"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Mar 24, 2010


This post is going to be fairly short, because I am on the reference desk for six hours on Wednesdays, which leaves me pretty much braindead afterward. But a big ol' lesson whacked me upside the head today, and I thought it was worth recording.

At one point tonight, a phone call came in. The patron had a fairly heavy accent and the connection wasn't the best, but I heard enough of his initial request to realize that he had a question about his eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit.

Uh oh, I thought, tax question. I explained that I couldn't give him much aid with this, as librarians are not tax professionals and cannot make judgments that might leave them legally liable for an error. Instead, I offered the TeleTax(?) number, and then (as the conversation progressed) another number I found that he could use to talk to someone at the IRS for live tax help. However, he was not satisfied. He kept saying that he had been told to call our number, and that we should be able to help him. I kept trying to explain that librarians cannot interpret tax requirements for our patrons. Finally, because he clearly wanted me to do something more, I told him I could read off precisely what was written about the EITC on the IRS website, which should be the same thing as was somewhere in the instructions he had.

I read the paragraph about eligibility over the phone, and he thanked me. He'd gotten precisely the information he needed from that.

Afterward I realized I had made the fundamental reference mistake: I had not fully understood what the patron wanted and had not conducted a reference interview to figure it out. Instead the keyword "taxes" had set off all sorts of red blinking lights in my brain and I'd gone on autopilot. I'd assumed that I could not help the patron, and tried to refer him away.

It was a rookie mistake. But I suppose that all of us make beginner-level mistakes now and again, regardless of experience level. Sometimes we need a wake-up call. This was mine. I'm trying to think, now, about the other, subtler assumptions I might make in a reference transaction. What else might I be missing by unconsciously assuming instead of asking?

I was lucky this time, because not only does this anecdote provide a learning experience, it also belongs in the Annals of Great Patrons. The gentleman on the other end of the phone was clearly frustrated. He'd been referred to the library by 211 and now I was trying to refer him elsewhere again. But even though I could tell he was not happy, he kept his voice level (if insistent), clearly telling me why he was frustrated and what he wanted me to do to help fix it. He never raised his voice or directed any negative remark specifically at me. And after he'd gotten the information that he needed, he was quite congenial and even thanked me sincerely. In retrospect, his patience and good humor were remarkable. It's unfortunately too common for irritated patrons to make one feel like something less than a full person. I have never had a frustrated patron make me feel, in the end, so much as though I have been acknowledged and respected as a complete person -- mistakes and all.

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