Monday, December 19, 2016

End of Year Clean Up: What Questions Have We Answered?

Do you love watching the TV quiz show Jeopardy? Do you yell the answers out when Alex Trebek asks questions? If so, you may be a reference librarian wannabe. At library reference desks around the world, reference librarians answer questions for a living. Many questions are about how to use the library, how to research a topic, what book to read, but other questions can be, well, anything at all. And all reference librarians savor the really difficult and really weird questions. We keep a file of questions in case the question, or questioner, pops up again. We take questions in person, by phone, by email and by text message. At the end of the year, we go through our file of saved questions and throw most of them out. Here are some gems, edited to preserve the privacy of the questioner. Enjoy; these reference question sheets are headed for the trash.

Q:How do I file in small claims court in NJ?
A: Read this six page information brochure about Small Claims.It gives links to the forms, the fees, and explains the whole process. We printed out the instructions for the patron and wished him luck.

Q: My printout is pink, can you fix it? How do I print in color? How do I print in black and white? How much do printouts cost? How do I print an attachment to email?
A: Questions about printing from the public computers are very common. We make signs and tip-sheets, but, because each question and each questioner is unique, the one-on-one approach works best when it comes to ornery printing problems. As for those pinko printouts: they come and go and we have not yet solved that problem, but not for lack of tinkering with the printer cartridges and cleaning sheets and test printouts. Grrrrr...

Q: I heard on the radio about a book about Israeli economists. Do you have it?
A: The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. They were psychologists and the author was not Lewis Marshall, as the patron told me. That threw me off, but when she mentioned the radio show she heard it on, I could work backward from there.

Q: Another, I heard it on the radio question: what is the organization that will take your stuff and then return it? We thought, but later the patron told us it had the words 'bread and clutter' in it and she heard about it on the radio.
A: Again, we traced it back from the radio website. Google was not helping us with these radio questions and the patrons had both misheard the vital keywords in each instance. By the time we thought we had the right anti-clutter answer, the patron called back to say she had called WOR and got the answer from them. Still not sure what bread had to do with it though.

Q: We get lots of medical questions and we often use to answer them. Usually patrons want information on alternative medicine. The worst questions were the one about the abcessed tooth, followed closely by the skin rash question.
A: I am not a doctor, I am just a librarian, please talk to your doctor or healthcare professional about this matter. Here is an article from a reputable source (Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins, National Institutes of Health, etc etc,) that explains your condition in layman's terms. Please don't show me your rash, thank you. Good luck. Feel better soon.

So 'I heard it on the radio' (or misheard it on the radio) followed closely by medical and legal questions with a whole bunch of help me with the computer/printer/my tablet/the library catalog are some of our most frequently asked reference question categories. Before the internet came along, reference librarians would keep card files of frequently asked questions and answers so we would not have to look up the names of the Seven Dwarfs or the word for fear of peanut butter sticking to the roof of your mouth. Those are actual examples of the file we had at Richmond Public Library when I worked there years ago. It seems as though whenever a reporter has a slow day they will write one of two librarian/library stories:

1: Weird reference questions asked at libraries. Just  Google that phrase for some funny reading, or here is an example from a Paste article about the New York Public Library reference files.
Reference librarians love those articles.

2:  Aren't libraries and librarians obsolete now that we have the internet is the other article that appears routinely about our profession. Librarians do not like these articles. We don't like them because they are often poorly researched and just untrue. Reference librarians are still answering questions all over the world, for people who do not use the internet or who use the internet but still can't find the answer. It's true that libraries have changed since computers and the internet came along, but we are still here to help.
Where is the Internet?

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