Friday, February 3, 2017

Secret Shopper Experience

This secret shopper experience took place at the main branch of a neighboring library system. I arrived around 7 pm and the main floor was very quiet. The lobby walls were filled with posters and flyers advertising both library and area happenings, but not a single one was about an author or collection of books. As I approached the reference desk, I noticed that there was someone working in the Reference office as well as the clerk seated at the desk. She was busy going through a catalog while using the computer. When I approached the desk, she looked up and asked if I needed help. I asked if she could help me find a good romance novel. I told her that I had been reading a lot of horror books lately and between that and the weather, I needed something light and happy. She looked so surprised and dumbfounded that I almost gave up my ruse. She asked me what authors I had read and liked. I told her that I hadn’t read a romance novel in a very long time. I added that I wanted something contemporary and that I didn’t want a “bodice ripper” paperback. 

At this point, she walked toward the reference books while saying she didn’t read romances and they were really more about non-fiction on this side of the library. She pulled out the Wilson Fiction Core Collection and looked up romance in the Title and Subject index. Just her luck, it said, “See Love Stories.” She found the beginning page, laid the book on the counter facing towards me, and asked if I recognized any of the authors or titles. 

By this time there were other patrons by the Reference desk. She told me that I was probably going to take longer, so she was going to help them and come back to me. After a minute or so, she returned, sat down at the computer, and said that she was going to look on Amazon. This search resulted in 1,225,000 titles which momentarily flustered her again. Suddenly, she had a moment of clarity, remembering a friend who “reads a lot of fiction” and started looking up The Time Traveler’s Wife on Amazon and then in their catalog. Without another word to me, she got up, gestured for me to follow her, walked clear across the library to the fiction shelves, found the book, opened it to the flap copy, and handed it to me. She then proceeded to walk away saying, “Let me know if that doesn’t work for you.”

Technically, she did succeed in finding me a “good book” to read. Honestly, she did not find me a book that I wanted to take home and stay up late reading. I was expecting to be asked a lot more questions about what kind of book I was looking for. I was also surprised that she did not utilize any number of online tools that would have prompted her to ask questions whose answers would have further refined the search and led to a more successful outcome.

I believe that the woman I encountered is a Reference Librarian from the “old school,” that she has been in that Reference department for a very long time, and that she is proficient in reference tasks. I really think I just threw her for a loop with my request and that she didn’t even think about conducting a regular reference interview with me. Even a search of the OPAC, which should have been her last resort, would have given her 11612 results. These could have then been refined by: format, book – 10038; collection, adults – 9039; by subject, love stories – 8401 and by publish date, 2000 to 2017 - 7239. There was also a list of 200 additional suggestions provided that could have prompted her to ask me more questions. 


  1. I had a similar experience in which I ended up with a 'good book', just not the type of book I was looking for. It reminded me of the cases in our reading where a librarian relied more on books they (or in your case their friend) enjoyed rather than trying hard to determine what the individual patron may enjoy which could be completely different!

  2. At least you learned a lot of things NOT to do in an interview!