Reference: Life on the Desk

(If I write a memoir, I’m using that as the title. -A)

One part of my new job duties is collection development and one of the sections that I cover is the true crime area. This past weekend I was thinking of the David Simon book, “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets”, which was the inspiration for two excellent TV series Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. I only got part of the way through the book; I stopped reading it because I got caught up in other things and found it hard to pick up again.

One of the things I remember from the book is the “Homicide Lexicon”, a detective created set of informal rules that apply to murder investigations. I started to think about a Reference Lexicon, a set of informal rules that apply to most reference transactions. Here’s what I would say are the rules and why.

1. Patrons are (sometimes) wrong. They can be wrong about the title, author, actor, musician, where they saw it, what the cover looks like, and any other detail that might be helpful.

Human memory is a tricky thing. Human thinking is a mess as well. I once had a person swear up and down that the book they were looking for was called ‘The Maids’ and it had a certain cover to it; as it turned out, it was ‘The Help’ and looked nothing like that. I tend to take what people say at face value, but the higher their degree of certainty about specific details is when I can’t find anything tends to throw up a red flag now. I’ve been proven wrong on this, but that’s a tiny number compared finding the right results that have completely different characteristics.

2. A question is asked once, but it can takes many searches to find an answer.

When someone asks me to look up a title for them, my preference is to ask for the title. If the title is very common, then I ask for the author. I check alternate spellings (e.g. Louis vs. Lewis vs. a mispronounced Lois) and ask about what else they remember about the material (such as plot, characters, genre, etc.). From there I head out to the internet or databases like Novelist, depending on the parameters. I also keep Rule 1 in mind.

3. The initial few reference interview questions are the most critical to an efficient interaction.

Ambiguous subjects require some follow up questions to figure out where you are going. Do they want birds as pets, birds as animals species, or birds in mythology? The first few questions are vital to narrowing it down to the right circumstances. Don’t assume, just ask.

4. Sick people with colds, flu, and other communicable diseases will cough, sneeze, and touch everything on the desk. Healthy people will make little or no contact.

Unless someone is really icky, I don’t generally feel the need to sanitize my hands after someone sick is at the reference desk. I like to imagine that I’m building up a more robust immune system that will allow me to survive the world’s next plague. I’ve had people cough on their library cards when they were handing them to me, sneeze on the desk, and touch every single pamphlet, flyer, and other publicity material before putting it back. If you can’t handle germs or get easily grossed out, then a service desk is not in your future.

5. It’s good to be good; it’s better to be lucky; it’s even better when it becomes a part of you.

It’s one thing to be familiar with a genre, topic, or series because it’s a personal interest. It’s another thing to be able to make an educated guess on what people are asking for based on hunches. It’s still yet another thing when you can answer a question on a subject to which you have no personal interest because you remember it from a previous reference interaction that you had six months ago. People might disagree on this one, but I have found that being able to accurately retain and recall things from previous reference interactions is an invaluable skill. It saves time and it makes you look like a genius and/or freak. Personally, I’m just lucky that my brain is built for this kind of trivia.

6. Every person who needs help will have a certain look to them, but they may not come up to the desk and ask.

Sometimes it will be obvious, other times it will not, but getting a feel for it comes with time and practice. It may mean getting up from the desk and approaching the person to ask if they need help. Even if they don’t, they will be thankful that you asked (with a tiny percentage being annoyed, but forget about them). They might even ask you a question unrelated to what they are looking for at the library. It doesn’t hurt to ask and it can be the best customer service. And it’s nice to stretch your legs every now and again.

7. First, check Amazon. Then check WorldCat. Then check Google.

You can swap the first two based on personal preferences, but they are excellent resources for identifying materials that are not in your collection. They also provide all the details necessary for an interlibrary loan request. If they don’t have what you are looking for, then Google becomes the search of last resort. Good luck. *makes the sign of the cross*

8. When you don’t think the library owns something, it will be the only result in your search as well as being checked-in on the shelf. When you are certain that the library owns something, it will take multiple searches to find it and the all of the copies will be checked out/on hold/missing/lost/in mending.

Pretty self explanatory. It’s a bit of Murphy’s Law at work.

9. To a patron, all searches are easy. The more straightforward they thing their request is, the easier they think it is. Finding a patron who appreciates the size of the collection (be it 10,000, 100,000, or 1,000,000 items) is a rare feat.

Perhaps this is why people question what a librarian does; all they see is that I type a bunch of things into a computer and come up with an answer. It’s partially true since there isn’t much magic involved in knowing subject headings and being able to type words into a search box. As the most visual part of the job, it’s not hard to see why people don’t recognize it as a skill.

Where the magic happens is translating the gobbledygook of their request into actual results. Yes, there are a number of easy ones (“I want the next Alex Cross novel” isn’t rocket science), but getting to the root of research requests and connecting them to the right information is the magic of librarianship. I’ll put it another way: anyone can draw a duck; but if they want a drawing that looks like a real life duck, they can go to an artist and hire them to draw it. Librarians are the artists of information; people can certainly do their own research but this is our livelihood, profession, and passion.

10. There is such a thing as the perfect reference interview. It’s a skill, an art, and it can be mastered.

For me, the perfect reference interview is the one that makes someone’s day. It doesn’t have to be important or big, but just right to make them leave feeling good. It means I have them more than they expected, whether it is materials, information, time, and/or patience. The last two can overshadow all others because it shows a level of care and concern that translates at the human level. Many people cross through our lives on a daily basis, but how many of those people give us a sincere kind word? It’s a small act but it can change a life. Making someone’s day at the desk is my idea of a perfect reference interview outcome.


What do you think?