12.24.2011

things i heard at the library: an occasional series

The most challenging part of being a library page has been not answering people's questions. Pages are in the stacks, shelving books, so naturally people are going to ask us questions. Plus people always ask me for directions and information, it's a lifelong MO. (That's a story for another post.) But we're not supposed to answer questions.

My natural inclination is to be helpful, but I'm not qualified to give good answers. Other library staff are way more qualified, plus if pages answered questions all the time, they'd never get their work done. So the only questions I'm supposed to answer are simple directionals, such as, "Where do I go to check out books?"

On the other hand, we're not supposed to just say, "I'm sorry, I don't know" or point people towards the desk. I'm familiar with this concept from my Reference course, and I like it. Many people find it difficult to ask for help. They're embarrassed, they're shy, they feel stupid. If they've worked up whatever it takes to ask you, and if you seem to be passing them off, they may not ask again. So instead of pointing, we're supposed to bring them over to the desk and introduce the question for them. (Librarians, in turn, are not supposed to point; they're supposed to get up and walk the patron to the proper section and help them find the book. This can't always happen, for many reasons, but it's the ideal.)

So this not-answering and desk-walking thing took some getting used to. But once I got my wording down - and when I saw how effective it is - it was fine. More than fine, it felt really good. It goes like this.

(A parent) "Excuse me, could you tell me where books for very young children are?"

"The folks at the desk will be happy to show you. Let's go over to the desk and ask."

I guide them over to the desk and say, "Excuse me, Jason, this woman would like to know where books for young children are."

Woman thanks me, Jason thanks me, Jason gets up to give the woman a tour of the different areas for different age groups.

Or it might go like this.

(A child.) "Where are the books on rocks and minerals?"

I took this to be directional, so I walked the child down the stacks, and pointed to the Dewey sign. "These are the 540s, chemistry, atoms and molecules, rocks and minerals."

He said, "Yeah, I know that, but I'm looking for this one book, I can't find it."

"OK, let's ask at the desk. They can see if it's in the library, or if it's out, or what." We walk over to the desk together, and I say, "Excuse me, Ann, this young man is looking for a specific book. Could you help him find it?"

Excuse me, do you have the fifth Harry Potter book?

Now, this wasn't strictly directional, but there was only one person on the desk, and she was very busy. I said, "Let's go over to the Harry Potter books and see if it's there. What's the name of the author?"

I asked this because I knew he would know. He answered instantly, "JKRowling."

"Great, so we go to the fiction section"... we walk over... "then over to the R's for Rowling, and let's look. Do you see it here?"

"No, I read all these."

"OK, so let's go to the desk and see if they can find it. It might be upstairs with the grownup books, or maybe we can get it from a different branch..."

* * * *

I'm thinking of a new occasional series: "things i heard at the library". Right now everything I hear is new and fun. Maybe after a few months it will all be routine and this series will fall apart. But for now...

(Mom, whispering) Go ahead, ask her. Go on, go on, it's ok, ask her.

(Girl, barely audible) Excuse me, Miss, do you know where mumblemumblemumble is?

I waited at the desk with her for a full five minutes until a librarian was free. Her mother thanked me profusely.

* * * *

(Boy, looking intently at the Series section, talking to himself.) Maybe I'll start a new series...

The intensity of his gaze, his seriousness of purpose, the importance of the decision - I had to smile to myself, as I could so relate.

* * * *

These are girls books! Let's get out of here!

* * * *

Gay guys are all so cute.

Shut up, you'll get us kicked out of the library!


(Tweens and teens sometimes hang out in the children's department. The library staff is not always very tolerant of them.)

* * * *

Persistent whining. . . whining . . . giving way to hysterical wailing and screaming

Child with finger caught in paper bin of printer/photocopier. Page to the rescue.

10 comments:

allan said...

Child with finger caught in paper bin of printer/photocopier.

You have to tell more than that!

laura k said...

Child with finger caught in paper bin of printer/photocopier.

You have to tell more than that!


A very small person was standing by the photocopier/printer. I heard little whimpers - uhh, uhh, uhh - repeated over and over. I kept looking over at him, but he seemed to be just standing there.

His mom was reading to one of his siblings, not far away.

Uhh, uhh, uhhh. Uhh, uhh, uhhh.

Then I looked over again, and realized he was still standing in the exact same position. And it occured to me, finally, that he couldn't move.

I went over there, and saw his finger was caught. Then he started to panic. The uhh, uhhh, uhhh became UHHHH!!!!!!. I put my arm around him and said, Ok, ok, ok, don't panic, here we go, I'll get your finger out... released the finger at the same time Mom arrived, very grateful.

When he saw Mom, he completely lost it, turning bright red, collapsing into her shirt, WAILING at the top of his lungs.

laura k said...

His finger was a tiny bit red. Nothing worse than that. It was hard to keep from laughing - for mom, too.

johngoldfine said...

Many people find it difficult to ask for help. They're embarrassed, they're shy, they feel stupid.

I got into this ridiculous situation in 4th Grade--first day of school, I misunderstood Miss Lamb's instructions and got released from class for an early bus--but the late bus was actually mine.

I was so shy I thought I'd be in trouble if I went back to class (I really had no idea about the difference between an honest mistake and mischief), and I had 45minutes to kill before my bus, so, naturally, I found myself in the library.

The library was divided in half: to the left, books for grades 1-4; to the right, books for grades 5-8. Again I was far too shy and obedient to go where I really wanted--to the right.

I read until it was time for my bus and left. Unfortunately, I was now locked into leaving class early--every day that went by, it became more and more impossible to admit my original mistake to Miss Lamb. I was a Total Outlaw!

So, every day I hid out in the library. After about a month, the librarian called me up to her desk and asked me my name, grade, and teacher. She sent me back to my books and picked up her phone.

A minute later, she called me back and had me read aloud to her from one of the orange-bound Childhood of Early Americans series I adored, but that were reserved for grades 5-8. She stopped me after a minute and said Miss Lamb now wanted me to use the Grades 5-8 section. I could find books wherever I liked.

The nicest teacher I ever had--Miss Lamb gave me 45 minutes free run in the library every day for a year and never once mentioned the early/late bus thing, which would have sent me into a tailspin of embarrassment and shame.

DavidHeap said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DavidHeap said...

Some of my best childhod hours and days were spent at our local (Charles R. Sanderson) branch of the Toronto Public Library. The librarians there would watch for me with book recommendations; when my family noticed I wasn't at home, my sister would call the library and ask the librarians to send David home.

So it was very natural for me to volunteer at my elementary school library (the only boy in a group of girls), and later to work as an "Assistant Library Technician" through most of my undergrad years at UofT. I worked in a number of different places in the UofT Library system, but my favourite interaction with a library user (they were just transitioning at that time from calling them "readers" to calling them "patrons") was at the Reserves desk in Sigmund Samuel library:

Student: My prof says we have to read a chapter from the blue book for next class.
Me: Did your prof give you a title for the blue book?
Student: No.
Me: Course reserve readings are also filed by course -- what course is it for?
Student: I can't remember.
Me: Do you have a course outline or something with the course code on it?
Student: Not with me.
Me: Reserves are also filed by instructors' names--what is your prof's name?
Student: I can't remember. He has a beard though.
Me: (After briefly considering whether I should point out that profs' facial hair was not a cataloguing criterion, I decided that there were other people waiting to be helped): See that second shelf? There are some blue books there. Pick one and read a chapter, any chapter.
I figured, if she couldn't remember what she was studying or with who, it really didn't matter much which book she read.

impudent strumpet said...

Reading this, I realized that every time I've ever asked a librarian a question, they've walked me over to where I need to go and generally taken ownership of my problem like you describe. I didn't notice it at the time (the way one doesn't usually notice things that go smoothly), but seeing it explicitly described I really appreciate that they're consciously taking into account that some people find it difficult to ask questions! And this technique is especially useful when the question I think I'm asking isn't actually the problem that needs to be solved (e.g. "The printer doesn't work" is actually "My library card needs to be renewed.")

laura k said...

Very cool!

In my Reference course, one of our assignments was to ask a librarian a research question, then document and critique what transpired. I found the walking-together-to-the-shelf an excellent technique. It made me feel like my question was being taken seriously.

This was one of the only positive experiences anyone in the class had, unfortunately. And I spoke to two librarians - one (a young guy) was great, the other (an older woman) was terrible.

And this technique is especially useful when the question I think I'm asking isn't actually the problem that needs to be solved

This is (I am told) the heart of librarianship. People ask questions that don't reflect their real needs, and you're supposed to figure out what they want. I learned and practised techniques for this.

impudent strumpet said...

People ask questions that don't reflect their real needs, and you're supposed to figure out what they want.

That's intereting, because I've been discovering this from the other side of it, so I've been experimenting with asking people (in other contexts) for what I actually want when I'm able to articulate it, even if it's not a "normal" way to ask for things. I recently went to my hairdresser with "I don't want to have bangs because I had bangs when I was 12, but I want my hair to reflect the fact that I'm aware that bangs are currently in fashion." She totally made it happen, and I would never have known to ask for the actual style she did. And now I've wandered shamefully off topic.

laura k said...

Nah, not really, a natural veer.

"so I've been experimenting with asking people (in other contexts) for what I actually want when I'm able to articulate it, even if it's not a "normal" way to ask for things."

Is this part of Entitlement? It's good.

In the library case, it seems that people don't know how to ask for what they need. I don't know why, but their questions rarely reflect their real research need.