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How to Kill a Reference Librarian

Let me preface this by saying that I’m pretty good at not being intimidated by library patrons. I’m generally shy and avoid confrontation almost as strenuously as I avoid filling my car up with gas theses days, but when I have my public face on I’m somehow able to be assertive, confident, and even out-going! You know where this is going…

Well, I was sitting at the reference desk recently, thinking what I could accomplish in the 20 minutes before the end of my shift, when I noticed The Patron. This guy has the magical ability to cause all reference librarians within screaming distance vanish into thin air. (Note: none of my colleagues are the shrinking-violet types, either.) “It’s ok,” I thought, “he’s probably just coming to warn me that he’s about to log on to the computer.” (For him, pressing all three buttons — Control, Alt, Delete — at the same time is a feat that requires careful practice, limbering up, and a spotter.)

He oozed into the reference area, not quite looking at me, not quite not looking at me. He seemed to decided against bothering the librarian who, even though there’s no one waiting for help and she’s clearly sitting there doing nothing, must be too busy to help him. Then he changed his mind, only to lose heart once more, steel himself, and finally come to stand obliquely to the side of the desk and turning himself to face the room at large rather than the poor cornered librarian.

“I think,” he said, to nobody in particular, fingering a stack of papers that he has clutched to his chest, “I think my problem will take quite a while. Maybe you shouldn’t work on it while you’re at the desk? Maybe I should come back when you’re freer?”

Goodness, no! my brain screamed. There was no way I was going to put this off. Like ripping off a Band-Aid, I told myself, get it over with now or never. Configuring my face into my most hopeful, helpful expression, I suggested that we take a look at what the “problem” was and then decide on a timeline.

He inched his way around to the side of the desk that has a chair for patrons to sit at while we navigate and manipulate the various library and web resources together, but he didn’t sit down. No, he preferred to hover, but the chair was in his way, but he didn’t think it right to move the chair… He thought about sitting, but then decided against it as it was clear that the librarian would just look at his problem, throw up her hands, and suggest that she work on it over the weekend and get back to him… only she didn’t. So was it appropriate to sit? No, she’ll give up any second now.

His “problem” was tracking down an unknown article from an unknown magazine by an unknown author. All the info we had was that it contained a reproduction of a painting of a particular place by a particular author. Oh, and it was published sometime before 1932… No problem.

“I’ve already checked Reader’s Guide,” he said glumly, for all the world like Eeyore saying he’d looked everywhere for his tail. (For what? I wanted to know, but couldn’t bring myself to ask. Already, he’d begun killing the reference librarian in me.)

“Let’s just see if we can get in by the back door,” I said, stalling for time while all my knowledge of our databases, our print indexes, and even web searching started fleeing to join my vanished colleagues. I got on to Google Images and found a thumbnails of the picture in question, but not any references to a magazine reproduction.

The Patron just sighed. He’d known it, it was impossible, and this librarian really doesn’t know what she’s doing, and maybe he should just leave, she’d be sure to give up in just a second.

I could only think of one database that we have that indexes back that far, and I sure wasn’t going to go read Reader’s Guide from cover to cover for a decade or so! So I got into this database and executed a couple of searches. Nothing. And I couldn’t make myself concentrate. All I wanted to do was get up and run from the room, go home, hide under my bed, and hug my cat for comfort.

Still sounding bright and hopeful, I suggested that we “try another place.” “I’ve never been able to get this database to go back that far,” I warned (already preparing him and myself for my inevitable defeat), “but every once in a while it surprises me.” I executed a search…nothing.

“You’ve got the wrong years,” he moans, the depth of his hopelessness stripping all whine from his voice and leaving only defeat.

“So I have, thanks for catching that!” I’m talking way too fast now. Is there no end to the ways I can look stupid in front of this man?

Another search… 10 beautiful hits! And number 7 is IT!!!! (At least, with no full text attached, and no abstract, I can’t be sure, but the title is just about as descriptive as it could be and indicates that this article contains exactly what we need it to contain.)

“Why can’t we see the article?” he asks, refusing to allow any hope of resource discovery taint his disappointment in the stupid librarian had said this database didn’t go back that far when it clearly does.

I informed him that he’d be able to interlibrary loan it and see it, free of charge, sometime in the next week.

“Ok,” he sighed. If that was the best we could do, he’d try to cope with it. It was, after all, too much to hope for that this librarian could not only find what he needed in under 5 minutes but also produce the magazine for him in the same amount of time.

He gathered his things and started inching away from the desk, not quite turned away from me, not quite turned toward the door.

“You should keep up on your databases better,” he suggests to the room in general, half-way to the door.

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  1. c.m.p. c.m.p.

    He sounded like a moron.

  2. Julian Julian

    I liked this story. Very descriptive. This is the kind of reference transaction they definitely don’t teach us about in library school.

  3. Iris Iris

    No kidding, Julian! I had one day of “The Problem Patron” in my reference class, but that dealt mostly with people getting violent or abusive. Nobody told me about moaping, defeatist, Eeyore-ish guys who sap the reference energy from you with one glance.

    I’m thinking that next year, on my trading card, I’ll put him as my vulnerability… Well, that could get me in trouble, so maybe I’ll make up a code so that only I know what my vulnerability really is.

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