Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Tag: librarian

England Murder Bicycle Chemistry

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Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

During an otherwise quiet evening on the desk, someone messaged my co-librarian on our library’s chat service with a specific, but not quite specific enough, request. She wanted the title and author of a book in a murder mystery series, published post-2000. She then provided a some 200-word synopsis of the plots and characters in the series, which involved a young girl in rural postwar England who solves crimes in her village “using her bicycle and chemistry skills.”

She’d tried book-related listservs and message boards, to no avail. Since our go-to fiction RA librarian was gone for the evening, we were on our own. But not quite alone: I jaunted over to NoveList Plus, that magical database beloved by librarians and bookish folks everywhere, and entered keywords from the patron’s description—and which serve as this post’s title.

Boom. First result:

sweetness-pie.png

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first of five books in Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries series. Since NoveList’s plot description was surprisingly sparse, and I wanted to make sure I got the right book in the series, I cross-checked it with its Amazon page and sure enough, NoveList was right on target.

Putting the same search terms into Google yields nothing close to what I was looking for. Google can do many other things well, but its wide generalist’s net can miss what a targeted niche search like NoveList will catch every time.

Which, of course, reminds me of the Neil Gaiman quote you can find on every corner of the librarian internet: “In a world where Google can bring you back 100,000 answers [or in this case 6 million], a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Thanks to the life-changing magic of NoveList, we got it right tonight.

Please Bother Me: On Asking Questions at the Library

LOTR-party-business

“Sorry to bother you…”

I’ve heard patrons say this to me or other librarians at the information desk so many times. And every time, I want to respond: “That’s what we’re here for!” Maybe we at the desk were talking to each other, or typing on the computer, or reading a trade journal, or even just sitting there waiting to answer a question. Whatever it is, patrons often feel they’re being a bother by asking questions when in fact answering questions is literally the librarian’s job. It’s what we enjoy doing and get paid for. But either they don’t get it or we’re not doing a good enough job making that known.

This could be a design problem: old-school reference desks, which are quickly falling out of fashion, can be imposing, alienating beasts. Libraries of all kinds that have been around a while probably have those hefty wooden desks, long and encompassing like ramparts of Reference Castle, with the lofty librarians holding the front line against the swarming public. Librarian’s Domain: None Shall Pass! Or, at desks that seem to sink into the earth, like Bilbo Baggins at Bag End we burrow in behind computer screens or stand-up signage and treat interruptions (“except on party business”) as inconveniences rather than essential.

Many libraries have done away with the traditional info desk altogether. They take a “roving reference” approach, which either has librarians stand at a table a la the Apple Store or sends them onto the floor with an iPad to actively help people find what they’re looking for. I’d love to hear from other librarians who do this about how well it works. Do patrons feel more at ease if they’re approached by staff? Do you feel like you work at Best Buy? I’d love to see data from two libraries of similar size who take these different reference approaches. Does one get more questions over the other?

As a patron I enjoy being able to browse undisturbed and, being a librarian myself, usually don’t need help getting around or finding something. But I’m also not afraid to approach the desk, and neither should you. Regardless of what the desk looks like, librarians are responsible for answering questions and patrons are responsible for asking them. We can’t read your mind, and we can’t help you until we know what you need help with.

So please: Bother us. Early and often. Whatever else we’re doing at the desk, however game we look for whatever you’re about to ask, ask it—no matter what it is.

(And don’t even get me started on “This is probably a stupid question, but…”)

How I Got to Now: A Librarian Year

This week I celebrated my one-year anniversary of librarianship. In my application essay for library school I wrote that I’d been a frequent library user for most of my life, yet had never considered working in one until recent epiphanies changed my outlook. Perhaps I thought of it like working at a movie theater—another regular haunt of mine—in that the prospect of seeing movies for free belied the much less glamorous reality of terrible hours, meager pay, and lots of cleaning. I simply never imagined myself on the other side of the reference desk or at the helm of a book cart. I didn’t lack imagination; I merely had, as Steven Johnson put it in How We Got to Now, a “slow hunch” that gestated for years and then illuminated only once the conditions were ripe.

My “plan” entering college was to become a high-school history teacher. I loved history and thought I might be a good teacher, so abracadabra: that’s what I’d do. History major, education minor, future set. But that first fall semester I took a writing class and wrote a few pieces for the school newspaper. That I could write about music, film, and essentially anything else I could conjure and get it printed in ink with my name attached to it for campus-wide distribution was a stunning revelation, and a disruptive one. This new storyline challenged the vocational narrative I’d slapped together to have something to tell people who asked at my high-school graduation party what I’d do with my life. But before winter break I’d changed majors to English (with an emphasis in journalism) and bumped history down to a minor (because you can’t have just one economically unviable field on your diploma). I never regretted the decision, nor did I forget the privilege of being able to make it at all thanks to scholarships and financial aid.

And yet, four years later, clad in a black gown I’d never wear again, holding a diploma I think I maybe know the current whereabouts of, I wondered what was next. As a newly christened liberal arts degree-holding humanities major—Oh great, another one—my skills and knowledge base were just unspecific enough to ensure that my first few jobs would have little to do with what I learned in college. But long-term planning has never been my thing. I have no idea what I’m having for lunch today, let alone where I’d like to be in five years. My strategy has been akin to what Anne Lamott describes in Traveling Mercies, how when her pastor prays for direction, “one spot of illumination always appears just beyond her feet, a circle of light into which she can step.” Life has felt more like that to me than following a line or climbing a ladder: hopping from one bright spot to the next and hoping for illumination. Hop, then hope, ad infinitum.

My post-graduation bright spot appeared after I’d spent a few months abroad and came home broke. One rent check away from having literally zero dollars, I worked as a cashier for a few months, which gave me much-needed income for the price of my soul, and then started part-time at Barnes & Noble as a bookseller. (That remains an all-time favorite job.) I would’ve stayed at Barnes & Noble indefinitely had another bright spot not appeared. A college friend of mine who’d taken a job at a university had entered its library and information science program and was telling me over and over how much I’d like it, that I should look into it. Who works in a library? I thought. But I looked into the program and realized, Oh, I would work in a library. Classes in archives (where my interests strongly laid at the time) coupled with a field that emphasized organization, books, cultural fluency, and intellectual freedom? Are you kidding me? That “circle of light” was blinding, so I leapt into it with a smile.

Confirmation came quickly. Library school, in my experience at least, was where being a nerd was nearly a prerequisite, introverts were abundant, and the male-to-female ratio was very much in my favor. (Exhibit A: Meeting my future wife in my first class.) But I was starting from 000. I’m pretty sure I was the only one in class who had never worked in a library. Lucky for me this was a built-in expectation: Because there is no bachelor’s degree in library science, everyone in some sense was starting from scratch. The learning curve was steeper for me, but that made things more fun. I wasn’t that long-time library worker grudgingly returning to school to sit through classes I could teach myself to get that expensive piece of paper that shattered the glass ceiling of professional certification and magically allowed me to earn more money; I was a guy who accidentally made a great candidate for librarianship and happened to like it too. Because I loved history most of my 36 credit hours trended toward archival work, but I also enjoyed classes on storytelling, metadata, bookbinding, and digital libraries. In this new world everything I looked at was a delicious possibility. I felt like a kid with a golden ticket bouncing around Willy Wonka’s sugary wonderland, except the edible mushrooms were finding aids and the chocolate river was the archives/cultural heritage track of my MLIS.

The river brought me past a few archival internships and volunteer gigs during school, which I parlayed into a (paid!) summer internship at a large corporate archives. But after such a wonderful opportunity, and the apex of my library school adventure, in the fall of 2013 I was back in the dark. The doldrums of unemployment followed, which I dotted with odd jobs, some freelance archiving, and intermittent despair, until I got a kinda-sorta-library-related warehouse job I was, two months later, summarily laid off from.

Things were dim. But then, another circle of light: an interview, then a second, and then a job offer. Time to hop again. I was a librarian. (Part-time, anyway. Though now I’ve started another part-time librarian position so I figure that equals one full-time job, minus health care.) Yet even after I said yes, I felt ill-equipped. I’d taken the wrong classes and banked the wrong type of internships to feel fully qualified for the position. But I’d learned a valuable lesson about hiring in my previous lives as an RA and housing coordinator: credentials do not (necessarily) a qualified candidate make. The letters after your name can get you a meeting, but they aren’t magic. You gotta hope the people in charge can work a crystal ball, and can see a résumé as a blueprint to build from and not a final product. I hopped, then I hoped.

My idea of the perfect job is a role that hits the sweet spot in the middle of the Venn diagram of one’s skills, interests, and passions. Being a librarian does that for me. I’m a reader and culture omnivore; I’m good at making complicated things understandable and enjoy seeing people succeed; and I ardently believe—personally and professionally—in what libraries do. I’m also only a year into this thing. The tectonic plates beneath the crust of the library world are grinding and shifting, and I don’t know what the occupational earthquakes will do to it. But I’ll be along for the ride, probably off in the 900s looking for my next presidential biography. Jean Edward Smith’s Grant has been whispering sweet nothings to me…

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