Juggling people

Working in a public library in a coastal beach community 80 kilometres from a major city means that during the summer holidays we are inundated with people wanting all sorts of things from us. When the weather is bad the campers take refuge in the library for some amusement. When the weather is too hot they still come to once again get some respite in the air-conditioned comfort and shade.

Here is a snapshot of the questions we get every day:

“Can you find me a book with the Australian citizenship questions? I have to sit the test before they take away my pension and deport me after living here for 50 years.” pleads the 80 plus year old lady with the walking frame and a plastic aqua wallet covered in scrawled pen notes to herself.

“I need more time on the computer!” stammers a smelly long-haired and balding unkempt 30-something male who visits every day.

“Have you got information about the XXth battalion of WW2? I fought there back in 19XX and I remember…..” reminisces the elderly digger with tears in the corners of his eyes as he settles in to recall the events.

“I have a few new titles I’d like to order.” asserts the well-dressed elderly woman as she unravels a long list with beautiful handwriting.

“I want to email photos directly from my camera. Can I use a computer?” says the holidaymaker with no identification and questionable IT skills about how to do that exactly.

“Can we join the library?” choruses the family group of mother, father, and four children as they swarm the counter en masse.

“Have you got the Twilight series? I want to order the first book. And the next one, and the next one…” rambles the young girl at the end of the telephone.

“I’ve lost a book. We’ve just moved. I must have returned it….” already on the defensive, the woman on the telephone has effectively jumped the queue of four people patiently waiting for attention in front of me and now she wants to persist with her excuses before anyone can get a word in.

“Can we use ze internet please?” a backpacker politely enquires in stilted English with some divine European accent, while showing a well-worn passport.

“I want information about dioxin and the effects on humans. I’d like references to the incidents of this in Vietnam and Northern Italy. I’m worried about the proposed pulp mill planned to be built on the Tamar River in Tasmania. Can you find this for me please?” asks a polite regular with a keen curiosity and social conscience.

I try to give my full attention to each and every customer and not only help to give them what they want, but also always try to give them that little bit extra whenever I can. It can be a challenge sometimes especially during summer when the people and questions come thick and fast. But I love it.

I regularly read a light-hearted comic strip about libraries at Unshelved. At present they are loaning out ukeles to the public and I suppose this reflects some of the crazy gimmicks that we have to embrace from time to time.

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.