Saturday, April 9, 2011

Snapshots From the Reference Desk: Building Community Daily

By Heather Hoffman

Anyone who has worked the reference desk, even for a day or two, would agree that you see it all, and it is certainly not boring. My experience interning at a merged public and academic library has given me an interesting perspective on how a library community can be defined, and how it evolves over even short periods of time,creating a fluid but cohesive collective experience.

Answering questions in equal measure between students or faculty and public patrons can be a little disorienting, yet at the same time, it reminds me that the person on the other side of the desk or phone is essentially looking for the same thing. What patrons want is the human input into that answer. It is this factor that turns these shared experiences into something resembling a community, even if it doesn’t fit a traditional definition. This sense of community is one that changes daily, because no two human interactions are ever the same. I have noticed that the regular fluctuations create a sense of comfort and familiarity for the patrons and, I would argue, the staff as well. We may all be creatures of habit, but even those routines are never done in exactly the same way every time – a little mutability makes sense to us.

Old-fashioned etiquette manuals frequently referred to the concept of “the roof is the introduction” (Sherwood, 1884); that is, if you find yourself in the company of a stranger, but under a trusted roof, you can feel some certainty of affiliation. The more time I spend at the reference desk, or walking around the library, the more I see this kind of interaction in play. It might not be expected, what with the “town versus gown” concept (the public library patrons interacting with the university students and staff), and it certainly is not occurring everywhere and constantly. However, when you see a spirit of cooperation between two patrons at the desk, willing to offer help or advice to each other in a trusted and comfortable space, it is heartening, not least if one is a student and one a public patron.

Every time I hear that libraries are disappearing, I remember the crowd waiting to be let in, patrons trying to find an empty seat (in an eight floor library, to give you an idea), or eating their lunches while hunching over a research paper or job application. I might concede that the physical concept of a library is mutating, but I would also argue that the sense of community that evolves with every patron walking through the door means the “library” isn’t going anywhere quickly.

To illustrate, last Wednesday was a particularly frantic day on the desk and I had a raft of people needing something. One (public) patron was clearly agitated about the inability of his laptop to access the wireless network, and this was a question that was not going to be answered with “have you tried rebooting?” There were three of us working at the time, and everyone was occupied. We did our best to reassure the patron that we would get to him as soon as we could, and do what we could. At that point, another patron standing nearby piped up and said he could probably take a look at the issue. This one example clearly supports the notion of a library community being due, in part, to its humanness, particularly as two hours later, I looked up to see them still working together, having created their own small community within the larger one.

Sherwood, M. E. W. (1884). Manners and social usages. Harper & Brothers: New York Retrieved from

Heather Hoffman is finishing her penultimate semester at SLIS, and having a hard time believing graduation is around the corner. Her two daughters and husband will also be glad when that occurs, and are okay with either an academic or public library gig, as long as it means book recommendations.


  1. What a lovely article, Heather!

    I really like your observation about libraries and the concept of "the roof is the introduction" -- it's so true. In the public library where I work, I see those types of interactions being initiated in all directions staff-to-patron, patron-to-staff, patron-to-patron and it never fails to encourage me. Building community is so powerful and it truly increases the ability of libraries to meet patron needs by opening lines of communication and creating a culture of caring.

  2. Thanks for your kind comment, Annie! It's great to hear that these sort of interactions are more the norm than I had realized; I'm finding myself keeping an eye out for them more and more now, even when I'm on the patron side of things.