Working at a Public Library Reference Desk

by Clare Sobotka, Head Editor, INALJ Idaho

Working at a Public Library Reference Desk

Clare SobotkaFor three months now, I have been working as a substitute reference librarian for the adult and youth reference desks at my local public library. I thought I would share a little about my experience, because graduate school reference courses give a limited picture of what work in a public library is like.


As a substitute I have two, three, or four hour shifts. One of my favorite parts of the job is that I get to move around. In the adult section, I open study rooms and go over to the computers to answer tech questions or fix the printer, or stand at a desk where patrons can come speak with me. In the youth section I sit at a desk, but I get up a lot to help kids and parents find items, go to the circulation area to pick up an item that has been checked in but not reshelved, or walk around the youth section to pull books for display and organize a little. When I’m not helping people, I’m usually working on booklists.


My other favorite thing is all the different people I get to interact with. I come home with some good stories (it’s important to respect patron’s privacy, I don’t use names or give any identifying information when telling these stories to other people, unless a patron specifically told me to “say hi to your mother!”). Sometimes the things I learn are sad, but most interactions are neutral or funny. People are strange creatures. Working at the reference desk gives you an intimate look into a tiny portion of someone’s life. From the guide books someone requests I know where they are going on vacation, when they ask with help printing an e-mail I see their financial status, or from a conversation with a little girl I learn that her mother gave her older sister up for adoption. People forget extra copies of their resume or their tax information, or ask for books on marriage counseling or alcoholism. I get to speak with patrons who may be developmentally disabled, mentally ill, or homeless. Some people are cranky, and some are very friendly or grateful. Sometimes the flow of people is slow, and sometimes a line forms at the desk.

Checking and Teching

I don’t do many traditional reference interviews or reader’s advisory sessions for adults. What I do a lot of in the adult section: checking to see if a book is in, putting holds on materials, writing down call numbers, writing down library card numbers for patrons so they can use the computer, answering tech questions in the computer area (such as how to format something in Word), opening and closing study rooms, accepting payment for copies, addressing questions about downloading digital items, and answering directional questions (where the copier is etc.).

There is a wide spectrum of computer literacy; I’ve helped someone who didn’t know how to use a mouse, but I’m more likely to guide an individual on how to scan a document or transfer a file to a flashdrive. Surprisingly, I have had several questions related to microfilm use. I thought that was something mostly used in academic libraries, but in my town it is the most reliable way of finding articles from the local paper, even from the past few years. In the adult section I deal with occasional policy violations, such as confronting someone who has used the computers above and beyond the normal time limit. I don’t ask people to be quiet, except when their music is really loud and I suspect it’s bothering other patrons, or there is someone practically yelling into their cell phone. Honestly, enforcing rules is the hardest part of my job, as confronting people does not come naturally to me. It gets easier with practice.

The Kids are Alright

In the youth section I get fewer tech questions and do more reader’s advisory for youth. It’s fun to see what’s popular with kids. Not a shift goes by where I’m not asked about a Lego book. Star Wars and Barbie follow next in popularity. One reference source I do use in the youth section regularly is; it’s great for figuring out the publishing order of a fiction series.


It has been important to know that I have the support of my fellow librarians and staff members, all of whom are more experienced than I am. There is usually someone to provide backup if there is a line at the desk, if I need help talking to an agitated patron, or if I get asked a question I can’t answer. That seems to happen a lot. Sometimes when I ask another librarian for help, I realize from watching and listening to them that I hadn’t asked the patron enough questions to figure out what they really needed, which would then have made it easier to find a solution. I have plenty to learn.

Introverts Succeed!

I’m naturally an introvert, but I’ve found that I don’t need to be a social superstar to provide good customer service to patrons. Eye contact and being attentive go a long way, with an upbeat tone of voice and a smile when manageable. My reference shift is my “on” time. When I talk with people during that time I do well; my mind is fully prepared to interact with other people because I expect it to happen and I’m out of my own mind space. Making small talk and/or providing pleasant customer service becomes easier with practice, and I’ve enjoyed the personal challenge it has presented me. I think it helps that I take pleasure in aiding people and being useful. I have found that with reference that I don’t need to be a genius and don’t need to know every reference source. It’s okay to make mistakes, and I have made them. While it isn’t for everyone, I’ve found public library reference to be a fun and rewarding experience.

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