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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/21/14

   September 27th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Grammar Police Badge - To Serve and CorrectThis week's question is a two-fold cautionary tale: first, it illustrates the importance of annunciation enunciation, and second the importance of the reference interview. What I thought I heard initially was certainly not what this patron actually wanted.

A male patron calls the desk and says,

One of my wives' books is overdue - can you renew it for her?

Of course, what he meant was "One of my wife's books..." - it loses a little in the translation to typing it out, but it was pretty clear over the phone. Clearly wrong, though, and it made me laugh. It also reminded me of the joke about the importance of the Oxford comma.

But, item renewed, so everyone is happy (in a very non-polygamous sort of way).

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/25/07

   December 1st, 2007 Brian Herzog

Webster's New World Dictionary coverThe phone rings...

Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Patron: This is a bizarre question, but I don't have a dictionary, so you can't tell me what "utensil" means, can you?

I thought it an odd mix of optimism and pessimism for a patron to call the library for help, but phrase his question in the negative. Regardless, I reached for our ready-reference copy of Webster's New World Dictionary (updated 1994 edition), and read him the definition:

u|ten•sil n. 1 any implement or container ordinarily used as in a kitchen   2 an implement or tool, as for use in farming, etc. --SYN implement

That seemed straightforward. However, I then had a ten minute conversation with the patron about whether the phrase "a writing utensil" was proper English. He was writing something and wanted to use it, but wasn't sure if it was okay.

I generally do not interpret information for patrons, and rarely give my opinion on something, but I felt pretty safe in this case telling him that "a writing utensil" was okay. We each had heard the phrase before, and one meaning given was "an implement or tool."

I don't think I've ever dissected a definition so finely before, but we agreed (at his insistence) that the "etc." that came after the mention of "as for use in farming" meant that "farming" was just one example of how a "tool or implement" might be used, and that a pencil is therefore a legitimate "tool or implement" as for use in writing (etc.).

Perhaps I play more fast and loose with my grammar than does this patron, but I wouldn't have given this "a writing utensil" usage a second thought - even after looking it up. And not that I'm making fun of him, but it amuses me how much thought and effort people put into certain things.

But without a doubt, that is leaps and bounds better than being careless or lazy. This is why I enjoy helping patrons like this, despite some of my coworkers marveling at my patience with such questions.

*This image is coming from Amazon, but "abused" (lightly) using the great guidelines found here

grammar, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question

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Reference Desk Semantics

   July 19th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Grammar Police Badge - To Serve and CorrectNot that I ever really paid attention before, but for as long as I can remember, my standard Reference Desk greeting has been something like "Hi, can I help you?" Recently, one of my co-workers challenged me on this.

He said that me asking "can I help you" is not grammatically correct. Instead, I should be asking, "may I help you?"

I have never excelled at grammar, but I do enjoy semantic arguments. So, even though I didn't have a concrete reason for saying "can," I tried to see if I could spontaneously generate a legitimate justification that would appease even the grammar police. Here's what I came up with:

To me, when you ask a question starting with "may," it's is kind of like asking permission. "May I help you?" Yes, you may. But when people come to the Reference Desk (or call in), the action of them approaching me implies that permission to help them is granted - if they didn't want my help, they wouldn't ask for it.

So, with the permissions out of the way, the question truly does become "can I help you?" I might be able to, or I might not. It all depends on their question, their goal, and the resources available to us.

Which I felt justified my asking "can I help you?" But my coworker doesn't like to lose arguments, so while he accepted my theory, he pointed out that it would be more correct for me to ask, "how can I help you?" Since asking if I can help isn't what the patron wants to know, asking them how I can help gets to more to the point more quickly.

But since far too much thought has already gone into something as insignificant as this, I agreed with him and we both moved on; him still asking "may I help you?" and me still asking "can I help you?" Ah, intellectual progress.

can I help you, grammar, grammar police, libraries, library, may i help you, public libraries, public library, semantics, to serve and correct

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