Originally published in ALA/APA Library Worklife, June 2010
Last night I caught my husband apologizing to a librarian.
That’s right, he did it (twice, actually), and I caught him red-handed.
He was updating his resume and – being a chef and not the kind of person who keeps track of old newspaper clippings – he was missing an important review from a local magazine. We looked online but this particular magazine didn’t have old issues archived on their website.
“Call the library,” I said.
“Really?” he asked.
“Yes, really,” I assured.
I left the room to get the 6-year-old into his pajamas. As I was walking back past the office on my way to the laundry room I heard it. “I’m sorry to bother you,” he was cooing into the phone, “but I was hoping that I could trouble you to help me find some information from the Local Magazine, probably the February 2008 issue. I really hate to ask you to do this, but they don’t have their issues online and if it’s not too much to ask could you maybe see if you have that issue there? If you have the time, it would be really great if you could look for it but I understand if you’re too busy….” On and on it went. As the capable and quite pleasant and not-too-busy person on the other end of the line put him on hold to look for said information, I explained to him that he was, in fact, asking the person to perform what was most likely the core function of her job description, of any library staff person’s job description: connecting people to information. I gave him kudos on his very polite and pleasant approach (it’s always nice to be nice!), but further clarified that he didn’t need to apologize to her for asking her to do her job. “It would be the same if you walked in,” I said. “You might look for the information yourself, but if you couldn’t find it, you would ask someone to help you find it, right? They don’t take points off because you called in your question. In fact, many libraries have staff dedicated to e-mail, phone and text questions from info-lacking people, just like yourself.”
“Yes, really, honey. It’s like a customer coming in and ordering a steak that is on your menu. You cook it, right? Of course you do. Now – has she found what you were looking for?”
As the person helping my husband came back on the line and gave him just the information he was seeking, I started thinking about what libraries can to do get this core message across, especially in this age of instant-gratification, I-don’t-want-to-wait-for-snail-mail-to-bring-me-my-back-issue. Especially in this economy of “I want that information but I don’t want to pay the $3.99 + shipping for them to send me the back issue.” Chef Daddio is a pretty smart guy. He’s relatively computer savvy, he has the smart phone, the lap top, the iPod, the GPS. So I’m guessing his is not a single-instance phenomenon. I’m guessing there are many, many others out there, in search of facts and figures and reference material and demographic information whose thoughts do not immediately drift to “call a librarian.”
A friend, who also happens to be a former Associate Director of a dynamic Maryland library system and a current library consultant, was telling me about some focus groups that she had done last year with a mid-Atlantic library system in a suburb of a larger metro area. She was lucky enough to be able to include an invaluable (and sought after) demographic in these groups – opinion leaders who were not library users. All of these people LOVE the library. They all see it as a wonderful community resource, but for someone else! You know, preschoolers, people with time to read fiction, students who need help with homework. Almost no one in her groups thought of their community library as a place for information, since they were all pretty satisfied with their own ability to find information online or from trusted sources in their own business or personal networks. As Marilyn Johnson points out in This Book is Overdue! How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, we regular humans aren’t as good as we think we are at researching and finding information – or at least the right information. I Google, you Google, we Google – yes, it is a verb but (wait for lightning strike here) it is not THE ONLY or always THE BEST source of information. Librarians are trained to ask the right questions to get to the right answers, and they know how to use databases like nobody’s business. And I think that’s the point – that finding the right information is their business! As I was trying to point out to hubs, the library isn’t just a place to go get books with your six-year-old, or to pick up your tax forms. Those are GREAT reasons to use the library, mind you, but I think more people need to see and use the library as the convenient and free source of accurate and targeted information that it is.
As my husband completed his updates, I went back into the office a final time to read the finished resume over his shoulder. “Hey,” I said, “didn’t you win an award for that chocolate competition last year? You should include that.
“Good idea,” he said, “but I can’t remember if it was for the torte or the éclairs. I’ll call the Library back and see if they can find it for me.”
“There you go,” I said, smiling.
Two minutes later: “Hello – I’m so sorry to be a pest but I was hoping that if it’s not too much trouble you could…..”
Oh well. Baby steps.
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