It happened again last night. I let it slip that a patron had asked a question about Amtrak routes and fares to California, or maybe it was the question about the conversion from analog to digital TV broadcasts to take place next year or the patron who wanted a list of board certified gastroenterologists. Whatever it was I mentioned researching, it surprised people that reference librarians would look up that sort of information. I don't know if it's surprising that people ask or surprising that we answer, but we will look up almost anything patrons ask. The limits are something like this: we won't do anything illegal or unethical. We have a sort of unexpressed, non-specific time limit; if we don't have time, we teach the patron how to do the research or refer him to a resource that will be able to help him further. If we can't find the answer, we refer questions to a larger library, like Newark, and get back to the patron. If that fails to answer the question, again we give the patron a list of possible options to pursue. We don't practice medicine, law or give financial tax-advice, but we do provide resources, forms, books, best websites and teach the patron how to do their own research in those areas. On any given day, we print out maps and directions for people who are lost, spotted the library and wandered in, frustrated by the confusing New Jersey roads and bad signage (jughandles and the Jersey slide inspire fear and loathing in non-New Jerseyans, probably New Jersey drivers too.) We look up what people on TV said or read or cooked or did. We sympathize about the confusion about Bush's Economic Stimulus program and hand them print outs from the irs.gov website that are only marginally helpful. Ditto on the infamous and mysterious Homestead Rebate we have in NJ. We find books on diseases for the sixth grade one-assigned-disease-per-student assignment. Turns out we were a little short in the books on acne. Who knew? Got to order some more in that category. We found the names and phone numbers of: Portuguese newspapers in NJ, CEO's of companies patrons wanted to write a complaint to (that and company 800 numbers are pretty commonly recurring questions.) And of course, we try to find good books to read in whatever genre a patron likes and help patrons on the internet computers and library catalog.
Why aren't these people just googling for the answers? There are two reasons I can think of: one, some people are not computer literate; two, we have access to databases and ways of searching that turn up better answers faster, or at least we hope so.