Friday, March 29, 2013

On Being a (Merely) Competent Reference Librarian

Compared to my more experienced colleagues, I am a merely competent reference librarian. I don't yet have my colleagues' in-depth experience of many ready reference sources. I don't remember much about Library of Congress Classification, other than it was something I vaguely memorized during library school. And I often do not have quick answers for patrons--unless patrons require directions to the bathroom, the copiers, or the circulation desk. I have a confession: I sometimes forget where the bathrooms are located. In fact, I frequently struggle to formulate database strategies. I sometimes stumble through a reference interview.

Thus, I am merely competent.

But I am very comfortable with that label because I have learned that effective reference transactions are not really about me projecting an authoritative image.  It is not about me being prepared with a quick fix.

It really isn't about me at all.

It is about patrons. And their information needs.

It is about shaping questions that prompt patrons to take control of their own reference transactions. Like a competent psychologist, I prefer to ask a few questions and to listen carefully. I formulate  more questions based on patrons' answers. I try to, for lack of a better cliche, empower patrons by having them teach me. I am not the information authority figure at the desk. I'm not the sage on the stage. At best, I am the guide who helps patrons construct knowledge for themselves.

Like Dante's Virgil, I try to guide them through the various circles of what may appear to patrons as "Information Hades".  Unlike Virgil, however, I  do not do most of the talking. Rather, patrons describe what they need. I merely nod my head or ask a question every now and then.

Because this journey really isn't about me. It is about patrons. And that is the focus for us merely competent reference librarians.

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