Thursday, September 13, 2007

On patrons asking the right questions

I mentioned in this post about using Zamzar that I don't often apply my knowledge. It is true - most patron interactions on the Reference desk are of the "Can I use a computer?" variety, with a few "Do you have this book?" questions thrown in. It's difficult to keep one's reference skills sharp without practice, and it's also easy to just get lazy and Google everything. Throw in the fact that many patrons would rather have a less-than-authoritative quick answer than an authoritative but time-consuming answer, and you have an idea of what Reference service can be like.

On the other hand, there is ample opportunity to apply computer skills, which indicates a need to shift away from extensive and unapplied knowledge on using print reference resources and towards computer problem-solving and internet reference. Every librarian should have a thorough knowledge of good online information and tools, as well as a working knowledge of how to use anything on the library's computers.

One day a co-worker who was working on the Reference desk called me during my break in the staff room because a patron, who I had helped earlier with a Powerpoint problem, had another question. Although I haven't used Powerpoint in around 6 years, I can certainly find a book about it with which to answer questions, which is what I had done previously (and what any librarian should be able to do). When I firmly reminded my co-worker that I was on break, she said "Well, we don't have time for this stuff either!"

The beauty of reference, the reason why it is so interesting and exciting, is that pretty much any question is fair game (and certainly ones about programs installed on the library's computers!) After all, we are information professionals and computers have become the primary way of accessing, manipulating, and sharing information. How can we say "I'm sorry - we aren't computer experts" and just go back to surfing the web and waiting for "real" reference questions? We cannot tell patrons that we don't answer certain questions just because they aren't the questions that we want them to ask.

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