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

Reference Question of the Week – 10/24/10

   October 30th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Instead of a reference question this week, I wanted to highlight something else from NELA2010.

In the Trends in Reference session, Pingsheng Chen from the Worcester (MA) Public Library discussed the overall trend of reference questions in general - that there are fewer of them, but the questions we do get asked are harder and less traditional.

This is due to people turning to the internet to answer the easy factual questions, but still coming to us with the tough ones that require assistance or instruction. Her slide below listed a few example questions she's gotten in Worcester:

Reference Questions from the Worcester Library

I'm sorry the photo is tough to read - the questions are:

  • How do I activate my iPhone on a library computer? Can I download this mp3 to my iPod from a library computer?
  • My laptop cannot connect to the library's wireless. Can you help?
  • Which e-reader should I buy to download the library's ebooks?
  • I bought Barnes & Noble Nook and would like to download the library's ebooks to it. Can you help?
  • Could you recommend and create a booklist on China, its history and culture to my group? I would like to know if the books on the booklist are available at the library.
  • I got this letter telling me to come to the library to obtain this document...(e-government info)
  • I am looking for work and would like to know how to set up a LinkedIn account.
  • Many more questions are asked my job seekers: people need help to find a job, fill out an online application, write a resume and cover letter... (Many of them have no computer skills, no email account, no English skills...)

Her question to us was, if you were asked these, how would you answer them?

Most of the libraries represented in the room had at least one person on staff who is the go-to person for "techie questions." But is that good enough anymore? Do you feel the questions above are beyond the scope of reference work, or are you of the opinion that modern reference staff should have the knowledge and training to answer modern reference questions?

So that's the challenge for this week - how would you handle these questions if you were asked them by a patron?

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