The Wikipedia reference desk works like a library reference desk. Users leave questions on the reference desk and Wikipedia volunteers work to help you find the information you need.
Questions/answers are broken up into categories, and are both interesting and sophisticated. I also like the format of crowdsourcing answers - even when someone had given what I thought was a great answer, subsequent responders added new information or aspects that were useful.
Actually, it reminded me of any other online forum, which I use all the time for answering questions (especially for coding problems or frustrating technology issues). No one response provides a complete answer, but putting all the bits and pieces together often solves the problem.
Not that using the internet as a big Help archive is anything new - I was just happy to find another source to search when I get a real stumper. But if nothing else, the Wikipedia Reference Desk Guidelines does make for interesting reading.
Today's post is a response to an email I received (thanks, Amber). She said she just started working in a public library again, and asked if I had any advice on helping parents when they are looking for resources for their child's homework. This happens often enough that I've actually written it into our reference policy.
The best-case scenario is when the parent comes in with the student, and I always try to engage the student as much as possible. After all, it's the student that knows what their assignment is and what kind of information they need - not to mention I am trying to teach them research skills at the same time.
The situation that can be the most difficult is when the parent comes in alone. It is certainly a good thing to have a parent involved in their child's education, but more often than not, I get the distinct impression that the parent is just doing the child's homework for them - which makes me uncomfortable.
Here are some of the tactics I use any time an adult asks for information on the underground railroad, or the Black Plague, or a very specific animal, etc:
Ask them if this is for them or for a homework assignment
Rarely do people let you know right away that their question is for their child's homework assignment, but the quicker you know where you stand, the better
Ask if they have the homework assignment with them
Maybe one person in a hundred actually does, but it can help a lot. For awhile the school library staff were emailing us assignments as they got them from the teachers, but this dropped off after they had staff cuts
Ask how much and what type of information is required, and the nature and length of the project
If they don't have the homework assignment with them, this is the next best thing - but it's still rare that a parent would know very many details. However, sometimes they know that they need just two books*, or that they need photographs, or that the project is a three paragraph biography, etc. Whatever they can tell you will help, because there's a big difference between a five page paper and a poster.
I also use this question to try to limit the amount of books the parent takes - some parents just want to take every single book they can find on the topic, and let the child sift through them once they get home. This is bad because often more than one student has the same topic, so if the parent says they need just two books, I try to hold them to that to leave resources for other kids
Ask for the age/grade of the student
Obviously this is important in selecting the most appropriate resources, but also tells me right away if adult or teen resources are even applicable, or if I should refer them to the Children's Room
Ask when the assignment is due
The answer to this is usually "tomorrow," but not always. This is especially helpful to know if I'm having trouble finding books on the topic - if the project isn't due for a week or so, that opens up the option of requesting books from other libraries. If there isn't time for that, I do remind patrons that they can drive to other libraries and pick up materials there (thanks to being in a consortium)
Give them our guide to accessing databases from home
Also very helpful when I'm having trouble locating resources in the library, but this of course is limited to people who have internet access at home. I always give my speech about how databases are not an "internet source," and also write down the specific name of the databases that will help. If there is time, I show the parent how to search the database and that there is relevant information - and if we get this far, I always email one of the articles we find to them from the database, to remind them when they get home to use it
Tell them to have the student call or come in if they need more help or have questions
Of course, it is ideal to work directly with the student, even if it's just on the phone. Sometimes students come in the next day after school, but I have had kids call later that night after their parents got home, asking where in the books they brought home is the information they need. I walk them through using the book's index and table of contents, and that is often enough to get them started
I'm curious to find out what other tactics are useful for this situation - it's something we face all the time, so please share your success stories in the comments.
*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I've been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography. Generally this confession comes from the student rather than the parent, but I probably hear this once or twice a month. I mentioned this to a middle school teacher who tutors a lot in the library, and she was shocked - enough that she said she'd bring it up at the next curriculum meeting.
In library near me, the Director did most of the reference work. When she announced her retirement, the staff was worried about having to do reference themselves, until a replacement was found.
She emailed me saying she had just read The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, and asked for my help in creating a "reference checklist" for her staff - hopefully, it would help them cover all the bases when helping patrons at the Reference Desk.
I haven't actually read the book (although did read lots of reviews when it was published), but I think the general idea is summarized in this quote from the New York Times review:
In medicine, he writes, the problem is “making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly.” Failure, he argues, results not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works).
This is also true of reference work. Some sort of checklist or decision tree is probably covered in most library school reference text books, but I thought I'd take a crack at it. Of course, any checklist like this could vary widely by library, depending on available resources, but the following few questions might help make sure all bases are covered consistently:
Are you sure you understand the question?
Don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions and to restate the question in your own words to make sure you and the patron are on the same page
Is the patron looking for a specific item?
It's okay to use Amazon to verify the spelling of an author's name or title, and Novelist or other websites to check titles in a series. Once you know what you're looking for, be sure to check the local catalog, other libraries in the network, and also the state-wide catalog (if you have one) to interlibrary loan the item if necessary. If it's nowhere to be found, should this item be purchased? (refer to your Collection Development policy)
Use the catalog to find the right Dewey range so the patron can browse the shelf, and see where other libraries have cataloged their books on this subject
Remember to also check
other collections (Reference, Young Adult, Childrens, Oversized, Vertical File, Special Collections, etc)
research databases (especially for homework research or very current information)
the library's website (for subject guides, readers advisory, web links, etc)
general internet searching to find public websites
remember also to search government websites - add site:.gov to Google searches to limit to government websites
if you're in the right Dewey section but there are no books on the specific topic, look for a general book on the subject and check the book's index for your specific topic
Is the question about something local?
Check the local newspaper, local websites (especially newspaper and municipal websites, as well as meetup.com and yelp.com for socializing and events), printed brochures and fliers available in the library, event calendars, etc. Remember also to ask coworkers, as they may have heard of something or be involved with it
Is your answer still “no” or “I don't know” - what else can you do?
Is the problem that you're in the right place and the information is just not there, or that you can't think of where to look? Keep the patron informed, but don't waste their time - there is nothing wrong with referring them to a larger or specialized library, another Town office, or organization that is more likely to have the resources to answer their question. Be sure to give them contact phone numbers/email address/web address/driving directions/operating hours
Ask a coworker or supervisor for help
Take the patron's name and number and offer to contact them when you find something
A strategy I use to try to make reference interactions go more smoothly is this:
Sometimes it's hard to find the answer with the patron hovering above you watching and waiting. If possible, get the patron started on looking in one area, and then go back to the catalog/database on your own for more thorough research
And to make future reference questions better, here's a checklist about patron interactions in general:
Have there been a lot of questions on the same topic? If so, is there a way to make this information more readily available for future patrons?
Pay attention to what kind of questions make you uncomfortable, and then ask for training or explore those areas further
Remember to show patrons how to do something, instead of just giving them answers. It's also okay to think out loud when working on a question - explaining why you're consulting the resources you are, or why books are in a certain spot in the library, will help the patron and possibly make you think of something you may have otherwise forgotten.
Look around the Reference Desk - things within reach are probably there for a reason, but can also be the hardest to find if you don't know where they are
Remember to review applicable common tasks and policies, such as booking museum passes, helping with printing, turning everything on/off
This could definitely be distilled more. At the same time, no checklist will cover every patron interaction, but should at least get people started down the right road. And I'm sure I missed things - what are more tips to give staff new to the Reference Desk?
In this funny video, replace "dad" with "library patron" and it's a reference question many librarians know all too well. At least, for the first third of the video - after that, it gets kind of weird and definitely violates the appropriate library behavior policy.
First thing one morning, a very pleasant older couple approach me at the desk. The husband asks me (in a Irish accent, which I tremendously enjoyed and won't even try to reproduce in type):
Do you have a book that tells me all the bridge heights between here and Florida?
I felt there was more to this story. After a bit more questioning, I learned that he and his wife bought a new RV, and were leaving next week for Florida. Since buying it, though, he'd started to notice signs everywhere he drives indicating the clearance under bridges. To prepare for their road trip, he wanted a book that will help him plan a route that won't take him under any bridge that is too low for their RV.
We did not have any book that gave this information. One possibility, I thought, was to check our various road atlases to see if they might indicate this. None of them did.
This made the patron happy, as his RV is 13 feet high. I still felt I needed to give him more, so I asked if they minded waiting while I called AAA. I often call outside resources who are likely to give an expert answer on something, and luckily in this case I am an AAA member.
I looked up the local AAA office in the phone book, and the first person I spoke to said enthusiastically that yes, AAA's TripTik department does have this information, and he transferred me to them. But surprisingly, when I explained what I was looking for to the TripTik operator, she said they did not have this information.
She did have some advice, though - avoid Parkways. These roads, such as the Merritt Parkway (CT) and the Garden State Parkway (NJ), are designed for smaller, non-commercial-sized vehicles, and often have lower under-structure clearances - especially toll booths. Huh.
I think this bit of information jogged her memory, because she then said that yes, AAA does publish a book with this information. It's called the AAA Truck & RV Road Atlas (Amazon is the only listing I could find), and is available at any AAA office.
I relayed this information to the patron, and he was delighted. He was a brand new AAA member, and was happy to have a reason to go use his membership. The AAA woman said the book retails at about $22.95, but is discounted for AAA members at the local offices. My library does not have one, so I might have to add it to the collection.
Not every reference question I am asked is one that I can answer. This is one of those.
Perhaps the very nature of a small public library prevents librarians like me from being experts in any given field - since we have to respond to questions on any possible topic, it helps to know a little about a lot of areas rather than a lot about a single area. Specialists work in academic and large public libraries, and generalists end up in smaller libraries.
But that's not to say that a librarian won't know quite a bit about an area they are interested in. Coworkers of mine could easily specialize in linguistics, pop culture, cooking and modern fiction. Hiking, conspiracy theories, knitting and dystopian novels are some of the particular holes I've dug for myself.
At least, those are all the excuses I can think of for my behavior with this reference question.
A patron sends the following email to our reference desk:
To: Chelmsford Library Reference
Subject: Corporate Tax Rate
I am living in Kuwait and for study purpose I have a 2 US Corporate tax related questions.
A US-Based Company (Domestic Company) have its operations in Foreign Country what tax is levied on this company?
If this domestic company is acquired by a foreign company (and domestic company is still operating in another foreign country)....what will be tax rate implied for that foreign country?
Hope You answer my question
Here's why I answered this question the way I did:
Although we help anyone who comes in, calls, or emails us, we do give priority to local patrons. He didn't say he was a local resident who just happened to be abroad, and I didn't see his name in our catalog. I honestly have no idea how he found our email address from Kuwait, and that makes me suspicious and reluctant to spend a lot of time on this
He did mention that he is there for study, and I'm always hesitant with students: the line between helping them do their work and doing their work for them is often blurry. I try to err on the side of less help to start with, but keep checking in to see if they are on the right track
This is a tax question (and a very specific one), and we have a policy against giving tax advice. Especially with such a specific question, unless you get an answer from a specialist, it's hard to know how much to trust the answer
So, with all that in mind, my reply back to him is below. I knew I wasn't giving him an answer, but I wanted to at least direct him to some resources that might lead him to an answer:
Subject: Re: Corporate Tax Rate
I'm sorry, but specific tax questions are beyond our expertise here, and also violates our policy against giving tax advice. I did try looking into your request, and found the Internal Revenue Service's International Business page (http://www.irs.gov/businesses/international/), which may lead to the answers you seek.
Another potential resource for you to contact is the United States Embassy in Kuwait (http://kuwait.usembassy.gov/), which may have an office to help with your questions, or be able to direct you to the government agency that can answer them.
I'm sorry we are not able to answer your questions directly, but I hope some of the above information might help you. If there is anything else we can do, please let us know. Thank you, and take care.
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library
This feels like such a cop out, and I feel bad I couldn't come up with a real answer, but this seems like the kind of question someone could spend days researching and still find nothing. The patron did reply with a very polite and gracious thank-you message, but I haven't heard back if he found what he was looking for.
If anyone knows of resource that can answer this, I would appreciate hearing about it.