At my library, our reference desk is called the Research Help Desk, and librarians take turns staffing it, along with a few grad students. I only spend four hours a week there in two hour shifts, and frequently I do other work things while there because traffic can be fairly minimal. But sometimes the interaction I have with users during that time can be quite interesting. A good example of this happened yesterday.
A student whom I came to know through a class we were in together last Fall saw that I was at the Research Help Desk and came over to ask for advice on a particular topic that wasn’t related to library research. As we finished up our conversation, another person interrupted to ask for assistance. She seemed a bit frustrated — a negative start to the interaction.
As often happens, the specific issue or question can be a bit obscure at first. But as we talked, aspects of the situation became clearer. This user was from the community, not a faculty, staff, or student of the college, and was having difficulty finding two specific journal articles for which she had citations. It also turned out that she is a theologian but is not currently affiliated with a particular institution, and part of her frustration was then readily apparent. Researchers who aren’t affiliated with a particular institution have a pretty hard time accessing research materials such as journal articles.
Another frustration for her was that although an experienced researcher, she wasn’t able to find the articles she wanted using the tools and resources we provide. Through trial and error and ongoing conversation, I was finally able to track the articles down and emailed them to her. She was very thankful for this as it saved her a lot of time and effort.
As we talked, I learned that she was a graduate of a well known seminary with several advanced degrees including a PhD. I mentioned that I had recently begun a Master’s program in historical theology. She strongly encouraged me to apply to a doctoral program at her alma mater, noting that it had a lot of money available to support PhD students. She also mentioned that such programs particularly appreciate having more “mature” students. I confessed that I have always wanted to pursue a PhD but aside from financial and family considerations, which are huge, I struggled with a sense of not being good enough, smart enough, to do it.
She continued to encourage me and expressed her hope that I’d pursue this dream. It left me feeling encouraged and also gave me a positive sense of being able to help someone find the information they really needed. That doesn’t always happen. She told me that our interaction was the most fun she’d had doing library research in a long time. Her initial, understandable frustration with her research turned into a really positive interaction and gave me a lot to think about.
These are the kinds of interactions that librarians live for.