A recent reference interaction taught me a valuable lesson last week. That’s the wonder of working in a library: While there are inevitably the same interactions, there is always something new to challenge you. Mixing the familiarity and comfort of answering the same questions with the adrenaline rush of magically discovering the answer to an impossible question gives me perfect job satisfaction. Here is an example of an “impossible” reference interview:
When I answered the phone at the desk, a panicked voice explained that she had been surfing various government websites hunting for a very precise bit of information to no avail. Starting at 9 a.m. that morning, she had been trying to find “the percentage of rural population in each county of West Virginia.” She began with Census.gov, futilely browsing it for two hours before giving up and searching on Google, where she found four different definitions of “rural” and no hard population numbers. By 6 p.m. she was thoroughly frustrated but still desperate to get a crucial piece of evidence for her work.
When she first asked me to help her, I was sure I couldn’t find it. While I had learned to use Census.gov earlier, the site had been redesigned, and it wasn’t what I would call user-friendly. My first hunch was just to say no. And then I pushed past the doubt and starting looking through Census.gov, starting with what I thought would be the easiest question: The definition of rural vs. urban. I shared the page I discovered with her and then we read it together. (None of the four websites she had found through Google had the federal definition correct).
Then I pointed out that a linked page held other links to Excel spreadsheets from the 2010 census that referenced rural and urban populations. Elated, she opened the spreadsheet and I heard her groan. I loaded a copy myself and realized it was massive and hard to decipher. I stayed on the line and talked her through pinpointing the relevant columns and rows and how to hide the irrelevant rows so she could print it out and have a two-page hard copy (instead of dozens of useless pages) to better understand the numbers.
From the panic and despair to the final excitement of finding the answer, I couldn’t help grinning like an idiot as she thanked me and we said our goodbyes.
The experience was awesome! The only way I can describe it is as “experiencing a reference high.” She was so happy she was gushing over the phone and I couldn’t help smiling and thanking her for challenging me. For the rest of the day, I would think about the feeling of helping her and start grinning like a fool again. What was my lesson? Doubt can remind you of your limitations, but it should never stop you from trying your best.