similar history or culture.
  • Match Vocabulary - By using the same words and phrases the customer uses, you increase your chance of being understood.  For example, it is always better to use the term borrow rather than check-out.
  • Translations When Possible - If there is a language spoken among many customers, it is in the Library's best interest to translate important information in that language.  New Card handouts, for example, that explain late fees will best be understood if it is written in their native language.
The concept of libraries as we view them in North America and in other western cultures is not a familiar one to most ESL customers.  Libraries are often viewed as highly academic and, oftentimes, are not free to the public.  Libraries have their work cut out for them when it comes to reaching out to the ESL community and educating them about what a great resource their local library is.  Once they come in, let's try to keep them here by continually exceeding their expectations.