refdesk assistance and all the feels

I haven’t written about specific reference interactions I have with library members as much as I used to in this job. A big part of that is a privacy concern because the library I work at now is the only library in a small town and I’m more conscious here that a lot of locals wouldn’t need names to identify people I mention. It’s kind of sad, because people tend to ask about interesting things, and telling stories about cool funny things that happen at the refdesk is a lot of fun.

So I totally wish I’d written this post Andy from Agnostic Maybe did about helping a library member use the internet. The gentleman who asks a lot of questions while he’s learning about word processing on the computer says “You are the first person who doesn’t laugh at me when I ask these kinds of questions.” It is enough to melt a librarian’s heart. Here’s some of Andy’s reaction:

It’s impossible to be actually nice all the time, so we do have to fake it to make it through sometimes. But his generous statement was a reminder of the importance of what I do in the lives of the people I serve. So much so that I’m starting to wonder if knowledge and information is just a secondary role in the lives of librarians. Yes, answers are important, but as I travel along my career path, I’m not always sure that’s what people are looking for when they come to the library. Empathy, kindness, and acceptance may be the larger underlying factors here.

In asking a question, it can present a vulnerability in which a person acknowledges a intellectual lacuna. In this fleeting moment, they don’t want to be judged, ridiculed, or otherwise embarrassed by a reaction to the content of their inquiry. They want to know they are safe with a person they can trust. The reference transaction isn’t simply about connecting someone to their answer, but how they feel about it along the way and after they leave.

One of the phrases that Andy uses in response to the person he’s helping is “that’s what I’m here for,” which is something I totally say every day. It’s funny how people apologize for asking me questions when I’m on desk, when that is totally why I’m there. “I don’t want to interrupt,” they say even though anything I’m doing out there is just filling the time between questions.

Yesterday I got to do one of those really fun reference interviews, where the library member and I were bouncing between the shelves and the computer looking for everything we could find about salamanders and how they regrow bits of themselves and if that has anything to do with the symbolism of mythological salamanders. We didn’t need to find anything super in-depth, just enough to satisfy his curiosity. In terms of pure informational transfer, I’m not sure how much real use he got out of it (I learned a bunch of good bits for possible trivia nights). But in terms of how he felt about the interaction, I know he was excited that I was excited to help him look this stuff up.

Anyway, I just thought that Agnostic, Maybe post was a good important one about how empathy matters.

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