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Things I learned while working as a reference librarian

Since November 2011 I have sat at a library’s reference desk. And though my job title has changed several times over the years, as of 5:31 p.m. (EST) on Tuesday, August 2, 2016 I will obtain an exciting new title: “former employee.”

Indeed, I have returned all of my books, trained somebody else in the minutia of my professional responsibilities, fixed the photocopier one last time, turned in my keys, and now I am leaving the library in order to pursue another degree. After nearly five years sitting at the reference desk I have more than my fair share of stories – funny, sad, horrible, maddening and bizarre – and I admit that it will be very strange to go into a library and approach the reference desk from the patron’s side instead of the librarian’s side. Being a reference librarian has been quite the experience, like any job it has had moments where I felt I was privileged to have such an interesting job and moments where I wanted to storm out of the reading room to never return. Here are some of the things that I learned…and some of the things you should know if you are contemplating becoming a reference librarian yourself…


The horrible truth…

Confession: at the outset I feel it is incumbent upon me to make a couple of things clear. First, I did not always want to be a librarian (cue the Lumberjack Song). True, I have always liked libraries, but I was not always drawn to the profession. When I went to library school, and over my years in the profession (which predated November 2011) I would regularly encounter people who would say something along the lines of “I always wanted to be a librarian.” Not me. I didn’t go to library school because I wanted to be a librarian, I went because of Ivan Illich. Really. In Illich’s book Tools for Conviviality he writes “at its best the library is the prototype of a convivial tool,” and this comment with its faintly utopian sheen is what propelled me towards the library world. Yes, it sounds silly and naïve to say it – but I initially wanted to become a librarian because I thought that there was something about libraries that modeled a better world. Granted, I probably should have paid more attention to the fact that the previous quote begins with the words “at its best” – but, hey, I was young. The second thing I should confess is that I had no intention of becoming a reference librarian. None. Zero. In library school I focused on two areas: archives and library technology (specifically digitization). I picked those library trajectories in part because I believed they would keep me away from having to sit at the reference desk and interact with patrons on a regular basis. And though my coursework, internships and early professional experience were decidedly non-reference focused…somehow I still wound up as a reference librarian at a special collection/academic library. And most surprising of all…I quite liked it. These are the things that I felt I needed to confess at the outset, my apologies if you were expecting something more salacious.


Some people really just need to talk

Of the various library stereotypes, few survive as stubbornly as the idea of the library as a quite place, and the librarian as an inveterate shusher. Which is somewhat odd to consider after spending years on the reference desk where my experience has been that people who come to the library love to talk. They want to talk. And if you give them an invitation to talk…they will. Graduate students always seem game to tell you about their research, undergrads are always ready to pepper you with a million questions to ensure that they’re “doing it right,” academics will never bore of recounting their entire CV to you in great detail, those who have stumbled in off the streets will be curious to hear about what sets this particular library apart from all of the other libraries, and genealogists will talk and talk and talk and talk about their family history even after you walk away from them and hide in a soundproof room. The stereotype of the librarian with a finger raised in a shushing motion seems rather odd to me, in all of my years on the reference desk I think that I had the pleasure of shushing people twice. However, not a day went by when I didn’t find myself nodding attentively as I listened to a patron expounding at length – in a respectfully quiet tone of voice – about their research, their interest, their family, or whatever was on their mind. Thus, I think that the key skill for reference librarians is ultimately being willing and able to listen. Really listen. Actively listen. To be able to hear what people are saying, to be able to fish out the questions people are really asking, and also being able to recognize that sometimes somebody just needs somebody to talk to – and sometimes that person is you (assuming you are staffing the desk). Can this be tedious? Certainly. Does this take you away from having the time to focus on your other responsibilities? Certainly. Do you need to maintain situational awareness so as to ensure that a line isn’t forming behind this person babbling on and on? Certainly. People expect the reference librarian to come back with an answer quickly, to get them the things they’re asking for quickly, but despite those bursts of speed a lot of the work that takes place on the reference desk consists of patiently listening. In a library school one can learn many skills to prepare for tackling a host of different tasks, one can learn to catalog, to code, to do preservation assessments, to process archival material, but if you’re going to be a reference librarian you need to know how to listen. True, it may not be as flashy a skill set as knowing how to code or fix the website – but I’d argue it is every bit as important.


Be prepared to fix things

Here are some things that I was asked to fix while I was working as a reference librarian:

  • Microfilm readers
  • The photocopier
  • Chairs
  • Compact shelving
  • The new photocopier
  • A VCR
  • High capacity staplers
  • A label maker
  • 3-Hole punchers
  • Digital microfilm readers
  • Three different types of printers
  • Shelves
  • Book carts
  • A doc scanner
  • A different department’s photocopier
  • Patron’s computers
  • The wi-fi
  • The new photocopier that replaced the old new photocopier
  • Torn reels of microfilm
  • Clocks

The moral of the story is that you should take the “other duties as specified” line in a job description seriously.


It isn’t about you

When library patrons – be they academics, folks who just wandered in, students, or genealogists – approach the reference desk they are not coming to talk to the librarian just for the sake of talking to them. Even after quite a while when a relationship has been formed between the librarian and the regular researchers, chances are still good that when they come to the reference desk they have a purpose other than just catching up. Yes, at the reference desk some chit-chat and basic pleasantries are exchanged between the librarian and the patorn, but when all is said and done when patrons come to the reference desk it is because they need help. Being a reference librarian is often a little bit like being a living extension of the library – most patrons treat the reference librarian as though they are simply a more advanced and responsive version of the online catalog. And though a patron will be thrilled if the librarian should happen to have a lot of pertinent information for them, they are generally interested in the information…not in the librarian (and there are unfortunate cases when patrons are too interested in the librarian). To staff the reference desk is to simultaneously be extremely visible as a representative of the library and to be fairly invisible as an actual human being (and a case could certainly be made that this is true of many people in many jobs in contemporary society). Even the friendly conversations a librarian has with patrons they have come to know quite well will wind up being shaded by the moment the conversation is terminated by the patron saying “I’m glad to hear you’re well, but can you come fix the microfilm machine, I think it’s stuck.” All told this can actually be rather nice, it is certainly a lesson in humility, but it can also be discomforting. There is a lot of frustration that gets directed at the reference desk, and not particularly much gratitude. Again, at the reference desk the librarian ceases to appear as a unique individual and just becomes the stand-in for everything that is right but more often everything that is wrong with the library. Granted, it is some consolation after a patron has yelled at the librarian about some inane policy (with which the librarian disagrees anyways) for the librarian to bear in mind that really – it isn’t about them. All of which is to say, the reference desk only has room for one massive ego – and the room for this is not on the side of the desk where the librarian sits.


Always be prepared for an ice age

Some libraries have rather strong HVAC systems. Such was certainly the case at the library where I was working and as a result the temperature in the reading room was often somewhere between arctic tundra and the Hoth. It was cold. Patrons complained. Other staff members complained. And I…I just put on a jacket and made myself a cup of hot tea as I continued assisting a yeti with its research.


Be polite, but don’t expect it in return

It’s never a good sign when you get to the point where you forget exactly how to respond when somebody says “thank you.” And yet it is a phrase that I seldom heard at the reference desk. Alas. To be frank: people are often jerks to the librarians (note – people are often jerks to other people in general), and lest I be accused of dishonesty I should acknowledge that there are some librarians who have been known to be rude to patrons. Yet there is generally nothing to be gained by meeting the patron’s rudeness in kind. Though it may well be that if you meet a patron’s negative behavior with a positive attitude you might be able to shame them into being slightly nicer (emphasis on “might”). This often won’t work out, and there are moments when a patron’s behavior becomes so problematic that you will have to make it clear to them that their behavior is unacceptable. In the beginning of my time at the reference desk I was rather amazed at the infrequency with which I heard people say “please” and “thank you” – but after awhile I became amazed when I actually heard those words. The patrons might not thank you for your work, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t thank them for coming in. Or to frame it slightly differently, people might not say “thank you” – but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thankful you’re there.


Reference librarian or protocol droid?

Here is the start of a sentence I heard often: “can you read/speak” followed by a language that in most cases I could not read or speak. Periodically I made the mistake of saying “some” at which point I was asked if I could translate an entire book on the fly. Many patrons seem to have the expectation that the reference librarian can read/speak every language and they will often grow disappointed when that proves to not be the case. All told, the best way to answer the “can you read/speak” question is to be able to direct the patron to the dictionaries and offer to help as best you can. Be warned: when a librarian says that they can read/speak “some” or “a little” of a particular language, the patron often thinks that the librarian has said “why yes, I can read/speak that language fluently.”


Defend the library

One of the most quizzical things that I have heard while working at the library was having a patron ask “why do we even need libraries anymore?” It odd because the patron had come to the reference desk in need of a fair amount of assistance – which in my opinion sort of demonstrated exactly why libraries are still needed. Obviously, I am biased in this regard, but I think that technological society has not made libraries and librarians superfluous – it has made them even more important. There is a huge amount of information available online – but many a person is not particularly savvy at sifting through it all, and a lot of that information is really just rubbish. Being able to find a lot of information is not the same as being able to find the right information, or correct information, or the information you need. In a society drowning in information, what is more important than people who are professionally trained in sifting through that information? But I digress. My point here is that if you’re working at the reference desk (or anywhere in the library) you need to be willing to defend the library. Yes, you need to be ready to defend it against ceiling leaks, insects, censorship, budget cuts, surveillance, and problematic patrons – but you also need to be able to reply to the people who say libraries don’t matter anymore. This is not to say that there is a single appropriate reply here – but if you’re going to be working in a library you should be able to answer this question. And if you’re going to be working as a reference librarian, part of your job consists of being a living demonstration to patrons of why they need libraries.


The beautiful brilliant catalog is confusing

Many libraries pride themselves on the excellence of their online catalogs – and often with quite good reason. And if you spend a large portion of every single work day using that catalog chances are that you have become quite familiar with all of the little tricks necessary to fully harness the awesomeness of the catalog. You know how to find everything! Huzzah! Yet it is always important to bear in mind that just because you have become a super-user of the catalog does not mean that the patrons will be. Many patrons will approach the library catalog with the skill set they have absorbed from Google – they’ll enter their search terms hit the “search” button and then expect to find exactly what they want on the first page of results. One of the most common and basic types of instruction that I found myself providing as a reference librarian was teaching people how to actually use the library catalog. Obviously, one cannot expect new users to be experts at searching the catalog, but many people are actually coming to the library catalog expecting it to work quite differently from the way it actually does. All of which is to say – reference work often consists of helping people work through fairly basic tasks. There is an important choice here – you can either just do it for the patron in which case you will have to keep doing it for them in the future, or you can teach them how it actually works. Most patrons will be quite eager to learn how to effectively use the catalog, but there is no shortage of library patrons who will be quite content to have you do all of that work for them. Be aware of which one you’re getting yourself into. But to make the point more clearly: reference librarians provide a lot of instruction – and in the end it turns out that a lot of people (including renowned scholars) need some basic technical and bibliographic instruction.


One of the job perks is seeing strange stuff…

Here are some of the more bizarre things that I found inside archival boxes while working as a reference librarian:

  • Rocks
  • Marbles
  • Baby shoes
  • A locked book which had “do not open” written on its cover (really)
  • A death mask
  • A brick
  • A dusty cigarette case that still had a cigarette inside it
  • A kite
  • A gavel
  • A piece of paper on which “it’s missing” had been written
  • Numerous boxes containing things the archivists swore were missing


It’s about building relationships

One of the nice things about staying in one library for a decent amount of time is that you get to see patrons come back. Granted, I could also say that one of the most annoying things about staying in one library for a decent amount of time is that many of these people who you get to see come back are the people you could have quite happily gone without seeing come back. Reference work takes place simultaneously on two different time scales – the first is a present focused time frame which is about meeting the needs of patrons in the here and now, while the second is about building long term relationships with patrons that are not just about this particular research visit but which are actually about the full scope of their research. Or, to put it another way, reference work isn’t really an interaction so much as it is a process. Much of the time it is treated as a sort of basic interaction (a patron wants to see R, the librarian gets them R, the patron looks at R, the patron returns R to the librarian), but more often it unfolds over a lengthy time span as helping a patron to answer one of their questions just leads to more questions which in turn just leads to more questions which…and so forth. One of the things that is most interesting about working as a reference librarian is having the opportunity to work with patrons on their research over this extended period of time. When a patron comes into the reading room and spies the reference librarian they’ll approach to get assistance with their informational needs, but over time patrons will come back to a particular reference librarian because they know that this librarian was helpful to them in the past. Indeed, many a patron will even pass this information along to other researchers they know – I regularly received e-mails or talked to people who said “[name redacted] said I should contact you.” Of course, this isn’t the flashiest work, and it also isn’t the most easily quantifiable work (for purposes of telling your manager “look what I’ve done” at your evaluation). But much of reference work, in my experience, consisted of building and maintaining relationships with patrons – yes, even with the difficult ones. To be completely honest, after enough time and work some of those difficult ones actually prove to be rather friendly. This can be an incredibly rewarding part of the job – but it is rewarding in a personal sense, not in a way for which you get a raise. Alas.


Be careful about saying “enjoy”

For quite a while I would say “enjoy” when I handed patrons the materials they had requested. And then one day I was in the midst of saying that and I realized that I was handing somebody several books relating to a rather a tragic period in history. And that is why I switched from saying “enjoy” to saying “here are the materials you requested.”  It isn’t quite as much fun as saying “enjoy” but it leads to fewer awkward situations.


The horrible truth…revisited  

I was initially drawn to librarianship by a fairly naïve view of libraries – I liked them because I thought they pre-figured something better. I appreciated the existence of an institution premised around shared ownership of information where anybody could come in – regardless of their income or educational level – and expect to be assisted. And, just to be honest, I also rather liked the idea of being surrounded by lots and lots of books. Doing the day to day work of a reference librarian I often lost sight of the things that had originally drawn me to librarianship. After all, being a reference librarian was my day job and like most day jobs it had several less than satisfactory features about which I shall not grumble more at this point. Yet, in the end, I am leaving my library job feeling as though Illich was right, “at its best the library” really “is the prototype of a convivial tool” – though it’s easy to lose track of this because when you work in a library you often see the library not “at its best.” Libraries today certainly face many problems – they are reeling from budget cuts, are adapting strangely to technological change, are not always as well organized as they appear, can often re-inscribe and reify hierarchy instead of breaking it down, and so on and so on. Nevertheless, saying that the library “is the prototype” does not mean that it actually is “a convivial tool” – it takes work, effort and a real commitment on the part of the library and its staff to push it in a better direction. One of the pleasures of working as a reference librarian has been getting to be in a position that pushes the library in that direction. As a reference librarian I found it incredibly satisfying to demystify the library for patrons, to act not as a barrier between the patron and what they wanted to see but as the guide that ensured that they found what they wanted to see. On one occasion a slightly confused patron approached the reference desk and asked me if I was “the finding aid.” I was amused by this initially – I think I retorted that I was the finding aid to the finding aids – but the more I’ve thought about it over time the more I’ve felt that there was a bit of truth to it insofar as my essential responsibilities largely boiled down to aiding patrons in finding stuff.

I do not want to suggest that being a reference librarian is wonderful. I think it requires a certain personality type, which – alas – I discovered I was, and it is not a role for everybody. I should also admit that my preferred venue for being a reference librarian remains on the street or in the community instead of within the austere walls of a traditional library – but there is something immensely rewarding (whatever the setting) of connecting people with the things they need.  True, I’ve been yelled at, sworn at, forced to defend library policies I disagree with, forced to defend governmental policies I disagree with (fair use guidelines can be strange to explain), inhaled oceans of dust, been attacked by a microfilm machine with a taste for human blood, argued pointlessly with my managers, almost been squashed by compact shelving, and have reached a point where hearing a patron say “thank you” surprises me. But even at the end of my time at the library I know that it’s ridiculous to focus on the negatives. For I’ve also shared in the flicker of excitement when I’ve helped researchers find exactly what they’re looking for, seen some genuinely awesome stuff that was part of archival collections, watched genealogists break into tears when I’ve found that piece of evidence they thought was missing, been thanked for my assistance in the acknowledgments of dissertations and books, had the opportunity to torture hundreds of patrons with my terrible library puns, and most importantly I’ve been able to work day after day to make the library a little bit more convivial.

I first got into librarianship because I thought there was something faintly utopian about libraries.

And though I am slightly embarrassed to admit it, after working at the reference desk for several years…I still believe that to be true.


[Quick note – for the record this does not mark the end of Librarianshipwreck. This site will continue with its steady stream of technological critique, questionable advice, book reviews, and pessimistic utopianism for the foreseeable future.]


About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

5 comments on “Things I learned while working as a reference librarian

  1. Mark Leier
    August 2, 2016

    So glad your site will continue! Love it a lot. All best wishes in your next phase!

  2. morganhowland
    August 16, 2016

    I agree with a lot of what you said about working at a desk at a library. Technically I am not a librarian, but run a Service Desk at a local community college where printing questions are the biggest annoyance of any given workday. I am frequently befuddled by certain kinds of librarianspeak.

    I think you forgot one horrible truth about working at a library: the seemingly endless amount of bureaucracy for what should be ordinary tasks. My God, the meetings about moving a table and some chairs from one side of the library to the other or the discussions or whether to renew a couple of magazine subscriptions would probably drive ordinary people crazy. I have seen one librarian leave a library meeting in tears after there was a decision to eliminate a single book display.

    Morgan Howland
    The Pop Song History Blog

  3. Pingback: You can do this (really) – advice for new graduate students | LibrarianShipwreck

  4. Pingback: How to prepare for qualifying exams (or, how to read too many books in seven months) | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on August 2, 2016 by in Librarianship, Libraries and tagged , , , , .

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