Information Desk Observation Fieldwork Report

by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 601, Fall 2000, taught by Joyce Yukawa

Table of Contents



As part of LIS 601, the students were instructed to independently observe the information desk in the main lobby of UH's Hamilton Library. This report is a culmination of 10 hours of such observation.


As the number and variety of available information providers continues to grow, the library is beginning to find itself left behind. Despite centuries of experience in organizing and disseminating information, as well as being a established community center, libraries must now compete with the Internet, large bookstores, music stores, publishing companies, and other organizations involved in providing information. The library holds a unique, non-profit, historical position in the information industry. Yet if it cannot change to respond to user needs, this will not be enough to keep it thriving.

Thus, for the purpose of this observation, I chose to focus on a small aspect of modern librarianship: providing good customer service. I was curious to see how things were currently being done and to perhaps learn what could be done to improve reference service at the information desk.


For the vast majority of the observation period, I spent my time sitting on a stool at a tall table at the end of the information desk. From this spot, I would intrude little on reference interactions nor make users nervous by noticeably watching them. The drawback was that I could rarely hear everything that was being said. So I merely focused primarily on recording non-verbal behavior.

An added benefit of this spot was that I was not seeing things from either the customer's viewpoint or from the librarian's. Rather, I was in a relatively neutral position, looking down the middle of the information desk counter. Also, I had an unobstructed view of the main entrance, which made for good people watching during slow times at the desk.

During my observation times, I took notes on anything of interest and jotted down any ideas as they came to me. Thus, this report is not very controlled or strictly empirical in its findings. But it may still be of interest and serve as a good basis for further study if need be.

Note on Terminology

The best term to use to describe people who use the library is currently a somewhat debated issue. Patron is traditional but can be too closely tied to the old view of the library as only a supplier of intellectually worthwhile books to those people who come to the library. While the library still fulfills this role, it is beginning to branch out into countless other media, and a greater emphasis is placed on reaching out to draw the community into the library rather than waiting passively for them to stop by.

In this newer customer service view of libraries, customer is the more common term. However, to me at least, customer implies someone who explicitly pays for services rendered. Of course it must be remembered that people do pay for a library's services through taxes or other fees. Yet the library has a glorious tradition of providing information to anyone who seeks it, not only to those who currently have money in their hands.

Therefore I have taken something of a middle path and have used the term user for anyone who uses the library. This is a very common term in current information technology literature, yet at times it can be rather a cold, faceless description. It seems no word is perfect.

I have not differentiated in this report between the different staff levels; student interns and professional librarians are all described as simply librarians. Good customer service can be provided regardless of education level, and indeed, the interns often performed better than librarians on this issue.


General Observations

There is a variety of different user approaches to asking a question at the desk. Some march right up and forwardly ask their questions. But it seemed that most approach very slowly and tentatively. Some make quiet passes back and forth some distance from the desk, sizing up the situation. In these more cautious user approach situations, eye contact from the librarian is an invaluable aid in making the user feel comfortable and encouraging them to approach.

Once up to the desk, many users ask quick questions and expect quick responses. I think that a large part of the problem is they don't expect much long, in-depth help from reference librarians. They seem to feel as if they are imposing on librarians who have better work to do. They often get nervous or bored during longer interactions, especially when other users are waiting in line behind them. This impatience can be hard on the librarians, who need time to think and to clarify the user's question. I only hope that over time, as librarians continue to offer more comprehensive help, such as teaching users how to use the computer system, that users will be more comfortable when using a librarian as an extended resource and learning tool.

I also noticed how much librarians have to "roll with it." Especially on busy days, they have to move on to the next question with a bright, fresh approach and total focus. If they are still pondering the last question and wondering how else they could have answered it, it hinders the current interaction, since the user can tell the librarian is not paying complete attention. This "now," current-question focus must to be hard to maintain through a long day.

Most Common Questions

By far, the most common question concerned finding journal articles. There must be a way to ease this problem with journals! I imagine most of the difficulty is in the fragmentation of both the task and the journal collection. First a user has to find an article they're interested in in one of many different CD-ROM or online databases. Then then they need to find if the library has that particular journal in the collection. Then they have to actually find the journal. The most recent are in the periodical room. Yet most are in the stacks with the books. Which floor they are on depends on the subject. The date also matters -- those journals older than 1975 are in Sinclair Library.

I think the problem is in part due to users' expectation that journals are stored separately from books. I can see the reasoning behind the current layout with journals on the floors relating to the science or arts topic; that way, the materials are on the same floors as the reference librarians who specialize in those topic and near other materials on the same topics. Yet it seems that by keeping this integration, users get lost and necessarily need to contact those reference librarians. (See Ideas: Cube Architecture for a discussion of possible solutions.)

The second most common user statements are "This computer is not working" or "Something's wrong with the printer." The third seemed to be "Do you have a pencil?" (Perhaps this could be allieviated somewhat; see Ideas: Roving Technician.)

Great Things I Saw

Hamilton librarians well demonstrated what I came to think of as "shoulder-to-shoulder reference." Computers on the desk are angled for users to easily see and follow along on. I frequently saw a user and a librarian both leaning against their respective sides of the information desk, attention focused on the computer between them and actively engaged in a quest of information. The stance implied a "we're in this together" appearance, with the librarian in the role of an empowering guide to resources. I also saw some librarians allowing users to control the search at the desk, whether by typing in commands or using the mouse. Also, librarians occasionally let the user continue the search at the desk while they helped other users. I found all of this to make for a positive interaction.

Another nice procedure I saw was librarians printing off a copy of the demonstration search. While some users are willing to learn more about using the system, most are only looking for quick answers and are often not mentally prepared for a tutorial. By printing the results, the user is not forced to repeat the search to get the same information, and they at least have a hard copy to provide some guidance for later.

The various handouts on using the library were also nice features. It gives the user something they can peruse later when not they are not feeling pressured at the desk. I'm sure the handouts don't all get read, but it's a good start on providing user education.

It was also reassuring to see librarians acknowledging people who were waiting. Many librarians returning to the desk to find a user waiting would say something like, "Sorry about the wait. What can I do for you?" Other times they would say, "I'll be with you in just a minute," to users who were waiting impatiently in line. Sometimes I would see a librarian interrupt helping the current user to help someone else with a quick question. This usually worked out fine, but occasionally it backfired when it turned out the second user actually had a couple of questions. This could be a sticky situation, but it was generally handled well with librarians saying they could help more after finishing with the original user. Though it can be messy at time, I think I would continue to encourage occasional breaks to help impatient users with short questions. I'm sure librarians develop a feel for these things over time.

Things I Missed the Most

The biggest missing aspect of good librarianship at the information desk was follow up. I realize that it is rarely possible on a busy day to follow up in the proper sense -- finding the user again and asking if they found everything they were looking for and if they need any further assistance. But it can't be emphasized enough how much positive effect a "Don't hesitate to stop by again if you have any problems" or a "Please come back if you have any more questions" can have.

I've already mentioned how wary most users are approaching the desk and how many seem to think they only have time to get a quick answer and must be on their way again. Even with encouragement, many will not return a second time if they get lost. They will just leave dissatisfied. These dissatisfied users have not been helped at all. If librarians pride themselves on getting users to the information they seek, they need to be sure that the users actually find what they are looking for. In the real world, there is a not enough time to hold every user's hand through the entire search. But trying to get them to come back if they have problems is a start in the right direction of improving results.

The handouts are also useful here. A librarian can say, "Hopefully that'll get you started. If you have any trouble, take a look at this handout on using CARL. But if you're still not sure, just come back here again and we'll see what we can do." Even if the user doesn't come back again, she knows it was at least an option and that the librarian was willing to do all he could do.

The second biggest thing I wish I had seen was name tags or some sort of staff identification. Users are often lost in the wide world of information and looking for guidance. They need recognizable landmarks. They need to be able to easily identify who they should talk to. Usually it's pretty obvious that a librarian can help when she is behind the desk. But when she is elsewhere in the library, it's not so clear. Also, I've seen other people wander behind the information desk and could not tell if they worked there or not. Some seemed like student helpers the way they ruffled through the handouts, but there was no clue to guide me.

An experience related to being able to easily identify librarians is "The Coffee Nazi." During my observations, I saw a student came into the library with a styrofoam cup of coffee. (I believe it was covered with a plastic lid, but can't recall for sure). Shortly after she came through the entrance, a woman walked up to her and, in a sharp, abrupt tone, said, "You can't have that in here. Take it out." She firmly punctuated this by pointing the student to the door.

I had never seen this woman before, and I still have no idea who she was. She was not dressed professionally; she had no nametag. I don't know if she works in the library, is university faculty, staff, or something else entirely. Hamilton Library may have decided one way or the other on drinks in the library, but, regardless, this is not the way to enforce it and still have satisfied users. If this wasn't a librarian, there needs to be a way to determine that. I thought this was the most negative incident I saw during my observation.

Important Issues

There were a few important issue that librarians must remain conscious of and try to deal with on a daily basis.

Leaving the Desk Unattended

The most challenging issue I noticed was leaving the desk verses remaining visible. To provide good service, it is essential to leave the desk with a user in order to demonstrate CD-ROMs or to provide decent direction to other areas of the library. But, at times, this can leave the desk completely unstaffed.

Once, I saw a student return with additional questions (a rare occasion in itself) just as the librarian he last spoke too left the desk to help another user. In this case, he waited, but I could see that it was very touch and go. Others I observed did leave. It has to be remembered that librarians can't provide good service if there's no one to provide it to when they get back to the desk.

Usually the problem is not bad when the librarian is still visible somewhere on the floor or when other people are also waiting. It gets much worse when the librarian is not visible, when a user doesn't know why she's waiting, or how long it will be before she is served. I've seen users standing, drumming fingers, shuffling feet. I've been asked (since I sat right next to the desk) whether anyone was working there. This is just the wrong state of mind for a user to be in before starting an interaction. It means the user is already impatient and the librarian first has to apologize for the inconvenience and get all the subtle irritation out of the air before any decent progress can be done.

Yet the solution is not in always staying at the desk. I would never ask librarians not to guide users to all areas of the library when required. What needs to be done is to just get the message to users that someone is indeed working the desk, and that they will be helped very soon. (See Idea: Pop-up Back Soon Sign)

Offering Something to a User

With so many resources available -- interlibrary loan, numerous databases, the Internet -- there has to be something a librarian can find to help a user. It may not be exactly what they wanted, but at least they should leave with some method, some advice, some path that will lead them in the right direction. One interview I saw concluded with the user saying, "I'll just use my own resources then." I thought that was a failure on the part of the information desk. A librarian should never turn a user away completely empty-handed.

For comparison, I once saw a librarian say, "We don't have anything like that here, but would you like me to check the public library for you?" I couldn't hear all the rest of what was said, but I believe she not only found a relevant resource, but also helped either recall the item in the public library system or else got the item sent to a branch closer to the user. That was great service!

Also, on something that falls between both finding something and good follow up, a librarian should never hand over a resource without a word. No reference interview is that sure. The librarian should include something along the lines of, "Hope this helps," "Let me know if this doesn't turn out to be what you want," or"Thanks for stopping by; come again." Say something to properly conclude the interaction! Once a user has made the plunge and approached the desk, she needs to know she is welcome back again . This may often be very hard on librarians to keep working on the same problem with the same user, but the personal service at the desk is the single most important library customer service tool.

Level of Busyness

I definitely observed a correlation between how busy the desk was and the level of instruction provided to users. In theory, the librarian should explore the user's need to the necessary depth to provide quality reference service and then explain everything to the user's satisfaction. In reality, there is a line of antsy, nervous users and the librarian is tired and needs to get to the next user as quickly as possible. Overall, Hamilton librarians did a very good job handling this dichotomy and still getting out the essential help. More feedback to users may be an aid in this situation: after the librarian has covered the basics, he can say, "If you can come back sometime when it's not so busy, I can help you more with this problem."

Accommodating User Differences

Users vary in their desire for the information they are seeking. Some are determined and stick through the whole process. Others seem to be only browsing and give up if it looks like it will be too much trouble. Librarians may want to, and indeed should, help as much as possible, but sometimes they have to respond to the dictates of the user. If the users really feel they've had enough, the librarian has to let them go. There is no way to instruct someone unwilling to listen.

Also, I observed a need to go slower with some people. This is especially true in Hawaii as there are more language and cultural barriers that must be crossed. But it is true of anyone not used to the system or structure of the library. Some people have poor eyesight or are distracted, which complicates the issue. All the instruction in the world is of little use if the user missed the one or two screens it took to get there and can't find that interface again. Of course, the slow, conscientious tutorial is greatly affected by how busy the library is at the time, but I did see some very nice instruction, such as one librarian underlining an on-sceen option with the side of her hand -- a good way to direct attention and be very clear about which option is being selected. These small, subtle things make a big difference.

Monitoring the Library

The final issue I noticed is that it is very hard for librarians to discover when someone is having problems. As an inactive observer, I could often tell from across the room when someone was having a difficult time with a computer. (Usually they would move to the next one over.) Yet because librarians are engaged in reference work, they do not get a chance to fix these equipment problems or help someone who looks obviously lost unless a user first comes up to the desk and points out the problem. A certain broken machine can bug a lot of users before one will finally report it. Yet reducing these minor irritations as soon as possible would be a great aid in improving people's overall library experience. (See Idea: Roving Technician.)

Three Example Reference Interviews

Please note that, though the following are portrayed here as verbatim translations, they are not. They are reconstructions based on what I remember and what I jotted in my notes. It must also be remembered that what we are seeing here is not the whole story. Librarians may already know these users, how often they come to the desk, and what levels of instruction or help they require based on past experience.


The user approached the desk with a citation from some database.

USER: Is this a journal article?
LIBRARIAN: No, see the "in"? This is a book. You need to do a title search to find it in the library. [L. does the search.] Here it is. [Writes it down the call number.] There you go.
USER: Thanks.

This was a decent, generic interaction. The was no real reference interview, but it seemed a simple question --the user already decided what she was looking for and only needed help getting there. There was little instruction of using the system, but it could be supposed that the user could already perform basic searches since she already had the citation. The librarian did explain how he knew it was not an article. The only thing I really would have liked to have seen is some sort of follow-up or invitation to come back again.


The user approached the desk, glancing around the library.

USER: Don't have any of the older computers anymore?
LIBRARIAN: No, but you can make these new ones look like the old ones. Would you like me to show you how?
USER: Sure.

The librarian then explained which icon to click to open the telnet window. The user was still unclear how to select options -- based on the graphical interface, he expected to have to use the mouse. The librarian was not very clear about it. She repeated, "Just do it the same way you've always done it." It seemed to me that she demonstrated too quickly, moving from one screen to another before the user was fully oriented. The user eventually seemed to understand the basics. Before leaving the desk, he reviewed how to do start by opening the telnet window. I believe there was an "Alright then" that signaled the end of the interaction, but again there was no follow-up or invitation to return to the desk at any time. I would guess that the user managed okay, but this certainly wasn't a model interaction.


This user began the interaction waiting for some time at an empty desk, slightly drumming her fingers and shuffling her feet. The librarian returned with a "Hi," but not an apology or acknowledgement that the user had been waiting for some time. The user was looking for something relating to teaching literacy. (Again, all verbal details were hard to catch). The librarian clarified the search by asking, "And what?" Apparently she then received enough information and began to search.

Here the librarian took a quick break to help another user who had come to return a CD-ROM. However, it turned out she also had a couple questions which required the librarian to give her some handouts. The librarian did say, "I'll be right back with you" to original user, who still seemed rather ruffled about this further delay. Returning to the interaction, the librarian did find an article on the topic while giving very cursory instructions on how to use the system and gave a brief description of where the microfiche is located. About this time, a second librarian returned to desk and the observed librarian seem to relax a little more. As the user continued to show interest, the librarian gave more instruction and actually turned the keyboard around to allow the user to type some of her own commands. (I thought this was a nice, empowering touch.)

Sadly, I missed the very end of discussion as I was distracted by my own reference responses concerning setting up student email accounts. (Such are the perils of sitting in the public eye.) But based on what I saw, I felt that things got off to a rough start but were steadily improving. The user was impatient, but calmed down as she got more useful information. I think the librarian may have been feeling rather harried, but also relaxed once other users had be dealt with and she could focus on the task at hand. I imagine these are pretty common circumstances; I hope most of the interactions make it to the point where both participants relax and can actually focus on getting the information.


Especially during slow periods, I found my mind would wander and I would start thinking of ways to improve things in Hamilton library. For what they are worth, here are some of those ideas.

Pop-up Back Soon Sign

As I've mentioned, a common problem at the reference desk is that the librarians travel with users to the resources and so necessarily must leave the information desk unattended. Users coming upon this empty desk with a librarian nowhere in sight often seem at a loss for what to do. They don't know even whether to wait or not. I believe that if they had some feedback about the situation, more users would be willing to hang around. Hence, a Back Soon sign is needed.

I mention a pop-up sign because if it is left up too much, it will lose its effectiveness. Also, if it is something the librarian must look around for and find, it will be too hindering and time consuming to use on a regular basis. What I imagine in a sign that says something like "Currently helping another user. Be right back! Please wait if you can," with the "Be right back" in big letters. Off to one side of the desk, the sign would be attached with a hinge. When not in use, it would like nearly flat on the desk, out of the way, with just enough room for the librarian to easily get his fingers under the free edge. As the librarian turns to leave the desk, he could, with only the flip of wrist, flip the sign up. It should then somehow remain upright, perhaps with a magnet on the front to hold it in place. When the librarian returns, another swipe at the sign knocks it back flat again and the desk is once more open for questions.

On busy days, even with such a simple, speedy design, the sign would probably still not be up every time the desk was empty. But I think it would work most of the time and be a big aid in orienting and placating users.

Roving Technician

Fixing computers and printers and other like tasks takes up a lot of time and all mean leaving the desk. Also, these things usually only get noticed and fixed when a user comments on them. What I propose is a library staff member who wanders the floors of the library, helping people as they search. This "roving technician" would be able to spot the subtle signs of machine malfunction. (User's carefully pressing Enter over and over, then pressing other keys one by one, then eyeing the other computers around them, and then finally moving to a different terminal.) They would also be able to offer basic assistance among the stacks and CD-ROM stations where users are most likely to need it. The technician could encourage users with more complicated questions to go to the information desk. Though not as good as a professional follow-up from the librarian who originally helped, I think that a roving technician would be a great aid in areas librarians cannot see from the desk.

Cube Architecture

As noted, finding journal articles is one of the most troublesome tasks for users in Hamilton Library. I think most of the problem stems from a lack of a clear path. Users search for journals differently that books, and so usually they expect the structure of the library to be different when it comes to journals, i.e., for there to be a special periodical section. Currently, users start in the middle of library floor at computer stations looking for articles in the various indexes and then have no visual clue where to go next. They know they must find now the article in the library, but don't know where to go to do that. If they see a large periodical section, they can at least head in that direction. When they realize they don't know where the journal is in the section, they will likely be more receptive to signs instructing them how to find it because they know they are on the right track at least: they have a citation and can see stacks of journals and can realize they just need the missing piece of information that connects the two. If the library can place more of the steps of the journal-finding task together in this way, it will make it easier for users.

In an ideal world, I think libraries would have an "cube architecture." Though not necessarily in a cube, each room would be connected by stairs to the rooms above and below and by very wide double doors to the sides. In such a customizable, functional building, a library could organize journals in one column, divided by floor. Now we have best of both worlds: a clear periodical section that is still divided by discipline. This floor plan could be used in a similar way for other media, such as audio-visiual materials or internet access on every floor. Such a structure also makes it easy for users to find their way around, since very floor has similar layout.

A diagram of basic customizable cube library architecture.

In the real world, however, where we have to work with the buildings we have, any possible move in this direction would be helpful.


Overall, I found this exercise to provide good real-world experience. I'm sure it is not as instructive as actually trying to provide reference service myself, but it is close. I am now more aware of the pressures facing librarians and the many environmental factors that play a role in how they perform. Observations fleshed out book theory -- so that's what an upset user looks like!

The reason we are in this field is to help people find information, and so it is great to actually get out to see the people we're trying to help. Hopefully we can continue to improve the reference interaction, providing better service, and users will feel less like they are intruding on busy librarians and more like they are receiving a valuable, customized service. If we can satisfy more users, reference work itself will be more worthwhile. Hamilton library is off to a good start in this direction.