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November 28, 2022

At the Reference Desk

By Kellie Gillespie

Actual Question: Do you get paid for working here?
Actual Answer: Well... yeah. This is my job. I get paid for answering people's questions and finding information for them. Why do you ask?
Actual Response: Because I need a job.

I'll be the first to admit that my job looks easy. I sit behind a desk and wait until someone asks me a question. Then I try to answer it. Sometimes the question is easy and I can find something by typing a few keys on the computer keyboard. Other times, I must search multiple databases using specialized vocabulary and advanced techniques. Internet searching is also used frequently, depending on the subject. Often the customer is amazed at the speed with which I can find information on the Internet, because they had searched for hours and hours with no success. That's my cue to smile and exclaim, "That's why I'm the professional!"

That's right; I'm the information professional. I get paid a whole lot of money to sit behind this desk and answer questions, no matter how inconsequential or life threatening. Want to know about last night's football score? Ask me. Want information on terminal cancer? Me also. No question is too small, no problem too big. I've been asked the oddest things (Is the milk in my refrigerator still good?) and the most ordinary (What time is it?), and I am obligated  no, I'm PAID to exhaust all efforts and find the answer. Sure, answering the same questions over and over becomes tiresome, especially when every fifth grader in the entire city needs information on ancient Egypt, but it's all part of the workday. It's all part of the daily grind.

It has taken me quite a few years and not a few dollars to become qualified to sit behind this desk. I have a bachelor's degree with two majors: religion and English. I have a master's degree  required for my position. In addition, I have more than ten years of experience working in the information field, with multiples published articles and even a book to my name. I am proud of these accomplishments, which took a lot of time and effort to achieve. Why, then, do so many people assume they could do my job? After all, my day is spent reading, right? How lucky I must be, they say, to work in such a peaceful and quiet environment. Yet, in the very next breath, they remark that the person sitting next to them in the computer area desperately needs a bath, or they complain about the noisy children running about unencumbered by parental control. Or they interrupt their own questions to answer their cell phone, which has just announced itself with the "William Tell Overture." Yes, I reply with a straight face, I get lots of reading done.

There is no doubt I am a lucky person. This is illustrated by the fact that I have chosen a career path in which I am reasonably happy. Reasonably happy, that is, on a good day. Good days are when I have recommended a book to someone who comes by to tell me they absolutely loved it, and could they have another, please? Good days are finding a whole paragraph about the forked-tongue, blue-spotted saltwater lizard that a child needs for a report. Good days are locating the title of a long-forgotten book, which used to sit on "that shelf" and be about "this big," and is green. But it seems to me that good days come less often these days. Mostly I have okay days or bad days, and once in a while a horrible day that makes me want to open a coffee shop and make cinnamon roles for a living. I make remarkably good cinnamon rolls, by the way. But the bad days... well, at the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy, I have to say that bad days are usually the result of technology and bad manners.

I know what you're thinking. The Internet has changed the way information is shared. It has made equals of everyone. Instead of gatekeepers (a.k.a. librarians and government officials) controlling access to print materials, the Internet has opened doors to ideas, opinions, and facts  more information than was ever available before. Yes, this is all true. However, it has also spawned the myth that all a person has to do to find some bit of information is log onto the Internet, and voila! There it appears. Unfortunately, as we all know, this is not as easy as it sounds. First of all, not everything is available on the web. Uncle Fred cannot be located with a simple Internet search. ("Can you help me find my uncle? No one has heard from him in fifteen years.") Secondly, print materials may be better suited to certain types of information. For example, searching the Internet for animal reproduction is not a smart plan. However, when I explain this to someone, I am rewarded with a look of disdain. A book?! I don't want a book! Indexes, tables of content, chapters  that takes too much time! Just print something out for me! Hurry up, my mother's waiting in the car.

Alas, we all know the horrors of inappropriate cell phone usage. They ring, they chirp and sing, they interrupt the most pleasant of quiet interludes. I don't have to tell you what havoc they cause, what rudeness and disorientation they bring to an already chaotic life. I'm sure that many other service professionals, such as salesclerks and waiters, share my dislike for the cell phone. I can be in a conversation with a customer, perhaps helping them learn about the side effects of their newly prescribed drug, perhaps still in the middle of a sentence, when their cell phone rings and they answer it. My open mouth slowly closes, my words folding into a tight little purse of the lips, whereby I am left to hear a conversation I have no interest in. Nor do the three people waiting their turns in line. Which brings us to bad manners.

Imagine the following scenario: an information professional is helping a gentleman find information about real estate finance. The professional is trying to determine whether the gentleman is looking for finance tables, books about buying and selling real estate, or perhaps how to obtain a mortgage. The gentleman tries to explain his information need by saying the same thing over and over again: real estate finance, finance having to do with real estate. You know, real estate! The professional once more explains the different kinds of finance that is available, and the gentleman calls her a stupid bitch, turns around and stomps away. The information professional fights back tears, as she is a sensitive sort, while she tries to help the next customer in line. This day, which started so fine, has now become a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Bad manners are an epidemic. I've had people call me names, ask if I'm stupid, yell at me, walk away while I'm talking, and even swear at me. These are the worst of times, and they make me question why I do this day after day. They also make me question whether I can do this for twenty more years, until I reach retirement age. I've debated this with myself for some time and I have even explored other career options. Opening a coffee shop takes too much capital and, anyway, small businesses are too risky in today's economy. Teaching in the community college district is a real possibility but competition is fierce. Writing is a most enjoyable occupation and I've spent many happy hours lost in worlds of my own creation, but I've become accustomed to a wholesome diet and a good credit rating. On bad days, however, my mind is much more receptive to creative financing and career changes.

Luckily for me, the good days are worth two of every bad one. On good days my job is one treasure hunt after another. Some questions launch me into uncharted territory and others are more like singing an old song, but each one has the potential of expanding my universe. That's when I remember how much I appreciate my job and how lucky I am to be employed, that I remember to be grateful for all that has been given to me. Some days are harder than others to be thankful for these things. But then I'll be sitting at the reference desk one morning and a person asks a seemingly unimportant question and I have that moment of epiphany. Ah, I say, this is why I struggle through all the horrible no-good days. It's to have this: the discovery of a new tidbit of knowledge. I am learning something new today, maybe to file away for later, to be carefully unwrapped and savored again and again. Or, maybe I will forget all about it. That's probably why some people would like to have my job  I have the luxury of having so much information available to me that I can afford to let some of it nestle into the cobwebs of my mind, never to be found again. That's life at the reference desk, a job that's never boring and constantly challenging  good days or bad.

Article © Kellie Gillespie. All rights reserved.
Published on 2004-01-10
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