Seek and ye shall find?

South Bank, London Aug 4: Book Maze, Festival Hall by Rev StanIt’s that time of year when people off the postgrad archives courses start (hopefully…) in their first professional jobs.  For many, especially those starting out in small repositories, that might mean having full responsibility for offering a public service, including the full range of enquiry work.

How were you trained to find information for archives users? Possibly you weren’t trained at all.  One would like to think otherwise, but I suspect most of us were (or are about to be) plonked at an enquiry desk or given a written enquiry and told to do our best.  I was terrified when first left alone on an enquiry desk – and I was a graduate professional archivist and therefore expected to know everything (!).

But how *do* you get training to deal with enquiries and find information?  I don’t think you can.  You can go to courses in-house or externally on different types of records, common enquiries – and on customer service and listening skills – and this is a good way for learning how records “work” and how to give good service at the desk.  But overall though, staff at the enquiry desk in particular are largely at the mercy of the World and their Significant Other.

The best way to prepare for enquiry work is to “sit next to Nellie” for as long as possible (years?).  Of course, that assumes that you have a Nellie, that they aren’t in meetings – and that they have a good handle on not only your own office’s records but also on the records of other offices, on the historical research process, of the vast range of finding aids and secondary sources and so on.

Basically it comes down to learning by doing – but doing it in the right way(s) gives both the staff member – AND more importantly the enquirer – a fighting chance of getting some helpful answer to their enquiry.  Leaving aside the office infrastructure of finding aids (or lack of) of whatever kind, here are some practical tips for surviving the enquiry desk AND helping your enquirers.

Listen, keep listening and listen some more

As a user I often find staff all too ready to rush off to get the answer before I’ve finished asking the question.  Perhaps eager to please and give good service – or latching on to something they do know rather than staying to find out what they don’t.  So wait until the enquirer has finished and confirm that you understand the question (and that they do too).  Time spent listening and clarifying is time well spent.  Have you got all the facts?  Nothing is more irritating to both parties when time is wasted.  Involve the enquirer in your search and tell them what you are doing.

Contextualise – why do you want to know?

The answer to “How many people lived here forty years ago?” may be to the nearest thousand if asked by a school child, but needs to be more precise if asked by the Council’s statistics unit.  The context of the enquiry helps to understand it, and to find an appropriate answer.

Speak the right language

As well as listening to what the enquirer says, listen to how they say it.  One of the skills needed to answer enquiries – and specifically to communicate the answer – is to use appropriate speech and vocabulary.  Balance the use of jargon or sophisticated vocabulary, but don’t talk down to people.  We all use words in special ways without realising it – would it be clearer to say “catalogue” rather than “finding aid”, “storeroom” or “repository”?

“Do it yourself”

Encourage enquirers to seek their own answers – showing them how to find the information they require and letting them get on with it (whilst checking back with them occasionally).  “Information literacy” is a big buzz-word in the library world, but archives have yet really to grapple with this.  [future blog-post alert!]

Seek help

No one can know everything and it’s at best unwise and at worst stupid to pretend otherwise.  Although it can be hard to admit you don’t know the answer – or even indeed understand the question – the clever thing is to seek help.

Empathise – but not too much

It’s hard to remain relaxed and focussed on a busy enquiry desk, but each enquirer wants to be taken seriously and listened too.  It’s easy to turn off and treat the desk as a barrier with Them on the other side.  Make sure you know when you need to make the effort.  But do watch out – there are time wasters about.


Related to seeking help – sometimes enquirers just want to talk. And talk.  There was a query in there but it was just an excuse for a chat.  When all efforts at steering the enquirer away from the counter have failed (including standing up and walking towards them), bring out your emergency rescue strategy.  Look out for colleagues in distress and they should do the same for you – a quick phone-call to the desk usually gives them the break they need.  If you are a one (wo)man band think about your mayday call *in advance*.  Your health & safety risk assessments should help you think about the issues around lone working and how to deal with them in your particular situation.

Go for the obvious – but watch out for the obscure

Don’t be too clever.  Are there technical terms or common terms in use, particularly when subject searching?  Indexes, especially automated ones, can be very stupid.  Look out for definite articles and different ways of filing terms.  Think about alternative spellings in records from the 19th century and earlier, particularly for names.  Watch out for titles – I remember finding “Dunelm, Bishop of” and “Durham, Bishop of” in one particular index, as well as the personal names of the relevant Bishops…

Know your (secondary) sources

It goes without saying that you should know your websites, reference books and contacts.  Take time to study the arrangement and indexes of reference books and check key websites haven’t changed.  Do you have electronic subscriptions – what are the log-on details?  And do take time to prowl and see your resources as the public sees them.  Are reference books filed with relevant finding aids? Are they grouped by format, or topic?

Your FAQs, A-Z list etc

If your office has guides to answering particular queries, or – more likely – a notebook in the desk drawer with hints and tips, is this information the most easily accessible?  could it be shared with users in subject guides etc?  Would a staff wiki help?  Invest some time in thinking about how your own internal information is structured and held: your colleagues, successors and users will thank you.

Past queries

Whether it’s the office weekly circulation file (do you have one?), or the correspondence files of *all* (and I mean all!) past queries, or your FoI disclosure log, or whatever, I was once told by a colleague of many years standing that they had learned everything they knew from past enquiries.  There’s something in that – how many offices actually use what has been gained from enquiry work?  Do we update name authority files, or add to finding aids in another way, or amend subject guides?    Let’s get some more value from our own records
South Bank, London Aug 4: Book Maze, Festival Hall, a photo by Rev Stan on Flickr


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