Trust Me, I’m A Touro Librarian

trust meDon’t worry.  I’m not trying to get all up in your business, but I’ll have to ask you some probing questions.  You may find it a bit off-putting.  You may even be a little offended.  Perhaps you haven’t done this with anyone before.  There is a first time for everything, and darling, your time is now.  I will take care of you.  You have no reason to fear.

What am I taking about? I’m referring to the cornerstone of reference work, the Reference Interview.   This is a process whereby the library user and the librarian have a tête-à-tête to discuss the patron’s information needs and that which the library has to offer.  Think of it like the kind of consultation you would have with your health care provider, only instead of negotiating medical services, you are negotiating information.

In my world, the reference interview goes something like this:

  • Student:  I need information.
  • Me:  Great! (Read this as enthusiasm, not surliness.) What kind of information?
  • Student:  Information about a topic.
  • Me:  Do you have a topic in mind?
  • Student:  Yes.

Interactions like this make me regret not having gone to dental school, because ascertaining what someone wants can be like pulling teeth.

  • Me:  Okay.  Are you doing an assignment for school?
  • Student:  Yes.
  • Me:  Good.  When is it due?
  • Student:  Tomorrow.
  • Me:  Less good, but not terrible.  We can check the catalog to see if we have physical books on your topic at this location.  If we don’t, there might be some eBooks on your topic, or articles from journals in our databases.   What are you writing about?
  • Student:  I have to write about a culture different from my own.
  • Me:  Is it for the “Immigrant Experience” class?  I have a good book for that.
  • Student:  No.  It’s for Physical Therapy.
  • Me:   Oh.  So are you interested in culture as it relates to health and wellness?
  • Student:  Yes. I’m thinking Asian culture.
  • Me:   How many pages do you have to write?
  • Student:  No more than three. With references.  Scholarly ones.
  • Me:  That’s not a lengthy paper.  You might be better off if you narrow your topic to one group.  For example, just cover Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean culture.
  • Student: Oh. You mean they’re different?

Does that story make me look like a wisenheimer?  Probably.  The following is a transcript of a reference interview I had with someone on Chat, our instant messaging reference service, concerning a subject unfamiliar to me.

  • Patron: I am writing a paper on Porter’s five forces and am having a hard time finding sources.
  • Librarian: Carol has joined the session.
  • Librarian: Hi. I hate to admit I have no idea what Porter’s 5 forces are.
  • Librarian: What field is this?
  • Patron: Business.

Had I not been told, I might have thought this was a topic straight out of physics, or even fantasy.  Let the forces be with you.  As the patron and I were not face-to-face, I could have looked for a definition of the term without his knowledge.  Since the reference interview is predicated on communication, I confessed my ignorance and asked.  Once supplied with the word business, I was able to recommend the appropriate databases.

Good communication is vital to a good reference interview, so librarians often ponder miscommunication in the library setting.    In the book “Conducting the reference interview: A how-to-do-it manual for librarians”, Ross and associates discuss numerous reference interview failures.  One type results from “acoustic failure” on the part of the librarian, which occurs when a librarian mishears a non-standard pronunciation of a word.  Examples include mistaking the request for “books about whales” with “books about wills”,   “addresses in Israel” with “hairdressers in Israel”, “jewelry” with “jury”,  or “Vietnam” with “venom”.

Another type results from user “reconstructions”, which happens when the library user fails to recall a specific term, and instead substitutes another similar sounding one.  An example of this is the time a student came to the library to ask for information about “fraud and psychotherapy”.   I asked if she was interested in psychology theorists, and when she indicated she was, I proceeded to direct her to Sigmund Freud. (Trust me, I may not give you what you ask for, but I will always give you what you need.)  Ross provides several examples of reconstructions. She describes that patrons doing research on their family lineage may ask to be directed to the gynecology section.  She further states that it is possible for someone to ask for information about Malcolm the Tenth rather than Malcolm X, or the names of individuals in the President’s closet, rather than his cabinet.  When I worked as a health information librarian, I recall being asked about medications used for treating blood clogs.  What about that classic by Sophocles, “Edifice Wrecks”?   The brain works in mysterious ways, particularly with regard to auditory processing. (Meaning mistakes are not your fault; blame your brain.)   I’d swear I, too, heard those lyrics  as “the girl with colitis goes by”.    Sometimes these substitutions can be rather comical.  Next time, I will discuss the mother of them all!

Continued in Funny, Ha, Ha!



Contributed by: Carol Schapiro, Librarian, Midtown Library

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