Zen and the Art of the Reference Interview

Recently I have been prompted to examine the procedure I follow when undertaking a typical Reference Interview. The Reference Interview is the enquiry process that occurs when a person asks a Librarian for some information. It is something I do without thinking about and I follow a procedure that is typical of all Librarians working in Information Services for customers. It is the nature of our work. It is the basis of our training and study. It is second-nature.

So the process is that the customer approaches (sometimes hesitantly) and I smile and ask “What can I do for you?” or “How can I help you?” The questions will vary from: being direct, well-defined, and fast and easy to accommodate, to vague, unsure, complex, deep and involved. They will often ask “Have you got the book “Such and such?” or “Have you got the latest book by “Whoshewhatsit?” or perhaps “Can I order the next DVD in the series “TV show?” I will check the library catalogue at the PC near me and advise the customer. If we don’t have it I will try to determine the age of the item and look online to see if it is still in print, check at other libraries via the Libraries Australia website or Libraries Link and advise the customer. I will order it in for them whenever appropriate and that is more often than not. I will use Google and Amazon as last resorts but most often I have located the information before that.

When a question is vague, general, or ill-defined I will often take the customer to the book shelves where we can browse together while continuing with the conversation and the “reference interview”. This helps the customer hone in on their needs and also introduces them to the arrangement and scope of the collection we offer.

Sometimes a question may go beyond the scope of the public library; questions like “I want to read the history of the Australian 15th Battalion in World War 2. Can you help?” Of course I will follow the same procedure of checking our resources, but inevitably I will end up at the Australian War Memorial website and search their online resources. In this case the gentleman had already visited the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and asked the staff there the same question, so he was way ahead of me. This came to light in the course of our conversation.

The point I wish to highlight is that each question is unique, as is each person who asks a question. I approach each question afresh and with the aim to open a conversation with this person; a conversation that is fluid, natural, flexible, unique, and engaging. I will follow my intuition and try to respond accordingly. There is no pat academic explanation to a process I follow by instinct, despite the fact that I do indeed loosely follow a procedure that is typical of all fellow Librarians or Information Professionals. I do not want to appear automated, stilted, academic, procedural, like I’m ticking all the boxes, robotic, bureaucratic, nor condescending. I merely want to engage in an exploration of resources with a fellow human being and in that interaction discover things together.

I relish the challenge and mental gymnastics required over the course of a days work helping people find the answers to their diverse questions. I love the thrill of the hunt that draws on my detective skills and lateral thinking ability. I enjoy the new things I learn by default from other people’s enquiries. And more importantly I feel my life is enriched by the small everyday relationships that develop along the way.

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The Christmas spirit

I walked through the front door and was stopped in my tracks with the silent realisation “Oh My Gosh, it’s Christmas!  I first noticed on a sideboard in the entry a knitted nativity scene. It was so cute and made by the sister of the lady who lived there. I could not imagine ever spending the time to knit little individual sheep. This house, where our Book Club was meeting for the Christmas session, met all of the criteria of a warm, cosy, festive atmosphere. There were Christmas decorations everywhere; tastefully placed. A huge artificial Christmas tree filled a corner of a warm sitting area defined by wood paneled walls, antique sideboards, comfy leather lounge chairs and a fireplace adorned with conifer sprigs.

 

Christmas in the Australian summertime is usually a stifling occasion, but on this December evening it was raining, cool and misty, transporting us to a European Christmas. We shared a buffet dinner arranged on the dining table in the best Christmas crockery. We ate, drank sparkling wine, chatted, and then settled to discuss the book: Amy Witting’s “A change in the lighting. The discussion was brief and not as in-depth as the previous discussions of other books.

 

dsc010351The next day I decided to think about my own plans for Christmas. I put up our little artificial tree, made Christmas cards and sent them, planned the meal for our family get-together, and went and bought a cute little nativity scene. It is not knitted but cute nonetheless.

 

Our shared meal will be a typical Aussie Christmas lunch with various cold meats, salads, pavlova with raspberries, plum pudding, fruit punch, lollies, beer, and wine. No doubt it will be a hot day and I will set up tables on our back verandah.

‘Straya

Have you seen Baz Luhrmann’s epic Australia yet? I know that Aussies may feel compelled to see it, but my advice is to save your money. What a disappointment and embarrassment! And I love his other movies like Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge.

 

It seems to me that Baz could not decide if he wanted to make a musical again, a comedy, an epic, a war movie, or some kind of Australian classic. He failed in all. Perhaps if he had indeed made if a musical the movie as it stands would have succeeded. It is full of cringe value for all Australians. The graphics are woeful. The dialogue is stilted, and the accents are overly exaggerated. The performances of some great actors are shallow and terrible. The only actor who was good was the young actor who was the narrator of the tale – Brandon Walters.

 

The scenes about the bombing of Darwin seemed to be over-the-top and aimed at a Hollywood audience rather than depicting the truth. But then I questioned myself and knew that my knowledge of the bombing of Darwin was scant. I did a little research in the library to try to discover what the facts were. The Australian War Memorial website has one short page devoted to the attacks. I found one book titled “Darwin’s battle for Australia: a history of Darwin’s role in the defence of Australian in WW2” by the Darwin Defenders and published in 2005. This 294 page book contains witness accounts and photographs from the events in Darwin at that time. Once again the local library manages to provide information that is relevant and of high quality content.

 

P.S. The power of the blogging world – very soon after I posted this I received the comment direct from the Australian War Memorial who pointed me in the direction of more of their resources. Thank you. My excuse is that it wasn’t because I was not being thorough in my research of their website, but because I had located the excellent book in my local library on the subject. I value their input and the power of Web 2.0.