Sunday, October 5, 2008

Gasoline and Reference

Darker in the mornings, slightly more red in the trees...

Sometimes, being at the library reference desk is like pulling into a gas station in New Jersey when you're from out of state. For anyone who does not know this, there's a rule in New Jersey where an attendant MUST pump your gas for you. When you are new to this custom and have always pumped your own gas, like me, it can be somewhat awkward. What is the etiquette? Do I tip if he's particularly nice to me? (I say 'he' because I've never seen a female service station attendant.) Can I get out of the car while he's pumping the gas? Is it bad manners to use a credit card? 

No matter how prepared you think you are for reference interactions, you never really know how they'll go until you're right there assisting whoever needs help on some particular day. And the need for help can run from 'how do I print from my flash drive?' to 'how do I find a peer-reviewed article?' or 'my professor wants me to write a paper about X. How can I find information about X?' Now throw in all the variables of attitude and attention span and enthusiasm on both sides of the desk. 

Chapter 10 of last year's fascinating Studying Students: The Undergraduate Research Project at the University of Rochester, written by anthropologist Nancy Fried Foster, discusses how few modern service transactions are interpersonal. Increasingly I respect libraries who still staff reference desks, instead of having librarians sit exclusively in their offices and create DIY services all day. In part I feel this way from witnessing students who can't quite believe that someone is sitting there just waiting to help them. In my experience so far they are initially incredulous and shy, and then overjoyed that SOMEONE, an actual person, is really looking out for them and can help them through whatever tangle they're in. It's like being stuck on one of those endless automated telephone answering systems ('press 1 if you are concerned about A, press 2 if you want to do B') and finally getting a real person who can explain things to you and have a back and forth discussion about whatever unique situation you have.  

Maybe in fact this is a managerial headache, because the reference librarian ends up picking up the slack for all of the other departments who can't be bothered to maintain a service desk. But to me, the ability to think on your feet and be the person to solve problems beyond the narrow domain of academic research is part of the modern library's responsibility to move beyond its physical walls, and I'm glad to do it. And just like stopping for gas in New Jersey, the more you do it the less awkward it will feel.  

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