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.

collaboration and cursing racers in google docs

The best collaboration tool I’ve used so far in library school is hands down Google Docs. I use wikis at work and we used BaseCamp for planning the NetworkEd UBC project, but nothing beats the big G on this.

The best part about it is when you’ve got five people collaborating on a document and everyone has it open on their respective laptop and everyone is editing the text at once. There’s a bit of give and take on that, since it is annoying to be working on the exact same sentence as someone else, but when something like deleting typos becomes a race that’s a fun tool.

When Google Wave came out I got in on the open beta, but there wasn’t a lot to do with it. My friends and I created a Wave to plan a road trip to Chicago, and while it worked, there wasn’t anything about it that was fun or useful. Integrating the best bits of Wave into Google Docs was a great step forward.

I think part of the appeal of Google Docs is that you are producing something, not just talking about producing something. I mean, it’s fine to use tools to chat and plan and such, but if it’s not integrated into the actual production, it’s just another step being pushed into your workflow. If you can collaborate directly on the work that’s a huge deal. You don’t have to reproduce your notes or people’s good ideas into the thing you’re producing, because it’s all right there.

Now, so far I’ve only handed in assignments straight from Google Docs for in-class types of things. Getting them out into LibreOffice is important to get the layout as right as I get fussy about. But separating out the layout/final touches kind of work seems far less onerous than separating the collaboration itself.

That’s what I want out of collaboration: actual work being done rather than having a separate step to talk about the work we want to do. I hate meetings that are just about assigning tasks when you could just be getting to it, right there. The rapid-prototyping model is built into this kind of collaboration. A person writes a sentence. It doesn’t work and gets rewritten right there. There’s chatting in the sidebar about why it doesn’t work and what would be better. “How about this?” someone can ask and you can see if it works or not. There’s no separate step of coming together to pull words apart and then going back to work on it again. Everyone sees the sausage being made, and that’s a good thing.

In my mind this also deals with a bit of the design by committee problem. You aren’t coming up with innoffensive ideas that’ll make it through, you’re putting stuff down with the knowledge it could get zapped straight off but if you delete something you’ve actually made a hole in the project that you need to fill. Maybe that’s not how it works for other people, but that’s the kind of collaboration model I see as a worthy goal, suggested by Google Docs. Collaboration can’t be a separate step, because that makes it easier to ignore.

Really though, I just like racing cursors.

the matter of experience

I see training in Koha as one of my most marketable things I do at Prosentient. It also feels weird to be thinking about how things will look on a resume, but whatever, the job market I’m going into is competitive. If I want a job some day thinking about this stuff is probably going to be a good idea. I’ve been terrible at selling myself in the past, and while there’s a kind of bravado in saying “they didn’t hire me because I was honest” it’s probably good to be honest in positive-about-my-abilities ways along with my standard self-deprecation.

So last week I went out to the Gippsland region in Victoria to train a couple of librarians in using Koha. This is another one of those instances where working for a small company is fun. I was given a lot of trust, some accommodations and a breakdown of how long to spend on each section of the software.

The librarians I was training are attached to hospitals, and very much in the special libraries are a one-person show kind of mould. They knew each other and were very good at asking detailed questions, which was great for me, since I’m more of a responsive teacher than a dictator of holy writ. We pushed the edges of what Koha is capable so they knew what was possible and what wasn’t. I hit the limits of my knowledge several times and brought back questions to answer later.

After our two days, which felt pretty intense on my end, they’ll be going live with their new systems this month. They seemed happy with what I could teach them. It was really fun to be a field agent for a few days. I find that hanging around the office doing so much on the computer is a touch painful. I feel nerves pinching from all the sitting, so it was good to get out into the world and crouch next to some folks who don’t like MARC records but have to use them, and show them how we can make their lives easier.

I do like how directly a couple of my SLAIS courses I took impact my work here (those courses would be Cataloguing and my Instructional Role of the Information Professional). The Instructional one is kind of obvious when I’m talking about going out and running a two day workshop, but even though I’m not hardcore cataloguing, knowing that lingo and how the rules work is really goddamn useful when you’re trying to teach someone how to use the software to do it. I do find that my knowledge of the Acquisitions module of Koha is less extensive since I haven’t had the experience with acquisitions (beyond troubleshooting Koha) that I have with Circulation and Cataloguing.

So yes, I join the chorus of people who say library school students both need to get experience and need to take a fucking cataloguing course. Use. Ful.

there are three kinds of people

Some days you have very pleasant people come into the library. Like today, when a young woman wanted to catch up on some classics. We had a good chat and I got to recommend Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which I never get to do. She was interested in the idea of paradox being at the centre of a novel, and I had difficulties deciphering what she meant by that. So it was intellectually stimulating and fun all around. The fact that I completely took over the referencing from my coworker who was slower on the draw only dampened my enjoyment a little bit.

And some days you have very unpleasant people come into the library. Like today, when a man was using the computers with grunts and groans of distress before finally coming to the Info Desk to ask my coworker what was wrong with his computer. Now, I was working with a couple of people tonight. One of them is new(ish) and we’re trying to force him into handling more things on his own. I could tell from the patron’s tone of voice that expecting the patron to be patient was not feasible, so I leapt into the breach.

“I’m trying to open an Excel file. The simplest kind of file in the world and this stupid computer won’t let me. This always happens! These computers are horrible! I’ve been on the phone with the guys down town and got them to change things five times, but whenever I come here or to [a nearby branch] they’re all pieces of crap!”

While the patron is loudly complaining about his lot in life being solely to have his will to live tested by the computers of our branch, I test the file. There is an error message coming up when we try to open the file, so I save it to a temporary directory and attempt to open it a different way, explaining as I go. He’s not really listening but it works and I have his file up on the screen. “Is this the right file?” I ask.

“Yes it is, but why couldn’t it open up like that the first time?”

“I’m not sure, sometimes we have prob-”

“It’s all fine for you to come in and do your secret little ways, but I have a bad back and don’t have time for this! When I click on it it should just open up, shouldn’t it?”

“Well, in a perfect wor-”

“Shouldn’t it?”


“Yes or no?” He’s kind of getting in my face at this point.


“That’s what I keep on telling them downtown! Why haven’t they upgraded these computers?!”

“I really don’t know. I’m sorry. But your file is there now.”

“But it’s too big! I need to zoom out or something.”

“There are options to change the view if you’d like…” and he’s muscled me away.

I head back to the desk and he gives me a sullen “Thanks.” When he was done with the computer he left and did apologize for getting so angry, so that was all right.

And the rest of the evening was dominated by the third kind of people: the silent ones, who are very easy to deal with.

so today we got a security guard

Last night after my shift was done excitement occurred at the branch. Two boys, who’d been on the computers suddenly got into a fight. Not a fight, a beating. My coworkers tried to hold the beating one back but a rage filled 12 year old can often shake off us bookish folk. So they were kicked out. Evidently they’re cousins and the beatee had “stolen” the beater’s PIN for the computers. So there was that.

And then one of the 11 year olds who’s banned from the branch till October came in and wouldn’t leave when my coworkers told her to. And then she was running and yelling and throwing books on the floor and hanging up the phone as our branch head phoned the cops.

As us staff understand it, we can’t physically remove a person from the premises. We can’t even touch a kid. I’m not sure if that’s actual policy or just our individual fears of assault charges. I know there’s no policy saying I should leave the door open for Teen Book Club; it’s my awareness of the power of allegations that make me leave that door open, and the rest of the patrons can fuck off if we’re too loud. It seems like the employees could use some sort of guidance instead of ad-hoc word of mouth ideas. But that’s not how our library system works. Selah.

The security guard we got today (and who’ll be with us being bored out of his skull for a couple of weeks) has been given express permission to keep the banned girl out “using any means necessary.” It’s true. That’s what the head of security told him, right in front of me. It was kind of action-movie awesome. The guard was kind of “I’ve never really had to do any physical restraining” and his boss was all “She’s 12. You can take her.” I didn’t butt in and tell them she’s actually 11.

tech support

A woman at the library needed some help printing a table of data. It was in the body of her email and when she’d tried printing it all she got were the first couple of columns and all the sidebar crap inherent in using webmail. Because it is the Sunday of the May Long weekend, it was pretty dead in the branch, so I had the time to go and help her. Eventually it resulted in me switching her to a different computer and copy-pasting the whole thing into Excel where I could set it all up. Basically it was me reformatting her table, sending her to stand aside while I took over. I always hate doing that, but I’ve dealt with this patron before and getting her to do it would have been very difficult.

When I’m done, she starts going on about me being a genius. She’s done this kind of thing before and I have problems with it. I mean, I’m telling her that it’s nothing special I’m doing, just figuring it out as I go. I told her she just needs practice, or to take a course, or maybe borrow a book. But she’s content to have a “genius” at the library to help her. And I’m sure she thinks her gushing is gratifying, but I have to tell her I like it a lot better when she comes in, uses the computer without any help, and lets me know she didn’t need any help as she leaves. Not because I didn’t have to do anything, but because it means the help I’ve given before has sunk in.