Chad Comello

books, movies, libraries, typewriters

Tag: reference desk

Refer Madness: A String of Beeps

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

I was on the phone with a patron when I heard it: that incessant beep the copier makes when something goes wrong.

Once I finished with the patron on the phone, I went over to see what was the matter. This time it was “Insufficient funds”. The coin tower screen showed 25 cents, which was enough for the two copies the patron wanted to make. I cleared the attempted copy job, tried it again, and it printed fine.

I assume copier technology has advanced since the mid-20th century, but you wouldn’t know it based on what’s churning out copies in many libraries.

“I guess it just hates me,” the man said with a smile.

“It’s just old and cranky,” I tell him, which is true.

“Well, I’m old and cranky too,” he said wryly. (A sense of humor goes a long way when dealing with technology—of any age.)

It’s a phenomenon we’re all familiar with: the computer or copier or iDevice malfunctions, but as soon as someone comes to the rescue, it works fine. We made it through this operation painlessly, but it was emblematic of how much of my job is realizing how things get screwed up and how often it’s the machine’s fault.

I can’t tell you how many times a patron brings a device to the desk and says “I feel so dumb” or “This is a dumb question, but…” Sure, sometimes patrons don’t read instructions or signs correctly. But just as often it’s the design of the machine or app that led to the failure. The annoying beeps and popup error messages are just an insulting icing on the cake.

Though the machine is just trying to say:


its frustrated victims actually hear:


Counteracting this ought to be the chief quest of good design. It makes everything better: users can actually use things without going insane and devices can be used with minimum intervention from outsiders.

Easier said that designed.

Refer Madness: The Worst Thing

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

Some days on the desk are rough. Challenging patrons, technical difficulties, a case of the Mondays—whatever the issues are, like sneezes and football sacks they often come in bunches to create a day that’s better forgotten.

This was not one of those days.

First, there was a man who said he’d submitted an interlibrary loan request for a movie two months ago, hadn’t heard back, then found out there wasn’t a record of it at all. This is an aggravating situation all around, for patrons who deserve better service and for staff who seek to eliminate mistakes. Such a blunder can make a patron visibly and justifiably frustrated, but this gentleman wasn’t. “If this is the worst thing to happen to me today,” he said, “then I really just have first-world problems.”

Thirty minutes later, a colleague was setting up for a presenter who needed a PowerPoint and projector. Such a routine and simple task that usually goes off without a hitch. Instead, the laptop decides to become possessed and inhabit the projector as well. Murphy’s Law reasserts itself yet again. The speaker could not have been nicer. He spoke to the attendees as we futzed with cables and buttons. “If this is the worst to happen to your day,” he said, “it was probably a great day.”

That really happened: two different people used the same line within a half-hour of each other.

Not ten minutes later, I had to bump a patron from a study room to make room for someone who’d made a reservation. He was a regular and knew the study room policies, but you never know how people will react to getting booted. “I don’t have to go home but I can’t stay here, right?” he said with a smile. It wasn’t quite closing time, but he got the picture.

The next time I am having one of those terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad days on the desk, I’ll remember this hat-trick of good humor and hope to experience it again.

The Library Lives of Others

Earlier this year I started keeping a list of things people have asked me at the library information desk. It’s not totally comprehensive: some questions either aren’t noteworthy (“Where’s the bathroom?”) or slipped my mind during a busy rush. But even as a scattershot sample, it’s an interesting snapshot of what people care about. Here are the ten most recent items on the list people have asked me for or wondered about:

  • Introduction to Academic Writing by Alice Oshima et al
  • Casper DVD
  • Halloween DVD
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  • Cars For U.S. Troops phone number
  • History of Monroney stickers on new cars
  • The Court and the World by Stephen Breyer
  • Stonewall Uprising documentary
  • My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

So we have five books of diverse genres, three very different movies, one phone number request, and one reference question I was able to find info on pretty quickly (and learn about myself). A more accurate representation would have more requests for phone numbers and addresses, but it still gives you an idea of the kinds of things people ask a total stranger for.

And that’s what I’ve found so intriguing and invigorating about my public library jobs thus far into my short career. Aside from the regulars whose desires you can pretty well anticipate as they approach, when a person walks up to the desk I have no idea what they’re gonna ask. So when people ask how my job is going, I can legitimately say that every day is different, and I like that. I appreciate the trust people put in me as the guy behind the desk to get them what they need. And I don’t want to jeopardize that trust by blowing them off, judging their requests (openly anyway), or getting them bad information.

Because it’s their lives we’re dealing with. I’ve written before about how I’ve come to view libraries as sanctuaries and the librarian as a kind of secular pastor. Indeed, the info desk can sometimes feel like a confession booth, which patrons approach with every conceivable attitude: frustrated by their inability to find something, ashamed in the asking of it, happy to be getting help at all, and so on. Whatever they throw at me, I have to be ready to respond accurately, with patience and grace when applicable. Librarians have to do a lot of different things, but good public service is and should be number one.

Refer Madness: Librarians Advisory

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

If you’re a librarian, it’s likely you’re expected to provide readers advisory. (Or is it reader’s?) Every librarian has his or her own area of expertise and blind spots, but whether through direct knowledge or other resources, you’re supposed to be able to give patrons who ask some reliable recommendations on what to read, watch, listen to, or do. This happens fairly regularly at a public library and is, as the NFL puts it, a “major point of emphasis.”

Less common, but just as valuable, is when patrons advise librarians. Last week a man came to the desk looking for the album Trio by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. He said the catalog said it was in, but he couldn’t understand the CD labeling. I tracked it down and explained the labeling system (MC for country, MJ for jazz, etc.—I can see his point…). He thanked me for finding it and said, “Have you ever heard this?” I hadn’t. “Their voices blend so well. Check it out sometime.”

So I did, and he was right: it’s a beautiful record (with hilarious hair) that got nominated for Album of the Year in 1987. I’m not a pop-culture elitist, but it’s important to be reminded that just because librarians get paid to make recommendations doesn’t mean we’re right, or that other people who didn’t get a library degree can’t do it well either.

Please Bother Me: On Asking Questions at the Library


“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…”)

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