or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 8/12/12

   August 18th, 2012

antique radioHere's a story about why follow-up questions are important in the reference interview.

An older patron walked up to my coworker at the Reference Desk and asked if we had a list of Massachusetts radio stations.

Instantly I felt a sense of dread - we used to have a book exactly like that, but I think I weeded it when we eliminated our reference collection. I remember thinking, "no one will ever come looking for this - besides, I'm sure it's on the internet."

My coworker also remembered the book, and of course set about searching for it in the catalog. When it didn't come up, she got up to check our Ready Reference collection behind the desk.

At this point I told her I think it had been weeded. We also get a "list of lists" book about the top 10 of everything in Boston, which - I hoped - would also list the top 10 radio stations. So while she continued to search the catalog at the desk, I walked down to our oversized shelves to grab a copy and check - no luck.

By the time I got back to the desk, my coworker was searching online for a list of Massachusetts radio stations. Before she got very far though, the patron - who had been waiting patiently this entire time - said,

Well, all I really want to know is the dial numbers for WODS.

Ha. In a few seconds my coworker located that and gave it to the patron, who left happy, talking about how he likes listening to the oldies.

But it took us about five minutes to get here, and both of us felt a little bad about wasting his time. We let ourselves get sidetracked by focusing on a resource we thought the patron wanted, instead of making sure we actually understood what answer the patron wanted. A good reminder why initial follow-up questions are important.

However, feeling bad about that was quickly curtailed, when few minutes later my coworker recalled this radio station had recently switched formats. The patron was already gone at this point, but I'm sure it won't take him long to figure out - and probably lament - this change.

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4 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 8/12/12”

  1. ChiLibrarian Says:

    I recently had a patron ask if we had books on forging. I thought maybe I’d misheard and asked, “Do you want foraging, as in looking for things, or forging, like forging checks?” He said “forging” very clearly. We were having some catalog issues, so the search was taking forever and we were chatting, and I was trying to figure out specifically what he wanted to learn about forging when he said he wanted to make swords. Oh. Duh. Forging, as in blacksmithing, not forging as in documents. I never thought I’d be happy for computer lag. He never knew I’d started down a really embarrassing path.

  2. Henry Says:

    The book you wanted is, perhaps, the World Radio TV Handbook


  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @ChiLibrarian: ha – take what you can get! I’ve done that too – at least, more than once someone has asked for something that I misinterpreted, and while leading them to that section of the Dewey stacks, they elaborated and I was able to change course to a different section without them realizing it.

    The example I remember from library school (which works better when you say it than type it) was whales/Wales – big difference, which could be embarrassing.

    @Henry: thanks for the link – I hadn’t thought of that book. The one I remember weeding was actually Directory of Massachusetts Broadcasters, but it looks like they stopped publishing in 2008 (probably another reason why I decided to weed it in 2011).

  4. Jessica Says:

    I’ve taped this message that I got in a fortune cookie to my computer monitor: “Do not seek so much to find the answer as much as to understand the question better.”