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					Observation Analysis Assignment


            Kossivi Bessou

       San Jose State University

               LIBR 210

   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.

                                   CSUMB 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

use only.

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

school again?

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

library before?

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.

Me: Sure.

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

technology department.

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

academic setting.

Here is another example where the reference librarian did very well (the patron here is

also female):

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

college girl:

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

finding it.

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
                                  Digital Reference:

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

       meeboguest388754: Hi

       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

       your school.

       meeboguest388754: I am a CSUMB alumnus and therefore I do have access to

       your databases

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

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