Back to the Future: Phone Reference “OnCall OnDemand OnSite”

September 25, 2007 at 6:30 pm 6 comments

Gerry McKiernan of Iowa State University recently put a post on the dig_ref listserv (DIG_REF@LISTSERV.SYR.EDU) that dealt with a topic I have been talking about and thinking about for quite a while now, namely that:


The ubiquitous nature of phones in everyone’s hands should make it a totally no brainer that we should definitely, absolutely, without question be actively marketing this underused service.

To quote Gerry: “Another Radical (but Conventional) Idea for OnCall, OnDemand, On Site Reference Service. Publicize the Library Hip Reference Help Phone Number… via Library Newsletter/Blog/Liaisons/Campus Groups/Table Tents/Billboards/TV Commercials/Facebook/etc. Why Chat When You Can Really Chat [:-)”

I agree with what most of Gerry is saying, although my research shows that people choose chat over phone reference for reasons of convenience (some love the transcript) and avoidance of awkward silences that occasionally happen on the phone (I’m not kidding about this, just ask any teenager).

His wake-up call to promote phone reference, however, is totally SPOT ON! All his ideas for marketing library phone reference are excellent. Table Tents are an especially good idea since many library users WILL NOT LEAVE or PACKUP their laptops (who can blame them?) in order to approach the reference desk if it is more than 12 feet away from where they are sitting! It would be nice if they saw the phone number on a table tent and could call for help instead of shrugging off their information need. Of course then we have to lift the ill-advised and impossible to enforce ban on cell phones in the library (and replace this policy with one that asks users to be respectful of others when using cell phones in public areas).

September is also the perfect time to do classroom marketing, what with students in Universities and schools undergoing bazillions (ok, thousands surely, maybe even tens of thousands?) library use instruction or orientation sessions!

Here’s my script for anyone doing one of these sessions:

“Greetings students! I am now about to ask you to do something that NONE of your other teachers/librarians have ever asked you to do…” (wait… for it….)

“TAKE OUT YOUR CELL PHONES AND TURN THEM ON” (amid gasps & nervous laughter from startled students, but they will do it eagerly!)

“Now, enter this library reference desk number into your phone BUDDY list…” (give ref desk number…)

“Next, here are the library hours when you can call this number for reference help” (now the students ACTUALLY have a reason to pay attention to the times when the library is open).

Here’s the clincher… “AND during the OTHER hours we are available by…” (chat, IM, e-mail, whatever you have!!)

Thus marketing chat, e-mail, etc. services along with the phone service. Wow, what an exciting old/new idea!

Wouldn’t it be great to see phone reference stats go through the roof? It’s high time to shake our fear of being overwhelmed at the ref desk.

Now is the time! Go for it!


Entry filed under: Customer Experience, Reference. Tags: .

Crickets in the Garden Too busy… (Pick up a phone!)


  • 1. Emily Lloyd  |  September 25, 2007 at 8:01 pm

    Wow–great script. It’s amazing to me how many folks don’t know that they can call the library and ask even a garden-variety question…just the other day I was promoting it to my own partner–she’d forgotten to check on a movie time for us at the local mall and I said, “Call my work number.”

    Funny how in the heat of rushing to promote IM and SMS services, the thought of promoting phone service almost slips the mind…

  • 2. Anonymous  |  September 26, 2007 at 6:58 am

    Good assessment…although–and this is somewhat un-related–Gerry is actually a man, so perhaps you should do some research before referring to a fellow librarian with male/female modifiers (I believe “Gerry” is short for “Gerald”).

  • 3. Marie L. Radford  |  September 26, 2007 at 9:51 am

    Oops, sorry! I did get a kind email from another librarian telling me Gerry is a man too. My mistake!

    I have fixed this!

  • 4. Angie Donoghue  |  September 27, 2007 at 3:05 am

    I wish it were that simple. In our converged (IT and library)university department we’re currently trying to get rid of all the direct phone contacts to people who can actually help and replace them with a one stop shop phone number and referral system. Of course nobody can get through on this system and when they do they get referred on to someone else (who may or may not be around). It makes a locally organised chat system preferable.

  • 5. Stephen Francoeur  |  September 28, 2007 at 11:19 am

    I love the idea of promoting phone reference, but at our college library our annual survey of students reveals year in and year out that cell phone noise is the number one complaint they have. Given our students’ clearly expressed concern about cell phones, finding a way to authorize cell phone conversations in our library is a tricky (though perhaps not insoluble) problem. With 4 floors of public space in our library, we could set aside some space/floors as cell phone free zones. It would be interesting to hear if others have created such zones of quiet in the library and how well that has worked out (I hear, for example, that students themselves frequently self-police such quiet areas).

  • 6. Catch Fire University  |  October 20, 2011 at 12:18 am

    NowadaysNowadays, many marketers are using phones for their business. Technology is really amazing. 
    BTW – Thanks for the post. Keep posting

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