If you ever work on a reference desk in a library, you will eventually learn that people do not always know exactly what they are looking for. Sometimes this presents itself as someone asking for a vague topic (such as test preparation) when they mean that they want a GRE workbook. Sometimes people are positive that the spelling they offer of an author’s name is correct when it is, in fact, not even close. That’s where the real challenge of reference work comes in: Trying to figure out what the patron is really asking. If you don’t know the real question, then you often have to turn the patron away empty-handed.
Not being able to answer a question is kind of the worst feeling I have on this job. But when you’re able to puzzle out the true question and you manage to put the resource into the patron’s hands, then you’re immediately on Cloud 9. Yesterday included just such a situation, and it left me feeling great the rest of the day.
An elderly couple approached the desk with a list of books that had been provided by circulation. The books, it turned out, were not quite what they were looking for and they were hoping I could help.
Their question: “Your catalog says you have a book called ‘Civil Rights.’ Can you tell me where it is?”
Now, understandably, the circulation desk searched for “civil rights” under title and when they found that we didn’t have a book called just “civil rights,” they entered the query under “keyword.” This produced a number of titles, but none of them were what the patron wanted. I explained this to the patron, and they prepared to turn away empty-handed.
But instead of letting them go, I asked them if they knew what the book was supposed to be about. I learned the patrons were trying to find a book about the Carter family and their fight for their civil rights. I brought this to Google and learned that the patrons actually meant to ask for a book titled “Silver Rights,” which we indeed had in our collection.
Reference isn’t just about answering the questions a patrons asks. Very often, it’s about answering the questions a patrons doesn’t think to ask. When you are able to figure out what a patron needs, then you are better equipped to help them.
When I finally managed to hand this couple the book they had spent 30 minutes searching for to no avail, I felt like a superhero. And the man reached out to shake my hand and thanked me for being so helpful. And it was a great day in the library.