Refer 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.
“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…”)