Adventures in Reference, or this is why Google will never replace us

Some of the best outreach we do is through reference. A friendly, supportive, helpful reference experience can create bigger fans of the library than free cookies or a Neil Gaiman visit. When patrons walk away feeling listened to and helped, they are more likely to advocate for us, visit us and spread the word that the library has good stuff (like Penn Jillette said, we have good wi-fi). At the end of the day we are service providers.

Good reference service often means having patience, a good “I’m listening” look and going beyond the stacks to answer queries. Once a student was looking for a Bollywood movie she had to watch for class…by tonight. We did not have it; NetFlix did not have it. So I called all of the Indian grocery stores in the vicinity until I found someone who did have it. I found out which bus she could take to get there and how to get a movie account. She felt great about the library and I felt a little proud, I gotta say.

This week, I asked librarians to share their favorite adventures in reference. (We are quite the innovative group.) They each demonstrate in their own way best practices in reference service. And the librarian in question probably created a library lover for life.

Librarian as travel guide, or recognizing user need: Jessica Brown of the Enoch Pratt Free Library shares a story that many of us can relate to: “I had a patron come in asking for directions to a building that was near our location. I did the usual things (address, map, Google street view even), but this poor young woman looked so frazzled and anxious (and also, English was her second language), I decided, what the heck? After a brief conversation with my manager, I took the patron outside and walked her to her the building she was trying to get to.  She was so relieved, she sprung at me and hugged me! I realize that this isn’t the most realistic way to handle a question of this type in all situations, but it was beyond apparent that this particular patron needed this information by way of travel guide.”

Mission accomplished!, or finding innovative ways to meet need: drue wagner-mees of the Los Angeles Public Library Brentwood branch is often called upon to help settle bets over outrageous topics with often outrageous stakes. A patron who lost such a bet had to cook a rattlesnake dinner for the winner. He came to the library seeking help with this task (of course!). “We had a southwestern style cookbook that had a really gorgeous photo of a “snake” made out of all sorts of chopped up small food items, like bits of chopped boiled egg, capers, and for the forked tongue you used a piece of pimento cut up. That saved his butt on this bet!” dree reports. The man loved the idea and checked the book out.

Heather Booth helped a patron trying to remember the name of a business that had burned down in town many years ago for a bet. Heather called the local fire department and asked to speak to the fire fighter who had been there the longest.  The fire fighter remembered the fire and helped the patron settled his bet. Now THAT’S using your sources.

And, Jen Schuremen, Gloucester County, NJ Library System, had a gentleman who bet his friend that the score of their high school football game (they went to rival schools) in 1953 was a shutout. Jen searched  archived local papers and discovered that the historical museum had yearbooks.  So she went to the 1953 yearbook and found the score proving the patron was correct and owed a beer.

What is Mick Jagger actually singing here? No reference desk can rightly call themselves one if they have not helped a patron who cannot remember the name of a song but are happy to hum it for you. Karl Siewert of the Tulsa Public Library had a regular telephone patron who often called asking for lyrics to old songs. “She once asked for one that she couldn’t remember the tune to, but I could. I ended up singing the song to her over the phone, though not at the reference desk.” (In case you’re curious, it was “Button Up Your Overcoat.”)

Keeping a Straight Face Award, or don’t eat at this woman’s house: Michell Hackwelder, Northwestern University in Qatar, shares this eye-popper. When she worked at the Queensborough Public Library’s Central Library in the early 90’s, a woman came in saying she had frozen her baby’s placenta and wanted to know what she could do with it. Because she heard that placentas were important. The intrepid Michell gave her references on different cultures religious use of placenta, Medicinal/magical  lore/use of placenta, and Use of animal not human placenta in shampoo. (See, we can answer any question…except maybe “could you please read this x-ray for me?”)

THIS is what reference is all about, or there is not really a specific time nor place for reference: Lawrie Merz of Messiah College was the on-call librarian the last weekend of the semester. At that time the desk was not open on the weekends, but the on-call librarian would carry a cellphone. Lawrie was surprised when she got a call, but helped the patron all while CUTTING DOWN HER CHRISTMAS TREE! “I walked them through navigating our homepage and getting to the right database (from memory—had to try to picture the homepage) and then coaching them by suggesting several keywords.”

That’s my librarian, dawg: Sandy Moltz of the Swampscott, MA Public Library is the young adult librarian we want to grow up to be. She has two awesome rock ‘n’ roll reference stories. She recalls running into some young patrons at the Warped Tour who couldn’t find the stage hosting their favorite band. The librarian was able to guide them to the correct location (because she had read the schedule!). Even better: one of those library kids went to see Rancid and ended up talking with the band members. He had been into juggalo* music, so they asked him how he got into their music and he answered, “A librarian from the next town.”

Sometimes patrons need hands-on help, or yes we know this is a librarian stereotype: Laurena Schultz of Mt. Lebanon, PA Public Library, Tracey Johnson, Shawnee Community College, and Jeri Cohen, Patchogue-Medford, NY Library, have all provided hands-on knitting assistance to yarn-troubled patrons seeking books to help correct their knotty mistakes. “I felt funny, standing at the circulation desk with yarn and needles, but whatever helps our patron, right?” says Tracey. Exactly!

Where does stuff like this fit into a job description? Amy Gillespie knows first-hand that one never knows what they can expect at a reference desk. There is no “that’s not my job” at a reference desk.  A patron came to the Pennsylvania public library where Amy worked needing information on her aunt. Specifically, the aunt had passed away and as she was not next-of-kin, the hospital couldn’t tell her any more than that. The distraught woman had visited her aunt often in the hospital, but was on bad terms with her cousin. She wanted information on funeral services, which Amy looked for diligently using all of the usual information suspects. Finally, she called someone she knew in the medical examiner’s office and got the details the woman was looking for. By the end of that interview, Amy had an invitation to a pecan orchard in Georgia.

Knowing what our patrons REALLY need: Sometimes our patrons just need us to do something for them. We all try to teach and guide so that they can do it themselves next time. But that’s not always the service truly needed. Heather Booth recalls a woman needing instruction to use Word in order to reformat the programs for her mother’s memorial service. Heather decided to just do it herself for the patron as “I just couldn’t sit there and teach her when it was such a personal, sensitive need.”

“So I need this one book about this one thing by this one author…”: Scottsdale, AZ Public Librarian Beth Medley epitomizes what I love about us: we won’t give up until we help a patron.  A patron wanted to read a book she had seen on a TV talk show. The catch? She didn’t know the book’s title or author, and she didn’t know which show she had seen it on. Beth prevailed and discovered the patron did know that it was Monday afternoon around 4:00. She did what any librarian worth her weight in free books did and went to the TV Guide website to identify the show. With that information in hand, Beth visited the show’s website to find that day’s schedule AND the book title. “It took a while,” Beth confesses, “but she left with what she wanted!”

We will use every available resource we can think of in the pursuit of an answer: Several years ago the Pope referenced a Chekov short story in his Easter homily, but didn’t name the story, recalls Heather Booth.  A patron wanted to read it, so she scanned Chekov for the phrases the Pope had used, called several Catholic churches, the library of a nearby Catholic college, and the Archdiocese of Chicago.  No one knew what it was and Heather maintains that His Holiness maybe read it long ago and forgot who really wrote the story.  In any case, she suggests he could have used a librarian to help him fact check that homily!  While Heather never found the answer, her persistence and dedication embody the spirit of reference.

Jen Schureman had a patron ask  if it was possible to send a letter to Italy in 1915 and if so, how much would it cost and how it would get there.  Jen first tried the United States Postal Service, but they didn’t know.  She then tried the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian Institute.  She found out that it would cost 5 to 15 cents and it would get there by boat since airmail didn’t begin until 1918. (I hope that patron dedicated whatever World War I novel they were writing to Jen.)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I am proud to call myself Librarian.

* i.e.: Insane Clown Posse

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3 responses to “Adventures in Reference, or this is why Google will never replace us

  1. Great post – love the stories! I should add that for my Chekov question, all the other stuff happened after I searched the databases and catalogs for potential title matches based on the recalled phrase. Go librarians, go 🙂

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