“I can’t find this book …”

This post looks at how far a librarian’s investigative skills can go. My idea for this came about thanks to a kind student who handed in to me on the circulation desk a page that had fallen out of a book, which you can see below.

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What I had was a page from a bibliography. Some books have the book title or even a chapter title at the top of the page but this had nothing. My solution was to type one of the references into Web of Knowledge and then look at who had cited it in the hope that this book might come up. A few titles that the library has in its collection popped up but my hope did not last long as I went to the shelves and discovered they were not the parent of this lonely page.

Now this piece of paper is sitting on my desk in the hope I might be inspired with a better idea. In this situation, I really don’t think there is a lot I can do to solve the problem (suggestions welcome) but what about those times where you get caught out on the enquiry desk and say that you can’t help before really carrying out any proper investigation? I’ve certainly been in that situation. A reader will ask me a complicated question, which I don’t know the answer to off the top of my head. I panic, get flustered, type a few token search terms into the catalogue search box before I admit defeat. Once the reader leaves I think that I must be able to find the answer somewhere and calmly think of the various resources I can use, different search terms, the staff wiki or circulation manual for help. Even ask a colleague if needs be. I can almost guarantee that five or ten minutes after that person has walked away, I will have found the answer. Sometimes I have the sense to ask where they’re sitting and say I’ll do some research and see if I can find the answer for you.

I find this is especially the case in a new job, where I don’t yet know very much about the library. Having been in my current role for just under three months, this has happened to me a lot lately. More than anything, I find it embarrassing. What kind of librarian am I if I can’t help the reader, which is what I am employed to do. I am always jealous of my colleagues who then give a wonderfully informative answer to the enquiry, which tells the reader exactly what they need to know. I like to think that one day I will be that wise and knowledgeable librarian who everyone turns to for answers because she’s so great.

I think one of the inhibiting factors here is that I’m really not that experienced with reader services work. Not properly. My first ever job as a librarian was in the technical services office and since then I have gone from one technical services job to another. I don’t like to say I was pigeonholed early on but I definitely think that saying your experience within libraries is processing, assisting with cataloguing, acquisitions, serials, and other behind-the-scenes work, you are unlikely to win over a potential employer who has put up a job advert for an enthusiastic and experienced front-facing librarian. Of course, I’ve spent a lot of time on various enquiry desks but I’ve never worked in The Reader Services Office,  where I am the go-to person for enquiries. In a way, I quite like being behind the scenes. I think I’m good at that kind of work and enjoy the technicality of RDA and LCSH rules and spreadsheets but similarly, I also like interacting with people and being successful in helping a reader with their studies/research. Getting that ‘thank you’ from a drowned and bewildered fresher or a busy academic is quite satisfying.

I think that a librarian’s skills can, sometimes, only go so far. Colleagues who have been working in the same library for ten to twenty years sometimes don’t know the answer. If a book is lost, there is only so much you can do to find it before you just order a new one or do an inter-library loan. If the network is down, you really can’t help find that book. If a reader gives you a really vague reference with ‘I think the title is something like …’ and no author, you’re not necessarily going to find it (but it’s always great when you do). When a library holds hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of items, there is only so much that can be done to keep it in check. But I think librarians are doing a pretty good job so far.

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