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Approachability refers to the library user’s perception of a reference librarian’s availability and willingness to provide reference services, based on the reference librarian’s verbal and nonverbal communication. If the user perceives the reference librarian as unavailable or unwilling to provide assistance, he or she may lack the level of comfort necessary to approach the reference desk. The lack or presence of clear visible signage, indicating the location of the reference desk and the hours of reference services, can also influence a user’s perception of the reference desk’s level of approachability.



Approachability in the Research Literature


A review of the library literature reveals that concepts closely related to approachability were explored and discussed, as early as 1876, by numerous librarians and researchers (Mount, 1966; Gothberg, 1976; Swope & Katzer, 1972; Boucher, 1976; Larason & Robinson, 1984; Radford, 1998) concerned about barriers users face in initiating reference interviews. Early allusions to approachability in the research literature can be traced back to the seminal observations of Samuel S. Green (1876), who highlighted the importance of communication between librarians and library users prior to the existence of a physical reference desk.


Subsequent librarians and researchers focused on the correlation between the user’s level of comfort and their ability to effectively communicate a reference query. Ellis Mount (1966) noted several “communication barriers” to the user’s ability to frame their desired reference question (p. 576). He identified the user’s not “feeling at ease in asking his question” as one barrier to effective reference service (p. 577).


Other library researchers borrowed from the fields of communication to address the importance of both verbal and nonverbal communication to the user’s perceptions of a reference librarian's level of approachability and thus the success of the reference interview. Helen Gothberg (1978) borrowed Albert Mehrabian’s “immediacy principle” to argue that nonverbal signs, such as “physical closeness, touching or reaching out as if to touch, eye contact, and so on” influence how comfortable a user feels in approaching and asking for help at the reference desk (p. 127). Building on Gothberg’s work, Marie Radford (1998) employed Mehrabian’s “immediate non-verbal behaviors” in her study of users’ “approach” and “avoidance” of the reference desk and concluded that eye contact was one of the strongest ways for reference librarians to communicate approachability (p.708). Radford’s research also identified behaviors fostering reference desk avoidance: “negative facial expression,” reading, talking on the phone, working on the computer, and talking with colleagues (p. 707).





Implications for Reference Services


Because a user’s perception of a reference librarian’s level of approachability has direct bearing on whether he or she will approach the reference desk for assistance, ensuring approachability is of tremendous importance to the survival of reference services, both traditional and remote. If users feel uncomfortable approaching the reference desk or utilizing digital reference services, then reference services are at risk for irrelevancy.


Fortunately, researchers have pointed out potential solutions to help librarians improve their approachability. Some researchers, such as Marie Radford (1998), suggest that library and information science graduate programs should build interpersonal skills training into the academic curriculum. Joanna Lopez Munoz (1977) posits that "people can learn to become aware of nonverbal communication, can analyze it, and can experiment with it as a conscious tool" (p. 223). Swope and Katzer recommend: "Librarians themselves must become aware of the image they have acquired in the eyes of the user. Every attempt should be made to actively encourage questions (rather than passively wait for them). Eye contact, a sincere smile, and an invitation to return will do wonders with a hesitant individual" (p. 165).


In 1996, Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a special subsection of the American Library Association, established “guidelines for behavioral performance” for reference librarians and other library staff (RUSA, p.15). RUSA (2004) describes approachability by stating, “In order to have a successful reference transaction, patrons must be able to identify that a reference librarian is available to provide assistance, and they must also feel comfortable in going to that person for help” (p. 15). In 2004, RUSA revised the guidelines to include three “distinct categories” of reference services: general, in person, and remote. The revisions recognized the growing presence of digital reference services and the role of approachability in user’s decision to utilize remote reference services. A summary of RUSA’s 2004 prescribed nonverbal and verbal behaviors for fostering approachability are as follows:


• Ensure reference desk visibility.

• Post face-to-face and remote reference services hours.

• Ensure that all reference services links on the web site are highly visible and free of jargon.

• Remain vigilant and prepared to provide service at all times.

• Establish eye contact, smile, and exhibit “welcoming body language.”

• Use a “friendly greeting” to encourage users asking for assistance.

• Acknowledge patrons waiting for service.

• Perform “question triage” to diminish lines.

• When possible, circulate through the reference area to offer assistance.

• “Check back” with users to offer additional help.








Boucher, Virginia. (1976). Nonverbal communication and the library reference interview. RQ, 16, 27-32.


Gothberg, Helen. (1976). Immediacy: A study of communication effect on the reference process. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 2, 126-129.



Green, S. (1876). Personal relations between librarians and readers. American Library Journal, 1, 74-81.


Katzer, Jeffrey & Mary Jane Swope. (1972). The silent majority: Why don’t they ask questions. RQ, 12, 161-66.


Larason, Larry & Judith Schiek Robinson. (1984). The reference desk: service point or barrier? RQ, 23, 332-38.


Lopez, Joanna Munoz. (1977). The significance of nonverbal communication in the reference interview. RQ, 16, 220-224.


Mount, Ellis. (1966). Communication barriers and the reference question. Special Libraries, 57, 575-78.


Radford, Marie L. (1998). Approach or avoidance? The role of nonverbal communication in the academic library user’s decision to initiate a reference encounter. Library Trends, 46, 699-718.


Radford, Marie L. (1999). The Reference Encounter: Interpersonal Communication in the Academic Library. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries.


RUSA Ad Hoc Committee on Behavioral Guidelines for Reference and Information Services. (2004). Guidelines for behavioral performance of reference and information services professionals. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44, 14-7.



Amy L. Guy

November 20, 2006