Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"Face It! Reference Work and Politeness Theory Go Hand in Hand"

Now that the hectic pace of the fall semester has started to wind down a bit, I have been able to catch up on some professional reading! As I mentioned in my last post, one of my professional resolutions for the upcoming year is to use this blog to document some of my favorite (or perhaps least favorite) articles/papers/essays. I am hoping that this will serve as a public annotated bibliography that will serve me and other librarians! So here is my first posting...

Aldrich, A.W., & Leibiger, C.L. (2009). Face it! Reference work and politeness theory go hand in hand. In Mueller, D.M. (Ed.), Pushing the edge: explore, engage, extend. Proceedings of the Fourteenth National Conference of the Association of College and Research Libraries, March 12-15, 2009, Seattle, WA (pp. 235-246). Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.

I was browsing the contents of the 2009 ACRL Annual Conference Proceedings, and this title jumped out at me. When I was a new librarian, I (naively) thought that if a library offered its patrons the resources that they need or want, they would obviously flock to the library to use those resources. Additionally, they would naturally ask librarians for help if they didn't understand how to use a resource. I have come to realize that collections are resources are really only half of the equation...the reputation of the library and its staff are the other half. Now, I know that I was not or am not the first person to have this realization, but I had never come across it in professional literature.

There are a number of excellent points made in this paper that I would like to highlight:

"The relational dimension of reference service has a direct influence on the perception of the library by its users." (237)
Well, yes, obviously. However, I think librarians sometimes forget about the word-of-mouth marketing that our patrons do or do not do for us. This statement reinforces the notion that every reference encounter we have (at the reference desk, at the circulation desk, in the stacks, in our office, etc.) has an impact on how our community perceives us. If a patron has a positive experience with a librarian, not only will they be more likely to come back, but they will also (hopefully) tell their friends/colleagues about that experience. Likewise, if a patron has a negative experience, they will be unlikely to return and could possibly advise their friends/colleagues to avoid the library and librarians. I believe this is something that librarians need to keep in mind any time they are working with or around patrons.

"Users, however, evaluate reference transactions primarily in relational terms: first and foremost are librarian attitude and relationship quality, and then approachability. Information and knowledge base follow these interpersonal dimensions in importance." (237)
This is really interesting, because, as the authors point out, this is the opposite of how librarians perceive the reference transactions. Librarians tend to place the emphasis on the information retrieval/knowledge aspect of the reference transaction. The authors attribute the value the patrons place on the approachability and attitude of the librarian to Brown and Levinson's politeness theory. This theory has two aspects: negative-politeness (in which people do not want to inhibited by others) and positive-politeness (in which people hope that their "wants be desirable to at least some others" (238)). Perhaps, as a profession, we need to shift how we perceive our transactions, as well as how we train our future professionals to handle transactions.

"The reference desk setting reflects this orientation through the high power differences that exist between the librarian as the information expert and the patron as the information novice." (239)
The authors go on to state that this creates a "high social distance" between the librarian and the patron. The authors also point out that many patrons are afraid to look "stupid" or be chastised for not knowing how to do something. This statement will certainly make think about my non-verbal actions when I am sitting at the reference desk. Not only should librarians seem approachable with respect to not looking completely engrossed in other work, but we need to be approachable with our body language and facial expressions. This also made me think about the IL sessions I hold for faculty members. If I can, I prefer to have the students gather around me while I sit on a slightly elevated chair. I don't like to stand in front of them lecturing at them, and I think the reason is that I don't want to create this "high social distance" between them and me. I think it removes some of the intimidation they might feel and perhaps makes them more comfortable, not only with me, but the librarians in general.

"The preference in the academic library for patrons to engage in self-help first contributes to the potential for criticism. Massey-Burzio points out that users assume that they ought to be capable of doing research in a library, and they could be subject to censure if they fail to do so." (241)
Being active in the First-Year Seminar program here, I found this passage to be quite interesting. I don't believe that my colleagues expect undergraduates to be capable of doing all of their library research on their own, but the patrons seem to have a different perception of our expectations. Perhaps we as professionals need to be more clear with our patrons as to what levels of proficiency we expect from those individuals with certain levels of attainment (e.g. first-year vs. sophomore vs. junior vs. senior). It's possible that we think they understand what their proficiency level should be, but I think we are making a false assumption. If we present our expectations to our community more clearly, they will be more comfortable approaching librarians for help. Having said that, what if a patron has difficulty with a certain aspect of research in which we feel they should be proficient - will they then feel alienated/ashamed/embarrassed?

There is one other passage I would like to highlight, but I will not elaborate on at this time:
"Gers and Seward note three librarian behaviors that significantly affect accuracy: using the questions to probe for users' information needs, showing interest in users' questions, and being comfortable with users' questions, which increase the likelihood of a correct answer by over 100% (in the case of showing interest, accuracy is increased by almost 150%)." (237)

Although this article served to reinforce my beliefs about relationships/experiences being quite influential on our user population(s), it did give me a number of things to think about when I am at the desk or in an IL session.

I would love to hear your thoughts/comments/opinions, etc. on this topic!

Thank you for reading!

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