Working reference can be extremely interesting. A librarian or archivist never knows what questions patrons will bring. There are the usual “I need help finding this or that” or “I don’t know where to start.” There are the directional questions, most commonly “where are the restrooms?” and “where are the printers?.” There are the repeat patrons who always want the librarian to do their searching, no matter how many times you have taught them information literacy skills and how to use the catalog, databases, and other search tools. However, there are the awkward situations that can occur at the reference desk.
The top six I experienced as a Graduate Reference Assistant:
6. The Professor Can’t Use the Database: I once helped a professor at the reference desk who could not search a database. He had no clue where to begin. Admittedly, he was older (probably in his 60s) and said his subject librarian had tried to teach him, but he insisted it was easier to have someone else do it. How did I handle this? I explained all the steps, helped locate the articles (he had the citations!). However, he said he’s be back later with more citations. My demonstrations fell to deaf ears.
5. The Patron Prefers You to His Subject Librarian: There was a patron my first year at Ellis that always can to the reference desk for assistance locating needed material for his dissertation. Almost always, it was something he needed via inter-library loan and was not a book or article (ex. DVD or CD). His subject librarian always reminded him that those items are usually not sent via inter-library loan and the patron said that’s why he wouldn’t go the librarian. The first time I helped this patron, I reminded him of the same rules, but at least placed the request. After this, that patron always came to me when I was at the reference desk. He’d even wait until I was finished with someone else, including when the other librarian on-duty was free. Once, I was setting up a display during my time off, and he still came to me for assistance. And I did help. By the way, I don’t know if he ever did get anything he requested via inter-library loan.
4. The Doctoral Student Wants You to Research Their Dissertation: This happened all too frequently. A doctoral student would come to the reference desk expecting us to find everything they need to write their dissertation, right down to locating raw data. The problem here? No matter how hard we searched, we seldom found what these patrons desired. Why? Dissertations are supposed to be unique and add new ideas to scholarship. We couldn’t locate information that the patron should be discovering from conducting their own surveys, experiments, and studies! Yet they expected us to and were frequent customers! We just did the best we could when this situation arose.
3. The Patron Left His Wife: My last semester I had a man and his friend come into Ellis Library wanting to set up guest-user accounts. The man spoke passionately about how he left his wife earlier that evening, frequently using words not meant for polite company. All I could really do was listen, but I think he wanted me to voice my opinion on the situation. As a professional, I really shouldn’t voice an opinion in this situation because I could risk angering him or being lured into providing legal advice. And librarians are never supposed to give legal advice; they should just locate information the patron wants.
2. The Patron Provides His Complete Medical History: I once had a patron come to the desk to ask where the restroom was, then he proceeded to tell me his whole medical history (which was directly related to why he needed the restroom). Needless to say, it was not fun. Speaking for all librarians, we don’t want to know an stranger’s complete medical history. All I could really do was listen, though I think he wanted sympathy or advice. Just like with legal matters, a librarian cannot give medical advice. Our code of ethics prevent us from giving medical and legal advice because we could get into legal trouble ourselves for doing that.
1. A Patron Asks for a Date: How did this happen? The patron in question was a doctoral student I had been helping at the reference desk for over an hour. Luckily, I found everything he needed and he was extremely grateful. The patron then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to go with him to a local coffee shop. So how did I respond? After a few seconds of stunned silence, I turned down the offer. Why? Mainly because I was already in a committed relationship. Also, it is an ethical situation. While on the job, I needed to be a professional, even thought I was still a student.
Looking back at “situation 1,” if you were single, would you have accepted or declined?
Why do I ask? I once tried to explain this ethical situation on a class discussion board. I thought it would have been wrong to accept the offer, even if I hadn’t been in a relationship. Why? That’s how it would be handled in a real-life situation in a library or archive. On the job, we are professionals. If the question had been asked when I was off-duty and I was single, then I could have accepted. My fellow students’ counterpoint was that since I was also a student, it should have been okay to accept the offer while on the job.
Have you ever experienced similar situations to these, whether it be at the reference desk, in a classroom, or other customer service role? Would you have handled them differently?
6/10/13 at 6:30 PM: Consider taking a look at the comments. They flesh out these situations a bit more and have other useful information. Thank you Rachel!