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A Reference Librarian Working From Home

My “co-worker” keeps watch.

I’m currently in my 6th week of working primarily from home and my 4th week working entirely from home. Writing that sentence was an odd experience, actually. It’s the first time I’ve actually quantified my own pandemic self-isolation in that way, and I’m honestly having a hard time coming to terms with those concrete lengths of time. It feels like it’s been a long time, sure, but 6 weeks is far, far longer than I would have guessed. I guess Time has little of the same meaning now that it had in the Before Times.

There are all kinds of things I could write about how I’ve settled into my new work space and work habits here in my kitchen’s dining nook (not least of which is the extra care I have to give to ergonomics). And maybe I will write about some of those things some other time.

One thing that’s struck me, though, is how completely similar my work as a Reference Librarian During Pandemic Times is to my work as a Reference Librarian. I work with heavily text-based departments, and in fact a whole lot of what the researchers in my areas rely on has not been digitized. I’m not as physical-object-based as some others in our library, but I had kind of wondered what it would be like to support these departments without direct access to our physical materials.

And granted, the vast majority of my work in the Before Times involved in-person conversations, and a goodly proportion of those conversations took place in the stacks. And I’ve never enjoyed having to say that something is inaccessible, which now happens more often than it did before. So yes, my work is definitely different.

But what remains exactly the same is that one of the absolute core principles of my work is to help researchers define and scope their information needs within the practicalities of whatever circumstances they’re in. It’s not just, “What research question is manageable within a 10-page paper;” It’s also, “What research question is manageable given the evidence that’s accessible using available time and resources.” I talk about this pretty explicitly with upper level students, but it’s always an undercurrent in conversations with researchers of all levels.

Usually the things that aren’t available to us are physical things that are out of reach because the researcher doesn’t have money or time to travel to a particular archive or special collection. Or materials are inaccessible because they were never publicly available, or they’re classified, or they’re locked down because of privacy reasons… So much of the world’s information is impossible or impractical for use.

The difference is that now the impossible/impractical category has extended to include most of the world’s physical library collections. There’s a ton that’s been digitized, and between libraries working to license more and more of that content and vendors opening up temporary access there really is a lot out there. But of course it’s not everything. It will never be everything.

So then we’re back to the conversations that are actually familiar even while feeling strange — those reference interview questions that are intended to help you and the researcher figure out what the goals of the information need are, and whether those goals could be accomplished with materials that are accessible. And if not, what are some accessible materials that are sufficiently interesting and similar that if we adjust the goals slightly the researcher could have meaningful work to accomplish.

So yeah. Reference interviews can take longer these days, both because we can’t do them face to face and because there are proportionately more that require pretty creative thinking on both sides. But it’s still the good ol’ Reference Interview, and we’re good at that. And that’s comforting in a world that feels pretty chaotic and uncertain.

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