Observation Analysis Assignment
San Jose State University
Reference and Information Services
Instructor: Michelle Simmons
This document is an observation analysis of reference librarians at work. It provides a
detailed evaluation of a practicing reference librarian in both a virtual and a live
environment in order for me to reflect on and improve my own practices as a soon to be
reference librarian. This observation has two parts: a face-to-face observation and a
digital reference interaction. The face-to-face evaluation was conducted at the California
State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) Library which is an academic library. The
digital reference interaction was with the Ask a Librarian on the CSUMB Library website
and the Internet Public Library, a reference service offered online.
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 2
According to Hill (2001), background subject knowledge at the reference desk is often
necessary just to understand the question being asked and to conduct an effective
reference interview. For Elmborg (2006), the reference desk is a “contact zone” meaning
that it is the place where cultures meet and clash and the outcome can be positive or
negative and it all comes down to the “arts of the contact zone” as Pratt (1999) put it
meaning the strategies that the reference librarian has developed prior to the reference
interview and used during the meeting. According to Susan Sykes Berry, the work of the
reference librarian begins after the education is completed and the first job is landed. As
understood, being a reference librarian is not an easy job and requires life long
commitment to learning and strong communication and customer services skills. The job
of the reference librarian is even more complicated today due to the advance in computer
technology that opened the door to virtual reference interactions. This paper is going to
analyze my face-to-face observation of the CSUMB Library’s reference desk and provide
a report on my participation in a digital reference interaction with the CSUMB Library’s
Ask a Librarian and the Internet Public Library.
About the library
The California State University Monterey Bay Library is a CSU academic library that has
only one floor. It is about 4,000 square feet and the building that is pretty old. It has
approximately 70,000 books and 500 print periodicals that include journals, magazines
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 3
and newspapers. The books are organized by subject using the Library of Congress
classification system. Periodicals are shelved alphabetically by title in the periodical
stacks. In addition the library has over 28,000 electronic full-text journals and news
sources are available online. The library is also a repository of many of the documents
and materials related to the ongoing environmental cleanup of the former Fort Ord. There
are 40 computers in the information commons including 2 Macintosh PCs and 3 public
PCs that do not require logon. 35 of these computers require logon and are for students
The circulation desk is to the left when you first walk into the library. It usually has two
student assistants interacting directly with the patron and three other circulation staff
operating behind the circulations desk. The reference desk is the next desk after
circulation and is located at mid distance between the opposite wall and the entrance of
the library. I think its location makes it obvious to patrons and there is always a librarian
at the reference desk. It has two computers, one phone and three chairs. The men’s and
the women’s rooms are at opposite direction from each other and are so far apart but
there is good signage to point to them. There are three group study rooms in the library.
The school has now built a new library that is much bigger than the old one. It has
136,151 square feet of space, 72,000 volumes, 932 seats, 11 electronically reservable
group study rooms, three classrooms, two information literacy centers, two auditoria, and
one happy romp of Otters. It has three floors compared to the old one that has only one.
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 4
The library is going to migrate from its current location to the new building in November
this fall and open its doors on December 1, 2008.
Sitting close enough to be able to listen to the reference librarian and respect her personal
space was a challenge because she is soft-spoken. She probably just wanted to keep it
down but I managed to listen to some of her conversations with patrons. She was kind
enough to share information on her transactions with me though. Although I know almost
every staff member in the library because I graduated from CSUMB and did a technical
internship this summer with the Technology Development Librarian, I didn’t know the
reference librarian sitting at the reference desk. I walked to her and introduced myself
and told her what I was there for. She was in the middle of a reference interview when I
got there and I waited for her to get done before talking to her. Following is our
conversation (I will refer to myself as Me and to her as RL):
Me: I am a graduate student at the SJSU majoring in MLIS and one of my assignments is
to observe a reference librarian at work and I was wondering if it will be ok for me to
watch you interact with the patrons today.
RL: Sure, could you please write down your name on this piece of paper for me? What
Me: San Jose State University, the School of Library and Information Science.
RL: Feel free to come and have a sit behind the desk with me. Have you been in this
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 5
Me: Yes I have. In fact I am a CSUMB alumnus and I did an internship here this summer
with the Coordinator of the Technology Development.
RL: Great! You know the reference interview that I was conducting when you first come
be has to do with technology and maybe you can help me with that.
RL: This student wanted me to show her how to change language in the middle of a
PowerPoint project. She needs to add Japanese scripts to her presentation. Could you help
me with that?
Me: Maybe I can help. (This is something I helped a patron with in the past but it was
quiet interesting that I came to observe but found myself participating in reference).
I went to help the student and found out that there was no Japanese Input Language
installed on the computer. I wanted to do it for her but that installation required admin
privileges. I went back to the reference desk and let her know about the situation and she
said thanks and told me that she will let the student know and will inform the information
I am now sitting and observing what the reference librarian is doing in between
transactions. She basically reads blogs; the CSUMB blog in particular to probably inform
herself on what is going on throughout the campus. She also responds to emails and
instant messages. I also saw her read the Librarian in Black blogs. I went to the library on
a Sunday and therefore there wasn’t much traffic at the reference desk and the reference
librarian confirmed that when I asked her.
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 6
In general I observed the reference librarian answering questions about study room
booking, computer related issues, and real reference questions. According to Dervin, and
Dewdney in their article published in 1986, neutral questioning is the best way to get the
patron to give more information about what he or she is after. I didn’t quiet see this
reference librarian use this procedure. Here is an example when a patron (I will refer to
patron as P) came to her with a reference question (the patron sounded like an
international student with a somewhat heavy accent):
P: I am trying to understand how to use the word “jail” and do you think a synonym of
that word is institution or organization?
RL: A synonym of “jail” will be “institution” not “organization”.
P: (seemed a little bit not completely satisfied by the answer) Hamm…Thank you.
RL: You’re welcome.
It was so clear that this patron would have welcomed more information from the
reference librarian. She could have asked her what she needed that information for or if
she had any other questions. The librarian didn’t even address the first part of the patron’s
question which was to know how to use the word “jail”. This patron obviously needed
help with the English language but the librarian was awfully short on her answer. I think
a better approach would have been to take note of everything the patron asked and ask
open ended question to better understand the patron’s need. A neutral question could
have been “can you tell me what you are working on?” This would have given this
reference interaction a whole different dimension that I am sure would have been more
satisfactory to the patron. She clearly failed to follow the 2004 RUSA guidelines that
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 7
suggest that reference librarians should use open-ended questioning techniques to
encourage patrons to expand on the request or present additional information.
Following is another question that I think the librarian did better with (the patron here is a
P: I have a list of videos and I was wondering if you could find their call numbers for me.
RL: Do you know how to access our catalog online?
P: No I don’t.
RL: Well let me show you. I am going to find two of them for you and you can find the
rest yourself. (She then got on the library website, got on the catalog page and did a title
search for two of the videos). Here you go. Are you going to be able to find the rest
P: Yes thank you.
RL: You’re welcome! Did you have any other questions?
P: No this will do.
RL: Well feel free to let me know if you need further assistance finding the videos.
P: I will thanks again.
I think the librarian was pretty effective with this transaction. She clearly responded to
the patrons question and showed her how to find the answer herself. The patron certainly
learned something that will serve her in the future. From now on she knows that anytime
she needs a call number she can find it by accessing the library’s catalog through the
library’s website. I noticed that the librarian doesn’t like to find information for the
students but instead show them how to find their answers. At the end of my observation
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 8
she told me that by directing the student to sources where they can find the information
they are after, she is respecting the school’s policy regarding reference assistance in an
Here is another example where the reference librarian did very well (the patron here is
P: I am a student at Hartnell College and I am looking for an article in publishing. They
suggested interlibrary loan at Hartnell but I need the article for right now and they told
me you have it here.
RL: Could you come over here and I will show you how to locate that article. (Then she
showed her how access the database that will have the article and pointed out the 3 public
computers that do not require logon and even walked the patron to the area).
P: Thank you so much.
RL: You’re very welcome and please let me know if you need help with anything else.
The reference librarian conducted this reference interview quiet efficiently. She clearly
demonstrated effective customer services skills in this particular transaction. However,
she wasn’t smiling very much and seemed very serious instead. I she would reach
perfection by putting a little smile in her face while greeting patrons like the 2004 RUSA
guidelines advise librarians.
The following is another transaction that the librarian did well in. The patron here is a
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 9
P: I am looking for a book titled “x” (I didn’t get the title of the book) that is supposed to
be on reserve under instructor “z” (I don’t want to display the name of the instructor).
RL: I can take a look. Let us search the catalog with the instructor’s name to see what
books he has on reserve.
P: Thank you.
RL: I can’t find the name of the instructor in the database. This usually means that he
didn’t put anything on reserve. Let me look the actual book. (She performed a title search
for the book but did not find it). We do not have the version you are looking for but I
know that we have an older version. Did you want to take a look at that one?
P: Yes I do.
RL: (She searched the database for the older version and found it) Here it is and the call
number is “XYZ” (XYZ is not the actual call number). Please let me know if any help
P: Thank you so much.
In this transaction the reference librarian used her background knowledge to help the
student. This kind of attitude shows that the librarian has some experience and probably
reads a lot.
I spent about four hours in observing the reference desk and only five or six patrons
asked actual reference questions. Five other patrons asked question that had to do with
printing and few other wanted to know when the library closes on Sundays.
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 10
My reference question
This is so far the very first time for me to engage in digital reference interaction. The
most challenging aspect of this interaction was to come up with an appropriate question.
The assignment instruction was clear about the type of question to ask in this scenario;
the question shouldn’t be overly basic and shouldn’t be excessively complicated either.
My mother came to visit from abroad and stayed for about two weeks. Although we had a
great time together because I haven’t seen her for five years, she got very sick when we
were in San Diego visiting my folks. She has had high blood pressure for many years but
has been able to manage it through medication and diet. I think the stress of the long
travel and her being in a different environment together with the jetlag triggered the
increase of her blood pressure and we ended up going to the emergency room. Now I
could only think of one think; what diet should I recommend her and what other
medications are out there? Hence my reference question:
“Lately my mother’s high blood pressure became severe and she had to undergo
rigorous treatments to figure out which drug will best suit her condition since her
body doesn’t seem to respond to the drug she has been using. Could you please
help me find reliable sources on what causes high blood pressure, what diet to
follow, and what medications are recommended? Any other information about
high blood pressure will also be helpful. Thanks much in advance.”
I thought I would seek answers from two different libraries. The “Ask a Librarian” page
of the CSUMB Library offers reference services through instant messaging and I figure I
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 11
could take advantage of that. I asked the same question on the Internet Public Library
Reference interview 1
Following is the transcript of my digital reference interaction with a reference librarian at
the CSUMB Library:
meeboguest388754: Lately my mother’s high blood pressure became severe and
she had to undergo rigorous treatments to figure out which drug will best suit her
condition since her body doesn’t respond to the drug she has been using. Could
you please help me find reliable sources on what causes high blood pressure, what
diet to follow, and what medications are recommended? Any other information
about high blood pressure will also be helpful. Thanks much in advance.
CSUMB Library: Hello. I
CSUMB Library: Are you one of our students?
meeboguest388754: I am a graduate student at SJSU majoring in MLIS
CSUMB Library: Ok. While you will not be able to access our databases because
you are affiliated with our school, you may have some of the same databases at
meeboguest388754: I am a CSUMB alumnus and therefore I do have access to
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 12
CSUMB Library: For general searches in the medical field, try the following
databases: CINAHL (core nursing journals) and MEDLINE (medical information
based on the National Library of Medicine sources.
meeboguest388754: Is there a specific article you can point me to that directly
addresses this topic?
CSUMB Library: Ok . . . the two databases I just gave you are common for any
university. Also, a great public source of information is the National Library of
Medince. Do this> google> enter "pubmed" as your search term, and you will
land on the search page,.
meeboguest388754: Thanks a lot I am going to do this now.
CSUMB Library: Your area of research is very general. As such, it will be
impossible to point you to a specific article. I do invite you to come into the
library and speak with a librarian at the reference desk. We will be happy to help
you narrow your search. I hope this helps.
meeboguest388754: Thanks so much and have a nice day!
CSUMB Library: You do so as well.
The beginning of this interview was a little shaky in my view because I found it strange
that the librarian’s first response was “Hello. I” followed by some delay in writing back
and I had to say “Hi” to see if she was still there. It seemed that she was bothered by my
question and was doing something else and hit the return button on the keyboard by
accident. Her following question wasn’t welcoming either; I don’t think “Are you one of
our students?” should have been the first question but maybe “Do you have access to our
databases?” would have been more appropriate. I am sorry if I sound a little too critical
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 13
but I don’t think this librarian has a lot of experience using instant messaging for
reference. In fact she cut me short be inviting me into the library without knowing how
far I was from the library.
Reference interview 2
Following is the response that I got from the Internet Public Library when I asked them
the same question I asked the CSUMB Library:
Hello from the IPL!
Normally we ask for about three days to thoroughly research and
answer questions such as yours, but since you seem to be in a
hurry, we'll do what we can.
Hello from the IPL!
Normally we ask for about three days to thoroughly research and
answer questions such as yours, but since you seem to have a
deadline, we'll do what we can.
One of the our other reference librarians recommended Medline
Plus, is a good source. Medline is a public site sponsored by the
National Institutes of Health. To view the section on blood
Second, The American Heart Association has a site dedicated to
learning about high blood pressure:
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 14
It won't look like much at first, but note the two drop-down
menus at the top right:
"High Blood Pressure" and "About High Blood Pressure"
Each menu links to sections of the presentation.
A third source is from The National Heart, Lung and Blood
The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute is a branch under
the National Institutes of Health
You may also wish to contact the reference desk "in person" at
your local library. Don't forget to use and support your local
libraries! A great directory for finding your local library is
available through WebJunction's LibWeb online at:
Please write back to us if we can be of further assistance. Thank
you for asking the IPL!
We list some other ideas here:
You can also use the IPL's large collection of free links to do
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 15
some research. Just go to our homepage:
Or go directly to our Subject Collections:
We even have a special section for kids:
I am more satisfied by this “email” interaction than the instant messaging interaction that
I had with the CSUMB Library. This one actually responded to my whole question and
provided me with valuable links to reliable sources where I can find real answers. They
even share the other services that they have with me and I appreciated that very much.
Although I had to wait to get answer from IPL, it was worth it compared to what I got
chatting online with the librarian at CSUMB.
Spending some time observing the reference desk was such a great experience. There are
so much that I learned with this assignment about the reference work. Visiting libraries
and asking reference questions to librarians didn’t teach me anything about the work at
the reference desk. I agree with Luo (2006) and Radford (2005) that it can be challenging
to do digital reference like a traditional reference but it is important to ask open ended
questions. My reference interview 1 didn’t offer that at all. The librarian didn’t ask any
other question that will help her assist me in finding the information I was after. Instead
she couldn’t wait to cut the conversation short. That wasn’t a very good experience. The
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 16
reference interview 2 was more interesting. Although this one wasn’t a chat, I got more
out of it than the first interview.
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 17
California State University Library (2008). Retrieved October 27, 2008 from
Hill, Kierstin (2001). Acquiring Subject Knowledge to Provide Quality Reference
Service. Retrieved October 27, 2008 from Blackboard.
Elmborg, James (2006). Libraries in the Contact Zone On the Creation of Educational
Space. Retrieved October 27, 2008 from Blackboard.
Pratt, L. Mary (1999). Arts of the Contact Zone. Retrieved October 27, 2008 from
Berry, S. Susan (2001). ‘‘I Got the Job! Now What Do I Do?’’: A Practical Guide for
New Reference Librarians. Retrieved October 27, 2008 from Blackboard.
RUSA (2004). Guidelines for behavioral performance of reference and information
service providers. Retrieved October 27, 2008 from Blackboard
Dervin, B., Dewdney, P. (1986). Neutral questioning: A new approach to the reference
interview. Retrieved October 27, 2008 from Blackboard.
Radford, M.L. (2006). Encountering virtual users: A qualitative investigation of
interpersonal communication in chat reference. Retrieved October 29,
2008 from Blackboard.
Luo, L. (2007). Chat reference competencies: identification from a literature review and
librarian interviews. Retrieved October 29, 2008 from Blackboard.
Kossivi Bessou Observation Analysis Assignment 18