August 14, 2006
A View from the Stacks: Can I Speak to a Reference Librarian?
I will never forget the first Saturday that I worked here at King County Law Library. First off, the day was cold and snowing. Now, in Seattle, any amount of snow equals an automatic “don’t come to work today” card. The fact that the courthouse stayed open was pretty amazing to me (and, frankly, disappointing. What about our institutional snow days?). This, however, was not what stands out as the most memorable thing on that Saturday. The reason I will never forget my first Saturday in a law library is because I have never felt like more of an idiot in my life on this day.
Maybe I am not giving myself enough credit. Idiot is a bit harsh of a word. Maybe what I should say is that I was wholly unprepared for the questions that I was going to have to answer. That Saturday, I was here with one other person and we were both assigned to the desk. And here at King County, all of us are expected to answer reference questions. In fact, it was not until later on in my career here that I was told that our approach to non-librarians working the reference desk was a bit unusual. Needless to say, that Saturday, I learned many valuable lessons. For example, who knew that lawyers (and the law) embraced the acronym with such affection?
I mention all this because I am here, four years later, working on a Saturday and I am having a hard time remembering why I was so scared of being on the reference desk. In fact, one of the things I enjoy most about my job is the variety of questions that I receive throughout the day. Unlike filing, working reference is never the same from day-to-day. That the librarians allow us technicians to answer in-person questions, as well as email and online chat questions, provides a unique, and often welcome, alternative to our traditional duties.
In addition to all the knowledge I have gained by working reference, I have also witnessed how the business of reference is changing. It used to be that our questions came in the form of in-person inquiries, or over the phone. More and more, people are logging on to our online chat and using our email services as a mode of asking questions. This has forced us to look to the Internet as a tool of providing service, since these questions sometimes come from folks who live nowhere near a law library (or did not know that law libraries exist).
But, working in a library that allows non-librarians to work on the reference desk can often be a double edged sword. As a non-librarian, some people do not believe that I am able to answer their questions (even if the question is “Do you have Scott on Trusts?”). This, on some days, can bother the best of us. I cannot count the number of times I have felt the need to explain that I will try my best to answer the questions presented to me, even if I am not a librarian. I completely understand why people would want to speak to a reference librarian about their issue (especially since having a master’s degree trumps my beer certification any day). And sometimes I am grateful to pass on questions to the librarians so I can continue checking in the mail.
But, when I think back to my first Saturday here at the library, I am proud of how much I have learned. I believe that schooling can teach you so much, but working reference is one of those “baptism by fire” things that you can only get better at by doing on a daily basis. And luckily for me, I work in a place that allows me, even without the paper-work, to get my fill of experience.
Stina McClintock, Library Technician, King County Law Library (Seattle)
Editor's Note: I can remember being the only person working on Saturdays at the University of Chicago Law Library when I was attending library school. I don't recall anyone asking if we had Scott on Trusts but I do remember feeling like the village idiot every time I have to answer one prof's question "do you have my mail sorted?" in the negative. Of course, he would just stand there while I dove into the mailing frantically looking for his. That prof now sits on the US Supreme Court. Reflecting on my life, I've been thinking I might have "Here lies the village idiot who sorted Justice Scalia's mail" etched on my tombstone. [JH]
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