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Being on the Other Side of Chat Reference

Yesterday I was asked if I could help someone find the first known translation of a Russian short story (from the early 17th century) into German. In no time flat I’d found a bibliography and was composing my email response when I realized she’d asked for first translation into German… not English, and no bibliographies we have would record such a date.

Scrapping that email I wrote another one about using WorldCat to find bibliographies of this author’s works, and then limiting the language to German, because a German bibliography might just record the date she needed. (I don’t think she quite understood my response, though, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, then one of my co-workers pointed out that the University of Illinois has a whole library devoted to modern languages, and they might have such a bibliography. And sure enough, their catalog returned a record for something that looked promising, if only I could read the German. But I didn’t really want to ILL the enter book on the off chance that it contained the date I needed, so I hopped onto their As A Librarian page and, on a whim, chose the chat option. I’ve never been on this end of chat reference, so I was curious to see it in action.

I explained who I was and what I needed, and the librarian was very friendly and helpful, but in the end had me email my request so that she could give it to someone with an actual command of the languages in question.

This more specialized librarian found what I needed in a Russian-language bibliography, even scanning the page from the bibliography (which I still can’t read) so that my patron could see all the information.

What helpful people! And I’ve got to say, I really enjoyed starting out my quest via chat so that I could clarify myself when the librarian didn’t understand what I needed without having to play email tag. By the time I composed the email I was much more confident that I’d be able to write a question that the librarian on the other end would understand.

I’ve always been hesitant to ask for help from people I don’t know. Before library school I had never in my life asked a librarian for help. But every time I have an interaction like this a little more of that old hesitancy dies. World, beware.

Published inLibraries and LibrariansSocial Web


  1. Julian Julian

    I really hate to “me too”, but, in response to your last paragraph… me too! I always had the opinion that I was expected to be able to find all of the information that I would ever need, and that a librarian was there to help guide me to the right resources, not to just give me the answer to a question. That’s why my total number of visits to the reference desk as a user is still in the single digits. A lot of it was also hesitation, which for me is going away a bit as well. This is the part that scares me as a (hopefully) future librarian… how will I, the person who is hesitant to ask others for assistance, handle myself on the reference desk when much less hesitant people ask me to find answers for their questions? I guess that’s why I’ve gravitated toward the less public side of the library…

  2. Iris Iris

    I don’t know about other people, but as hesitant as I’ve been to ask for help, I’ve always loved helping other people. I don’t even mind offering help. I just haven’t ever wanted to ask. So public service isn’t hard in that way, at least for me. (It’s plenty hard in other ways, but not in the sense that I’m worried about people coming up to me and asking questions.)

  3. Mark Mark

    Of course “we” helped! Where do you think I got that linguistics textbook you recommended to me? From the Modern Languages Library.

    When I was cataloging a new serial from a German specialized publishing association, I went to see my friend and native German speaker … in the Modern Languages Library.

    Thanks to my diving down the rabbit hole of semantic relationships I’ll probably be spending even more time up there in the 400s. :)

    Maybe it all worked out so nicely as karma due to the nice Linguistics Librarian (at a library I’ve never set foot in 100s of miles away) helping me via chat last week. ;)

  4. Iris Iris

    That reminds me, I forgot to mark your question in our reference statistics, Mark. :)

    Well, you can tell anyone you meet that I was very pleased with the service I got. Very pleased.

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