Being an Ally and the Reference Interview

I have been given the opportunity to participate in this year’s PSAC Union Development Program. This program is designed to provide people with training to become leaders in their communities and within the labour movement. Because the PSAC is a union with a strong commitment to social justice, the question of how to be an ally to oppressed groups was a key component of the program’s first in-person training session.

Participants were presented with a list of recommendations on how white people can be strong allies to people of colour which was taken from Paul Kivel’s book Uprooting Racism: How white people can work for racial justice. These recommendations outlined what people of colour want from their white allies and a few of these included:

  • “Respect us”
  • “Listen to us”
  • “Find out about us”
  • “Don’t make assumptions”
  • “Don’t take over”
  • “Provide information”

This particular list of guidelines struck me as an information professional. All library and information science practitioners are trained in reference interviewing. The goal of the reference interview is to discover a person’s information needs so as to connect them with the information resources that best help them.

How the reference interview is framed can make a big difference in terms of how the power dynamics between the library staff person and the library user are perceived. The goal of the reference interview should be for us to provide the best possible service experience for our library users. A secondary – though no less important – goal of the reference interview should be to build relationships with our library users. The library client should walk away feeling that they were listened to and understood by the library staff person. This will go a long way toward a positive interaction whether or not the ideal information product (book, article, movie, magazine, etc.) was actually found on the shelf or in the library portal.

If, however, we treat the reference interview as an interrogation because we believe that people are trying to conceal their real information needs from us, then we may not create the same kind of positive relationship with our library users. We as library professionals may have a strong knowledge of our collections, but our library users are experts on their own information needs. If we think that we know what our clients need better than they do, we are setting ourselves up for trouble.

Being a good ally and a good librarian are both about being a good listener and taking the time and effort to understand what people need.

Featured image by Cuyahoga jco


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