Immediately report emergency situations to an ALA or librarian. However, if taking the time to notify someone would make the situation worse, take action first and then notify a supervisor.
The Heterick Memorial Library Emergency Procedures Manual has detailed instructions for responding to various types of emergencies. Take some time to familiarize yourself with the manual. In emergencies library staff are responsible for ensuring the safety of patrons, so it is important that you know what to do.
There are two situations in which you should refer questions. They are:
When you aren't 100% sure. Even if a question seems simple, if you are not entirely certain about the answer, always refer it to one of the ALAs or librarians. No one will think less of you for referring a simple question. We will think less of you, though, for giving a patron misleading or incorrect information. When in doubt, refer.
When the answer involves searching or teaching. If you get the sense that answering a patron's question would require you to search in a library database or teach them something, refer the question directly to a librarian. The librarians have special training and knowledge for answering these types of questions. Examples might be "I'm looking for articles for my research paper" or "I need help picking a topic for my research project."
For help determining when you should answer a question and when you should refer it, use the READ Scale, a rating system for reference questions. You should be able to answer Level 1 and 2 questions. Refer Level 3 - 6 questions to an ALA or librarian.
Don't know the answers to some of these? Look around this guide and the library website, or ask, to find out!
Levels 3 - 6
Keep in mind the following three best practices when answering patron questions:
Never Assume. Librarians who have studied how patrons ask questions have found that the questions patrons ask often do not reflect what they actually want or need. A seemingly simple question like "Where are the science books?" might disguise a need for a book that can help a patron identify a wild orchid growing in her garden. Don't assume that the question a patron asks is actually what they want to find out.
In addition, do not assume anything about a patron based on their appearance. For example, just because a patron appears to be Middle Eastern, do not assume that she is an international student who speaks very little English and doesn't know much about American libraries.
Always Ask Clarifying Questions. Because patrons aren't always clear about what they want, in order to make sure we get them what they actually need, we have to ask questions that help us discover their true need. One example, using the orchid scenario, might be: "All of our science books are up on the third floor. Do you have a specific book in mind?" Always try to dig deeper (without being nosy or rude) to make sure you understand a patron's real question.
Always Make a Follow-up Statement/Ask a Follow-up Question. Studies have also shown that patrons appreciate it when library staff finish their interaction with a concluding statement or question that encourages the patron to return or ask for more help. Some examples are "Did that answer your question?" and "Let me know if you need any more help." Making a follow-up statement or asking a follow-up question is an easy way to help patrons have a better library experience.