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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/11/15

   January 17th, 2015

surgerysignI know this is going to make me sound petty, but this happened on a bad day and it made me just shake my head. A patron came up to the desk and said,

I'm looking for a book that lists all the medical tests on one page. I got it from here before, or maybe the Lowell Library, but I don't remember what it was or what it looked like. But it listed all the medical tests on one page so you could read about them, and if you just type in "medical tests" I'm sure it'll come up. Do you know what book I'm talking about? But it might be at the Lowell Library.

I didn't know the book, and for whatever reason I thought a better strategy would be to search on "medical procedure" so I did that. And sure enough, the very promising The Gale encyclopedia of surgery and medical tests : a guide for patients and caregivers came up (which does indeed also come up when searching for medical tests).

I got the call number and took the patron over to the shelf, and when we saw it was a four-volume set, he immediate said it wasn't the right book.

Which surprised me since he said he couldn't remember what it looked like, and only really remembered the inside of the book - so to disqualify this one without even looking at the inside made me think the chance of satisfying this patron was very low.

We talked a bit more in the stacks, and I learned he was actually looking for information on a specific procedure he was considering. I suggested one of the four volumes might help with that anyway, even if it wasn't the book he remembered. Reluctantly, he was willing to flip through it while I went back to the desk to keep searching.

I tried a couple different searches and found a few books that might possibly have information on medical tests, and I was making a list of call numbers to check before walking back into the stacks. However, before I even got up from the desk, the patron walk by me on his way upstairs to leave. He was carrying one of the Gale volumes, and said without breaking stride,

This has what I'm looking for.

So, that's great. I'm happy he found something helpful - at least I hope it's helpful - but I can't help being a little frustrated when patrons make helping them more difficult that it should be.

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6 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 1/11/15”

  1. Jill Says:

    I feel you… something similar happened to me this week. A woman was looking for a particular newspaper article from a specific local paper about four years ago. She didn’t want to search the paper’s archives online… she wanted me to do it. I couldn’t find it. I asked if it could have been a different paper. Nope, it was definitely that one. She left the desk and I kept searching. Finally, I just did a Google search and found the article. Of course, it was from the other paper I had suggested. When I showed it to her, she doesn’t bat an eye and says “Oh, I guess I was wrong.” Sigh. It can really be hard to stay patient.

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Yes, that does sound familiar. Sigh.

    And slightly off-topic, I’m always very interested in the language people use, and what it might mean. Like, is saying “I guess I was wrong” instead of “I guess you were right” tie into the initial unwavering attachment to the wrong newspaper? I’ve certainly been convinced I’ve seen something somewhere only to find out it was somewhere else entirely, which is definitely not uncommon in libraries, and it’s fascinating to see people react differently to that same situation.

  3. Matthew Says:

    Always glad to be reminded why I enjoy working in the academic realm. Glad you are good at it, though. In these situations, it’s always frustrating to learn that people don’t know what they don’t know and they don’t know how to articulate that. Plus they’re afraid of sounding extra stupid. Anyway, sounds like both you and Jill are awesome! So there’s that!

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Matthew: you must be lucky – I worked in an academic library for the couple years I was in library school, and that desk was not immune to this sort of patron. Sometimes worse, when an expert in an academic field considered it my job to find the evidence to prove them right – because after all, they were the expert. Every type of library has its quirks – and we’re all awesome!

  5. Jill Says:

    @Brian: that’s an interesting point that I really hadn’t considered. Perhaps saying “I was wrong” instead of “you were right” is a way for them to keep the ball in their court. I have found that people get defensive if they think I’ve “found them out” to be incorrect so I deliberately try not to point out their mistakes or confusion. Of course, I’m not trying to prove them wrong but I do wonder if that’s what they think. This may be one reason why people don’t like approaching the reference desk at all. @Matthew: Thanks! Working reference means there are really positive, rewarding days… and then there are the frustrating ones!

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jill: that’s so funny, I totally do the same thing with not using words that accuse people of making mistakes. Like, when a webpage won’t load and they ask me for help, I see the web address is something like http://www.yaxoo.com or something, I always say, “oh, it looks like there is a typo in the URL,” instead of, “oh, it looks like you typed the URL wrong.” It’s a little thing, but it seems like it puts me and the patron on the same side, solving a problem, rather than them being on their own.

    But by the same token, I try not to blame “the system” either – if a book isn’t coming up in the catalog, I don’t just say, “oh, it’s not you, this system is terrible” or something like that. It’s definitely a fine line to not assign blame anywhere and still correct whatever the mistake is.