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

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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7 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 10/24/10”

  1. Chris Says:

    I am frequently astounded by the queries you post as RQotW. I had no idea that people ask questions of their librarian unrelated to finding a book or doing research. I would never even think to go to a reference desk to ask for help when looking for a job or many of the other things you’ve posted. I don’t know if that’s due to the expanding role of libraries or if I’m just not using the resources available to me to their fullest extent…

  2. Liam Hegarty Says:

    Chris’s comment has spurred me to comment.

    We may count the above questions as just one tick on a tally sheet, but we should also think about the cost to society should the patron go elsewhere for the answer, particularly when it comes to job searches.

    Twice I have spent a couple minutes showing a patron how to attach their resume to their email and then have that patron come back and thank me for helping them get the job. If the library was not here, how much would a government program teaching that one simple skill cost? How many other people did not come back to thank me? How many other people eventually got a job using that skill, but did not know where they got it from?

    This an example of what I like to call a library’s “soft power.” It is not quantifiable, like circulation numbers or program head counts, but it is very real. Just something to think about in times of budgetary slashing.

    Also, the governmental bodies are transferring distribution costs to libraries without funding them. Think of the mess come tax season since the IRS is no longer mailing out forms. Even though we can order them for free, keeping track of what we need and placing orders is a time consuming (and therefore expensive) proposition.

    As an aside, when New York stopped sending forms to people, they sent everyone a postcard telling them they could get their forms from the library, but they didn’t tell the libraries. Surprise!

    Rant concluded

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Chris: both – and it’s also why having a CPS background is increasingly helpful (but I have to make due with just MKT).

    @Liam: that happens to me too – people I don’t even remember helping come back to gratuitously thank me. I like your idea of “soft power” – the strength of libraries is that we provide these services for “free” and do it friendly and helpful way, and people remember it (they also remember bad experiences, which is why customer service is so important).

    Libraries work hard to do the best we can with what we’ve got, but what we need to do a better job of is communicating this struggle to patrons (and hopefully not by cutting services).

  4. Links of interest : November 5th, 2010 « A Modern Hypatia Says:

    […] asked: Brian Herzog has been writing about his experience at the NELA 2010 conference, and has a great post about changes in reference questions in public library settings, based on Pingsheng Chen from the Worcester (MA) Public Library presentation.  Summary: libraries […]

  5. L Towery Says:

    I am very concerned about supporting patron in downloading or RIPing music to their portable devices. I do not want to assist patrons who may be violating copyright. Alternatively, we do not support patrons if they choose to engage in online commerce, especially if something with their transaction goes wrong. I will tell them how to plug the device in to the USB port, but I am not comfortable taking it much farther. I know how, but I don’t think it is appropriate unless the library has actually purchased the content.

  6. Cari Says:

    I can answer these questions, but some of my co-workers cannot… so you raise a valid point. I posted before about our Computer Coach sessions, which work to a degree, but I also have had patrons say, “why are you the only one who can answer this question?”

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @L: I agree – the catch is that there is always a legal reason someone might be using those same techniques. I teach people how to burn CDs so they can send pictures to friends (using the CD burners in library computers), and once they learn that, it’s just a short hop to illegally burning music. The way I see it, libraries provide access to information – it’s up to the patron do decide how they’re going to use that information.

    @Cari: I get that a lot, too. It’s tough – it’s nice to specialize, so there will always be someone who can help with the really tough question, but it’d also be nice if everyone could help with those questions. I guess, at least, it’s a goal to slowly build towards.