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

Reference Question of the Week – 11/29/09

   December 5th, 2009 Brian Herzog

stepstoolA little elderly woman walked up to the desk. She handed me a call number written on a piece of paper and said,

I need a librarian's assistance in getting this book.

This happens. Sometimes a book isn't on the shelf where it's supposed to be because it got misshelved, or a patron left it at a table, or it was recently returned and hasn't been put back on the shelf yet, or someone just took it without checking it out.

Being a librarian not only means you spend a lot of time creating organization, but you also quickly pick up skills necessary to maintain organization.

Finding missing books is almost like being a CSI - you have to reconstruct the situation, to figure out where it ended up. Does it seem like a page misshelved it, perhaps by transposing the dewey numbers? Could a patron have picked it up, forgot where they got it from, and then just slipped it back wherever was easiest? Did a staff person pull it for a book display and forget to mark it in the system? Could a child have pulled it off a low shelf, and then left it on an even lower one?

I bet every library has that one person who seems able to find any missing book. At my first library, that person taught me "The Book Search" song to find missing books:

One Shelf to the left,
One shelf to the right;
Higher shelf,
Lower shelf,
Fight fight fight!

I still sing this whenever I'm looking for a missing book, but the last line sometimes unnerves any patrons who happen to be in the stacks near me.

So anyway, I walked with this little elderly woman down to where the book should be, and I was thinking about the most likely scenario that caused this book to go missing. When we got to the right aisle, I checked the call number on the paper again to start looking, when she said,

I can see the book on the top shelf, I just can't reach it.

I'm happy she asked me for help, instead of trying to climb up on one of our step stools to get it herself. My name is Brian; I am a librarian, and I am tall.

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