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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/8/10

   August 14th, 2010

Sign: This machine has no brain - use your own.I enjoy being a librarian, and working with the public. But it can be challenging, and sometimes you just need to vent.

No matter what people ask me, I make sure the words that come out of my mouth are helpful and positive - however, those aren't always the first words that spring to mind.

In the anti-spirit of my post from Thursday, here are some answers I have not given to questions patrons have asked me. You've heard of FAQs - now here are some ALUs ("answers left unsaid"):

  • Patron: The book isn't on the shelf, on a cart, or behind the desk - where else could it be?
    Answer: In someone else's home.
  • Patron: This computer is loading slowly - should I just sit here and wait?
    Answer: You could stand.
  • Patron: All the bathrooms are in use, where else can I go?
    Answer: There are bushes outside.
  • [five computers in a row rebooted while a particular patron was using them because she keeps pressing CTRL-ALT-DEL, after I showed her that CTRL-ALT-DEL reboots computers]
    Patron: I'm sure it's not something I'm doing.
    Answer: Hmm, then maybe they just sense danger.
  • Patron: The computer said the book I want is "Checked out." Does that mean it's checked out?
    Answer: No, that's just our way of deterring patrons who aren't pushy enough.
  • Patron: The museum pass I want is already reserved for the day I want to go - can you cancel that person and give it to me?
    Answer: Actually, you don't need the pass at all - just go to the museum and they'll let you in free if you tell them the secret code; it's "I need to plan ahead."
  • [patron on the phone]
    Patron: Can you speak up, why are you speaking so softly?
    Answer: Because I'm in a library.
  • Patron: Can I ask you a question?
    Answer: You mean, another one?
  • [patron brings in a broken playaway, and I offer to request one from another library or to show him where the book is on the shelf]
    Patron: You think I want to *read* this book?
    Answer: You're right, that might be asking too much.
  • Patron: I love Michael Savage - do you think he's got just the best website?
    Answer: No, in fact, his site is so bad that one of his fans set up a separate website just to make finding his information easier.
    [note: this is from awhile ago, and apparently thesavagearchive.com is no more. But read the little "About" box on the archived version of that site - it's a polite way of saying a site is annoyingly difficult]

Sigh, I hate speaking ill of people who come into the library and ask for help, but I'm sure we've all been there. The good news is that questions like the above are few and far between (but they'll never be few and far between enough).

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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 8/8/10”

  1. Dan Says:

    One thing that I’ve always wanted to say out loud, I actually did once, and it very likely could have cost me my job if someone high enough in the food chain were to have heard me.

    A co-worker walked back into the employees-only workroom carrying a box. She said, “Dan, where can I put this box of donations?” Knowing that 81% of our donated books deserve to be there, I said, “If there’s a dumpster nearby, you can chuck them in there.” Of course, the customer who was donating them was right behind her.

    Also, I have a strong urge to put these posters up in strategic places in the library:


  2. Patrick Says:

    This is a great post. Thanks for the laugh.

    I worked at Starbuck’s several years back. One night I asked the next customer at the register what they’d like. “Can you answer a question for me?” she asked. “Sure thing,” I said, “How can I help you?” She said, “Can you tell me the difference between almond and hazelnut syrup?” Before I could stop myself, I said to her, “Well ma’am, the almond syrup tastes more like almonds, whereas the hazelnut’s more hazelnutty.” Embarrassed, I then smiled, hoping to take a little bit of the sting out of my words.

    She looked at me, blinked a couple of times, and said, “So there’s a difference?”

    I don’t work at Starbuck’s anymore.

  3. laura k Says:

    Ooh, I think the most appalling is the person requesting the museum pass. I have little to no patience for people who think they deserve this kind of special treatment. This is why I work in technical services, and not out with the peoples.

  4. There’s No Such Thing as a Stupid Question – or is there? (via Swiss Army Librarian) | Stop and Smell the Ink Says:

    […] – or is there? (via Swiss Army Librarian) Posted on August 14, 2010 by Christine On today’s Swiss Army Librarian post, public library reference librarian Brian Herzog pokes fun at some […]

  5. sharon Says:

    I spent the better part of an hour, the last hour of the day, with a patron who asked: “What’s an application?” “Why do they always explain complicated computer terms with more computer terms?” “What does ‘Reload current page’ mean?” “How do I get back to Google?” “What’s ‘word processing’?” “How can I get rid of the ads on a webpage?” (She found a dating service ad to be offensive.) Why did I waste so much time with her? I’m still relatively new in town, and for all I knew she was a past president of the Friends, or the niece of someone on the Board of Selectmen. Turned out she wasn’t even a resident. She said she needed to learn enough to be employable, but she’s getting bogged down in minutiae while missing the big picture. I wonder if she can use a telephone or drive a car without being paralyzed by the realization that she can’t explain how they work?

  6. Liz Says:

    Ha – this reminds me of the old Mad magazine “Snappy answers to stupid questions” thing. I wonder if Mad is still around…

    I do have to take issue with one of your comments though.

    As a reasonably polite person, I don’t just walk up to people and demand answers or information; rather, I ask “Excuse me, may I ask you a question?” to give them the opportunity to say “I’m sorry, I’m working with someone else” or “In just a minute please – I’m finishing something important.”

    Quite frequently, however, my polite entreaty is met with “You mean ask me TWO questions?” or “Sure! Question answered – have a good one!” after which the person laughs or beams proudly as though I haven’t heard this a dozen times before and only their rapier wit could conceive of such a witty retort.

    I still ask, though, to be polite and because almost as frequently someone does reply that they are unable to help me but that they will in a moment, and I hope occasionally they’re glad that I didn’t just start prattling on with my question, forcing them to either interrupt me or suffer through my concentration-breaking diatribe.

    With so many people these days being brazen and rude (points to museum pass request), I wish people would have more patience for those of us who try to be considerate of them.

  7. Cari Says:

    Thanks Brian!! My worst one of late: “What’s the difference in taste between Hi-C Lemonade and Kool-Aid Lemonade?” I wanted to say “Just taste it and see which one you like better!”

  8. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Dan: I actually have that image bookmarked to use in a future post – it is perfect.

    @Patrick & @Cari: it’s funny that often it seems patrons just want you to decide for them – they don’t care what they end up with, they just don’t want to make the choice.

    @laura: that is most definitely the thing that will always set me off.

    @sharon: I don’t know that I’d call that a waste of time. I’m sure it was helpful and the patron is better off for it – it becomes more difficult to justify when the patron comes back for months on end asking the exact same questions.

    @Liz: I know, in general this doesn’t bother me. But when your whole job is to answer questions, I just wish people knew they didn’t think they needed permission or that they were bothering me – it’s why I’m there!

  9. Liz Says:

    @Brian – Good point; maybe “Excuse me, do you have a moment?” would be better phrasing.