Monday, November 8, 2010

Introduction to reference: Reference services for specific groups

A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background or views. American Library Association. “Article V” Library Bill of Rights

By the end of the module you should be able to:

• Recognize the communication barriers that exist between library staff and members of specific user groups.
• Demonstrate competence in conducting a reference interview with patrons from a variety of backgrounds and ages.

Canada. Human Resources And Skills Development. A Way with Words and Images: Terminology Guide Concerning Persons with Disabilities. Last modified 15 Mar 2004. 22 Mar. 2004.
Entire document available at

Canadian Library Association. Canadian Guidelines on Library Information Services for Older Adults. 24 Nov. 2002. Canadian Library Association, Ottawa. 22 Mar. 2004.

Canadian Library Association. “Public Services.” Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services for People with Disabilities. Feb. 1997. Canadian Library Association, Ottawa. 22 Mar. 2004.

“Carolyn is Deaf, How Can I Communicate With Her?” 22 Mar. 2004.

“Disability Awareness.” Removing Barriers: Tips and Strategies to Promote Accessible Communication. North Carolina Office on Disability and Health, 1999. 22 Mar 2004.

Liu, Grace F. Promoting Library Awareness in Ethnic Communities: Based on the Experience of the South Bay Cooperative Library System 1984-1985.
1985. California State Library. 22 Mar. 2004.

The make-up of Canada’s population impacts on society as a whole and on libraries as one of society’s institutions. An examination of the mix of age groups and origins shows how diverse is the population libraries serve. Statistics Canada estimates for 2001, 12.64% of our population to be over the age of 65, by 2016 this figure is predicted to rise to 15.88% (The Sustainability Report).

Immigrants form a significant proportion of Canada’s population as well. “As of May 15, 2001, 5.4 million people, or 18.4% of the total population, were born outside the country.” “Of the 1.8 million immigrants who arrived between 1991 and 2001, 58% came from Asia, including the Middle East; 20% from Europe; 11% from the Caribbean, Central and South America; 8% from Africa; and 3% from the United States.” (Canada’s Ethnocultural Portrait)

The top 10 source countries for immigrants coming to Canada (1991 to 2001) were:
  1. China
  2. India
  3. Philippines
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Sri Lanka
  6. Pakistan
  7. Taiwan
  8. United States
  9. Iran
  10. Poland

The top non-official languages spoken at home were:
  1. Chinese*
  2. Punjabi
  3. Arabic
  4. Spanish
  5. Tagalog (Filipino)
  6. Russian
  7. Persian (Farsi)
  8. Tamil
  9. Urdu
  10. Korean
* reported as Chinese, Cantonese, Mandarin or Hakka (CBC News)

In 2001 28% of Aboriginal people lived in large metropolitan areas, with Winnipeg having more Aboriginal people than all of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and the Yukon combined (“2001 Census: Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.”)

In 2001, 3.6 million Canadians living in households reported having activity limitations; this represents a disability rate of 12.4% (A Profile of Disability). People with disabilities take an active part in society and deserve to be shown respect as does any other user group.

Libraries have also traditionally made a distinction between services for adults and those for children and young adults.

With such a distinct population; we should expect and be prepared to deal with patrons from many different backgrounds no matter what type of library we work in. The reference librarian may encounter patrons who are recent immigrants, international students, or citizens of long-standing minority groups for whom English may or may not be their first language. The technician when trying to fill a reference need for members of these groups may come up against communication barriers brought on by either language or cultural differences.

Language and speech barriers
Ross and Dewdney offer four practical tips for dealing with situations where you may have problems understanding what the patron is saying.
  1. Restate what you do understand.
  2. Take the blame on yourself for not understanding.
  3. Ask the patron to write down their request.
  4. Ask a colleague for help. (120)
“Above all, stay calm and be patient… Work through the strategies of acknowledgement, take ownership, asking the user to write the question down, and finally referral. One of these will work.” (120)

We must also remember to use plain language and not library jargon, not just with those with whom English is not their first language but with other patrons as well.

Grace Liu in Promoting Library Awareness in Ethnic Communities gives the following tips for communicating with patrons from other cultures.
  • Speak in brief, simple sentences. Minimize library jargon.
  • Don’t ask “either/or” questions, pose two questions instead.
  • Speak slowly and articulate distinctly. If necessary, write it down for the patron.
  • Don’t expect verbal reinforcement such as “I see” or “Uh-huh” when you are explaining something to a patron. Watch for non-verbal communication. If you want acknowledgment, ask “Do you understand?” or watch for a nod.
  • If you see that a patron has misunderstood your direction after he or she has left your station, don’t assume that the patron will eventually discover the error. Follow through with whatever assistance you can give.
  • Recognize that most Asians are not demonstrative. Smiling may hide emotions such as frustration or confusion.
  • Silence from patrons of some cultures may indicate 1) respect for your authority; 2) full agreement with what you are saying or doing; 3) fear of being judged by how he or she speaks English.
  • Realize that name order may be different for some cultures. Ask for “family name” instead of “last name”.
  • Always show mutual respect.
  • Be patient.
  • Keep smiling.
  • If you don’t understand, ask questions, but keep them short.
  • Don’t ask negative questions, as these are easily misinterpreted – for example, “Don’t you like mysteries?”
  • Give time for the patron to accomplish what he came for, even when you are busy.
  • Give time for the patron to translate mentally what you have said.
  • Don’t raise your voice; it may be perceived as anger.
  • Avoid idioms and metaphors.
Different age groups
People are living longer with better health. Treat older adults as individuals. As the Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services to Older Adults states “Older adults are not a homogeneous population that can be easily categorized… the information needs and interests of older people range widely and mirror the adult community as a whole.” Do not assume a physical impairment such as hearing or vision. If an impairment does exists deal with it sensitively. Remember as well that new technology may be intimidating to older patrons and, as with other segments of library users, more personal attention may be needed in filling their reference needs. Be aware also of situations where patrons may be looking for social contact. You may need to practice skills in ending or redirecting social conversations when you are trying to serve the reference needs of others.

When working with children in a public library it is important to grant them the same level of respect and courtesy given to adults. Just as we suggested being at eye level during the reference interview, we should also try to be on the child’s level and not tower over him or her. Children have less life experience and may therefore have more trouble explaining their real information need to you. If a child is accompanied by a parent or care-giver be sure to speak with the child and not to the adult as if the child is not there. Remember, however, that the adult may want to be involved in helping the child.

Don’t assume all questions from children relate to school work. Be sensitive in trying to provide material in an appropriate amount and at an appropriate reading level for the child. If a child’s question cannot be answered with local resources, he or she deserves to have it referred for a more extended search just as you would for an adult.

Reference services to young adults pose some challenges as information to suit their needs may be found in both the children’s and adult collections of public libraries. All of us mature at a different pace so we need to be sensitive to retrieving information from or directing teens to what they may see as the “kiddies” section. Some university and college libraries make their collections accessible to young adults and technicians working in these libraries need to treat their needs with as much attention as is given to other legitimate client groups.

Patrons with disabilities
We need to be sensitive to the special needs of patrons with disabilities. We also need to realize that sometimes we may feel uncomfortable dealing with persons who have disabilities, just as they may feel uncomfortable in approaching us. Ross and Dewdney provide practical advice in reducing our fears of saying or doing the “wrong thing”.

  1. Leave the user in control.
  2. Don’t make assumptions about the user’s abilities or needs.
  3. Treat the user as an individual, never talk to a companion, if present, as if the person were not there.
  4. Maintain appropriate nonverbal behavior. Your voice may indicate your physical attitude even if the patron is unable to see you.
  5. Don’t underestimate people with disabilities.
  6. Don’t assume the user wants special materials.
  7. Know the facts about specific disabilities.
  8. Know the limitations of your library with regards to its physical barriers and be ready to help as needed.
  9. Don’t pretend the disability doesn’t exist.
  10. Encourage the user’s independence.
  11. Use follow-up questions.
  12. Encourage feedback. (117)

Tips for communicating with people who are deaf include

  • Knowing the facts about kinds of impairments.
  • Not exaggerating your lip movements.
  • Facing the user as you speak.
  • Using writing as required. (118)
For people using wheelchairs or scooters
  • Know your library’s physical barriers and how to help the user overcome them.
  • Try to speak with the person at eye level so they will not have to strain to look up at you. (118)
For the visually impaired
  • Know the facts regarding level of visual impairment. Some vision may be present.
  • Listen carefully, as a blind user places more reliance on speech.
  • When guiding a blind person allow her to take you arm, don’t grab hers.
  • Don’t treat guide dogs as pets. (119)
Further information on issues of diversity and barriers to communication is available through the Province of Ontario’s Gateway to Diversity Web site, (No longer online)

Works cited
Beaujot, Roderic. Immigration and Canadian Demographics: State of the Research. Ottawa: Strategic Policy, Planning and Research. Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 1998. 26 Jan 2010.

Canada. Human Resources And Skill Development. A Way with Words and Images: Terminology Guide Concerning Persons with Disabilities. Last modified 15 Mar. 2004. 26 Jan 2010.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Indepth: Immigration Canada’s Newcomers: Immigration Patterns. CBC News Online. December 4, 2003. 22 March 2004.

Canadian Guidelines on Library and Information Services for Older Adults. Canadian Library Association, Ottawa 12 Sep. 2009. 26 Jan. 2010

Liu, Grace F. Promoting Library Awareness in Ethnic Communities: Based on the Experiences of the South Bay Cooperative Library System 1984-1985. 1985. California State Library. 22 Mar. 2004.

Ontario. Gateway to Diversity. 2 Apr. 2001

Ross, Catherine Sheldrick, and Patricia Dewdney. Communicating Professionally: A How-To-Do-It Manual for Library Applications. 2nd ed. New York: Neal-Schuman, 1998.

Statistics Canada. 2001 Census. “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.” 7 July, 2003. 22 Mar. 2004.

Statistics Canada. 2001 Census. Canada’s Ethnocultural Portrait: The Changing Mosaic. 21 Jan. 2003. 22 Mar 2004.

Statistics Canada. A Profile of Disability in Canada. 4 Apr. 2003. 26 Jan 2010.

The Sustainability Report. “Canada’s Aging Population.” Sustainability Reporting Program. 2000. 22 Mar. 2004

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