juggling librarian

My first thought when reading an article from the New Scientist about how juggling

boosts the connections between different parts of the brain by tweaking the architecture of the brain’s “white matter”

was multi-tasking. I multi-task. Librarians multi-task. At the reference desk we’re fielding phone calls, real live people, chat sessions, and email responses.

Surely all the multi-tasking we do could possibly build more white brain matter? Apparently not. Sudden shifts between tasks, especially to a new, un familiar task, is inefficient. While multi-tasking uses our executive control, a skill especially touted for children to develop early, it essentially costs us time in the long run.

But how can librarians decrease the amount of multi-tasking at the reference desk? A little reference triage is in order. First, serve the people who’re standing there before you.

Nothing ticks me off quicker than when I stand in line at the circulation desk at the public library and the clerks are tending to people on the phone. Yeah, they’re short staffed. And when there’s down time, which is rare anymore there, they renew books and talk to people about their fines.

Second, this means that you have a dedicated person to answer phones, to renew books, back behind the scenes. Not at the front lines. Often when I’m at the reference desk I imagine how much more efficient it would be to have one dedicated phone reference librarian. Or people take shifts. The ability to answer people’s questions is not tied to a physical location anymore. Ready reference is rarely used over the phone.

And, you can also have dedicated people to answer questions at the reference desk, email, and chat. Essentially what I’m saying is that everything is distributed. That way, the reference librarian concentrates on providing the best experience for her patron without being distracted or interrupted by the phone, etc.

In the meantime, learning to juggle, for real, is something to consider. We want to be at the top of our games, whipsmart and engaging in witty repartee.  This is sort of like preaching to the choir: Most librarians I know are naturally curious and love learning. To paraphrase from the New Scientist article, it’s the learning process itself, not so much whether you’re successful.

The thing about juggling, which I never knew, is that some people get it. And other people never do. But give it a try. It takes a lot of practice, but once you learn it, your muscle memory kicks in and it’s a skill you can turn to in a pinch. Maybe go join the circus as a juggling clown if the library gig doesn’t work out.

One thought on “juggling librarian

  1. Thanks for the great blog post. I found it useful and it backs up a theory of mine about multitasking. As a librarian at a small college library with only a few staff members, a certain level of multitasking is often a necessary part of the job. But what is good multitasking and bad multitasking, or should I say, what should be avoided and when is multitasking needed or acceptable? I have just started a blog series you may be interested titled “The Small College Librarian” and multitasking is one area I plan to address. The URL to the first post is at http://thisthatotherthing.wordpress.com/2010/01/04/the-small-college-librarian-%E2%80%93-part-1-%E2%80%93-introduction/

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