Thursday, September 4, 2008

Working the Information Ground

For the past six years, I've seen in autumn by working at Bumbershoot, Seattle's music and arts festival. I manage an information booth, which resembles working a library reference desk more than a little. My standard observation is that it's just like a reference desk, only noisier and with more drunk people (some of my public library colleagues may, at this point, be saying, "Oh? How so?").

It's also busier than most reference desks, these days. An estimated 50,000 people come to Bumbershoot each day; of those, a certain number can be guaranteed to a) not have read any of the website or printed literature beforehand, b) be from outside the area and unfamiliar with the layout of Seattle Center (or be from Seattle and still not know how to find a particular building or stage; Seattle Center's grounds can be confusing to the uninitiated), c) require something that only an information booth can provide (i.e., a Mainstage pass or, this year, a Comedy pass), d) have a complaint that they wish to pass on to the festival's most visible representatives, or e) desirous to know if Elephant Ears are available from any of the food vendors this year.

I'm sure someone from the information science end of my profession has already done a study on this, but Bumbershoot always makes me think of information dissemination, customer service, and how to get a bit of that festival vibe into libraries. To wit:

  • It's a perfect example of teach someone something, then get them to teach it. Every year I wrangle a team of volunteers, anywhere from two to seven at any given time. They get, on average, 5-10 minutes of training, then learn the rest of what they need to know by example (both from yours truly and from each other). It's amazing how well it works, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the pressure cooker that is information booth work.
  • We only wish our reference desks were as busy as Bumbershoot information booths. Part of the reason the booths are so busy is that they're perfectly placed to provide point of need assistance. As we redesign our libraries into information commons, the placement of service points, including reference desks, ought to be done with this in mind.
  • You know what customer service means when you have two people asking you questions simultaneously, plus a radio blaring in your ear, and you must address all three in the next thirty seconds. In that context, the combination of receptivity and assertiveness that superior service requires gets a real workout.
  • The reference interview model exports very well. There are many studies in libraryland of patrons who come to the desk with so little notion of what they're after that they don't even know how to phrase the question; the well-known "information gap". The same thing happens at Bumbershoot. For example, there was the guy who came up to me on Monday afternoon and announced, "I'm confused." Using reference interview techniques, I determined the source of his confusion, helped him resolve it, and sent him on his merry way. My point here is that the reference interview really works, in contexts beyond the library reference desk.
The thing I always come away thinking about, though, is how the booth is no barrier to inquiry. We have tables with our programs, schedule grids, and other paraphenalia. They're just those long folding tables you find in classrooms, meeting rooms, and cafeterias everywhere. People don't hesitate to approach them, because their need outweighs any ambivalence they might have.

Recently there's been a lot of discussion in the library world about making reference desks less intimidating and more receptive. While there's some merit to this discussion (I have an ongoing issue with my own reference desk in this respect) and I'm a big fan of conscientious design of the built environment, it's not the only factor worth considering. I run across a lot of references to bringing customer service principles into the reference environment, as though this were some sort of revolutionary idea. It ought to be par for the course.

No comments: