or, The Hitchhikerโ€™s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 6/19/11

   June 25th, 2011

Universal Male-Female bathroom signThis question made me laugh - especially coming so close to Oxford University Press' recent release of librarian statistics.

I was sitting at the desk with a female coworker, talking about a request a patron had just made. During our discussion, a female patrons begins to approach the desk, and we both turn to greet her.

The patron is slowly walking up to the desk directly between both of us, and keeps swiveling her head back and forth, as if deciding which of us she is going to address with her question. This always prompts me to say, "Hi, can I help you?" immediately, because delay and indecision is another of my pet peeves.

As soon as I say this, the patron moves closer to my female colleague, but turns her head towards me and says,

Hello. I don't mean any offense, I'm just more comfortable asking a woman my question.

Oh, okay, one of those questions - that's no problem at all. This is actually one of the advantages of having both male and female reference staff - sometimes, people are more comfortable asking medical or really personal questions to someone of their same gender. It happens, and that's fine.

I say something like, "no problem," and turn away from them in my chair to go back to work on the computer. But being only four feet away, I can still overhear the patron's question:

Can you help me find a good cherry cheesecake recipe?

Sigh. Do you see the kind of discrimination all 41 miles of us male librarians put up with in this woman's world? Its true I'm not a great cook, but could have helped her with that. But instead, I'll just go back to my raw meat and football. Oh, and tell the geisha to bring me more whiskey and cigars.

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10 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 6/19/11”

  1. Anon Says:

    At my library there is frequently a choice of two librarians who are different ages, genders, and races. It’s actually fascinating to me which person the patron will ask their question to.

    I definitely get skipped over sometimes because I am young, despite the fact that I am a LOT better at reference than half of my coworkers.

    Sometimes they get it very, very wrong – like asking the oldest person on staff about a hip hop artist with a difficult to spell name. Or asking me about government documents (which I’ve been asked for about five times in four years, so I don’t really know very much about them).

    Unfortunately, all the patrons have figured out I’m the only staff member who is good at computers, so all the tech questions come to me. Joy.

  2. Joanne Pilkington Says:

    It made me laugh when you described how she approached the counter!

    We get borrowers who stand at the only part of the desk where no library assistants are, who jump the cue by collaring you as you are walking away from the desk in the middle of helping someone else and who stand at the counter staring into the middle space until you say, “Hello,” first.

    Ah, people are funny! ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. Liz Says:

    Ha – this may be sexist in a completely different way than you think, or at least having nothing to do with your cooking or baking skills.

    Recently driving a friend home from dinner, she asked if I minded stopping at the grocery store on the way to save her a trip in the morning. I said I didn’t mind at all as I needed a few things myself.

    We both had less than 20 items or so, and when finished, I got in what looked to be the fastest checkout line. My friend, also female, rather than getting in right behind me, scanned the open aisles and chose one in the middle with a longer line. I was perplexed, but didn’t say anything.

    The gentleman checked me out quickly and I waited for my friend to get through her line hoping my frozen veggies would stay frozen. When she finally checked out and we walked to the car, I asked her why she didn’t just get in line with me. Her response?

    “Your line had a guy at the checkout. There was only one with a woman.”

    She must have noticed my puzzled look, because she said, “Don’t you feel like the guys are always, like, paying attention to what you buy and judging you on it?” I should point out that she was not buying feminine products but a fair amount of junk food. My very svelte friend ended by saying, “I didn’t want him to think I was a fatty.”

    So, you see, the female mind works in complex and myserious (and occasionally delirious) ways my friend. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Liz: That reminds me of checkout line advice I remember from The Simpsons: the line that moves the fastest is the one with single guys in it, because we always pay with cash and never slow things down with small talk.

  5. Marcie Says:

    Sometimes I do look for a female cashier at the store depending on what items I have in my basket, but if there aren’t any or if their lines are longer, then I suck it up and go the guy cashier. I figure he’s going to have to learn about feminine products at some point in his life. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    To make this about libraries, I did have one male (Middle Eastern) patron who wouldn’t tell me what he wanted BECAUSE I’m female. I don’t think my (male) boss was on the desk at the time so this guy didn’t have any choice but to ask me. If I remember right it was something innocuous, like the cookbooks, but he wouldn’t be any more specific than that (and we had a whole aisle of cookbooks or whatever it was – I could have gotten him to a more particular shelf). I hope this guy got over his reluctance to deal with women, because in America he’s going to have to interact with us quite often.

  6. Liz Says:

    @Brian: So true – Apu is wise beyond his years ๐Ÿ˜‰ And so right about warehouse stores – no fun! And no Squishees!

  7. Erin Apostolos Says:

    Hi Brian,

    I used to work at a bakery. All the bakers were male. I had difficult tasks assigned to me such as icing danishes and slicing bagels. I also waited on the customers and had to tie up the boxes with string, which I failed at miserably. An older lady there always gave me the eye because I couldn’t break the string with my bare hands and had to use scissors. They let me go after Easter. I am sure it was due to my string short-comings.

    As for male cashiers: in my experience they are always faster. I always pick them if possible; feminine products in the carriage and all. They’re usually not chatty and just want to get the business over with.


  8. Cari Says:

    Gender stuff aside, isn’t that head swiveling thing the worst! It makes me wish we only had one person at the desk.

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Erin: your comment prompted me to realize that, when I go shopping (at Hannaford supermarket), I rarely see the same cashier twice. I imagine picking and choosing at the grocery store or other retail store is easier, when all the cashiers are anonymous stereotypes. But at the library, patrons see the same staff over and over, and might go to one or the other because of a friendship, or one always has good recommendations, or one is more lenient with fines. I’d be curious to stand in front of the circ desk and ask patrons why they chose one staff person over another, but I don’t think that would go over too well.

  10. Melissa Says:

    I used to manage a fabric store and had two male employees who were talented at sewing. One had made bridal gowns and did costuming for the local civic theater. While I craft, I hate to sew. Most customers would assume to not ask the guy working the cutting table, and I was always sending pattern questions his way.