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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/7

   January 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Arabic Phrase Book CoverThe "reference" part of this question would have been fairly straightforward, had the patron been able to speak English...

I was sitting at the reference desk with one of my library's assistant directors (Chris, who often works with me at the desk). A circulation desk staffer came to the desk, disconcerted, and with a patron in tow.

She said that this patron had walked in the front door and come to the circ desk, and began speaking to them in Spanish. No matter what they said, he would not speak English. She said they didn't know what he wanted or what to do with him, and that frankly, he was making them nervous. However, knowing that Chris spoke some Spanish (and some French, and some Portuguese - it's nice having someone on staff with a Masters in Linguistics from Harvard), she hoped he could figure out what he wanted.

Chris addressed the patron in Spanish, and the patron spoke back - but not in Spanish. It didn't even sound close. Neither Chris nor I could identify the language, but our best guess (based on its sound and the patron's appearance) was that he was speaking Arabic.

Chris immediately went into the 400s to find an Arabic-English dictionary. Having studied languages, Chris thought he'd be able to find out how he could help him.

But, after a few attempts, Chris realized that the differences between English and Arabic were just to great to overcome in a couple minutes. So, he thought of something else - he called Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, thinking that someone there might be able to translate for him.

As luck would have it, the Center's secretary answered the phone, and she herself was able (and willing) to serve as a translator. Chris gave the patron the phone, and after his initial puzzled look, he proceeded to speak with her for a good ten minutes. When Chris got back on the phone, the secretary told him that the patron recently moved here from Egypt, worked in our town 9-5pm M-F, and was interested in learning English.

Well, now at least Chris knew how to help him. Chris managed to explain that we offer an English Conversation Circle for people learning English - but those meetings conflicted with his work schedule.

Then, Chris started looking for other Arabic-language resources in our area. After a bit of searching our Community Information Database and the internet in general, he found the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell. Chris contacted them and explained the situation, and thought it was a place the patron could at least start with to find what he was looking for.

Now, this is a great story, but also one of those perfect-timing reference questions. If we didn't have someone with Chris' linguistics background on staff, this patron may have left empty-handed and lost. I am always happy when I'm able to find the information someone needs, but it feels so much better (for whatever reason) when the help you provide comes from your own personal interests or history, rather than just your searching skills. It gives you a chance to really connect with the patron as a person, rather than just answering a question.

It also shows that, regardless of what kind of pre-library background someone has, the specialized interests of the staff (be it Irish history, scrapbooking, geocaching, dogs, etc.) can be just as valuable as any coursework or on-the-job training.

arabic, english, languages, libaries, library, reference question

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