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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/12/07

   August 18th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Windmills of La Mancha - original wind powered homesThis was one of those questions where nothing was going right, and before long it became clear to both me and the patron that the best thing to do was just cut our loses and part ways:

So, an elderly Indian man walks up to the desk. Usually, race and age aren't much of a factor in reference questions, but this time they were: "elderly" because he was very hard of hearing, and "Indian" because we had trouble understanding each other's accents.

After about five minutes of back and forth between the two of us, I eventually was able to grasp his request: his son, who lives in Switzerland and is an I.T. Officer for a Swiss Bank, recently bought property on a Caribbean Island. The son wants to build a house there using wind and solar power technology. This patron, who said he knew nothing about computers, thought he'd be nice and research some of the companies that produce this equipment, and mail the information to his son.

I think there are people who devote their entire careers to this question, and I felt bad that this patron expected me to have this information ready and waiting for him.

And the language barrier made the search that much difficult - mainly because he couldn't hear me. He kept asking me to speak up, and kept raising his own voice, but I won't shout to anyone over the reference desk because it seriously disturbs all the other patrons in the area.

By the time we got to the point of actually looking for the information, we were both frustrated.

Anyway, I decided to start by looking for companies that produce solar power equipment. I simply searched for "residential solar power equipment," and one of the search matches was for a company called SunWize.

Having this one company name, I then logged into ReferenceUSA and printed their company profile. The profile not only gives this company's contact information, but also includes a "competitors report" which gave the names of other companies in this industry. That was exactly what the patron was looking for - names to give his son. Excellent.

So now, we try the same trick by searching for "residential wind power equipment." But this time, the first hit was American Wind Energy Association's Small Wind Turbine Equipment Providers directory, which was perfect. I printed this directory, and he had what he came in for.

Having gotten (and found) something made both of us feel better. He thanked me, turned, and walked a few steps away from the desk. Then he stopped and stood for a minute, turned again, and came back to the desk.

He said since he was mailing the information to his son, he'd like to keep a copy for himself, just in case. Actually making the copies took another ten minutes of explaining how the photocopier worked, where to put in his money, etc.

By the end of it, I felt like I kind of let this guy down, even though he did leave with what he came for; actually, it felt like a case-study from an MLIS "reference interview" course. I can just hear Dr. Holmes asking the class, "so, what did Brian do wrong?"

I'm sure there were better resources out there, and we certainly should have looked into the availability of any of this in the Caribbean, but the communication and technological barriers were aggravating both of us. I don't think I soured this patron on libraries in general, but I also don't think I'll ever be invited to partake in the solar- and wind-powered island getaway. Ah, well.

libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question, solar power, wind power

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