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Listening: a competitive advantage

I was on a conference call recently when a question came up as to how a service offered by a consortium of libraries and research institutions might compete with a similar one offered by the private sector. We had a specific service in mind, but this question gets asked fairly often these days:

Why should we continue to provide service X in the library (or research center) when it could be provided–or may be provided already–in open the marketplace?

This is a good question, actually. Resources are scarce, and public resources are especially scarce. All of us want to be sure that they are being spent in the best possible way.

The answer I gave was this: a service offering from librarians should show evidence of listening to users. That is, I would expect that it would be meeting the needs of a particular community or group of communities, perhaps even one that is under-served by the open market.

I hold this view because librarians have special training in how to listen effectively. It’s called the reference interview. It’s surprising how much the spirit of that interaction informs the way many of us think about what we do, even if we have never staffed a reference desk or put in a shift on a virtual reference service.

While thinking about this, I read a blog post on the practice of Active Listening which argued that listening is an essential project management skill. It struck me that these two methodologies have some important ideas in common, and so I humbly present what is possibly the world’s first…

Reference Interview: Active Listening CrossWalk

Reference Interview Active Listening
Gathering information with open questions Ask questions
Confirming the exact question Reflect back to check understanding
Giving the answer
Following up
“Because patrons are often reticent, especially in face-to-face interaction, patience and tact may be required on the part of the librarian.” From the Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science ( Practice self control;
Use friendly silence;
Pay attention to words and behavior

One conclusion you might draw from this fanciful exercise is that the reference interview model has the advantage of built-in assessment, not only with checking back to confirm understanding, but also after the conclusion of delivering the requested information or service.

The other feature of the reference interview model that really jumps out when you look at this chart is that librarians are basically hard-wired to deliver solutions. Both the interview and active listening are processes that iterate, so, in the case of the reference interview, the librarian’s goal is to maintain the connection until the information need is fulfilled.

When you think about it, this is a powerful model for service delivery!