Susan J. Beck
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In this, my final column as RUSA President, I am taking some time to reflect on my career as a reference librarian. I guess you could say that I am probably in the declining years of my career. I am over fifty and have been a reference librarian since 1980—you do the math. So I wanted to reflect on some very basic questions, such as why did I became a reference librarian? what or who have been my greatest influences? and of course, what is the future of reference?
The Most Frequently Asked Questions—Redux
I have worked in the same library for twenty-seven years. When I first started, I told my students in my classes that there were three questions asked most frequently in the library. So, to relieve their suspense, I would just tell them the answers.
- Where is the pencil sharpener? (At the circulation desk.)
- Where is the photocopier, and how much do the copies cost? (In the front lobby, and 5 cents.)
- Where are the restrooms? (Go downstairs, turn left and left again.)
Today, my most frequent questions are almost the same. The pencil sharpener question has been replaced by users needing assistance with printers. I still get asked about the photocopier costs, but the answer is more complicated: currently 15 cents after purchasing a copy card (40 cents) with a single dollar bill. The bathroom question and answer remains the same. After reading Lorraine J. Pellack’s recent RUSQ editorial, “First Impressions and Rethinking Restroom Questions,” and the comments that her article generated on the RUSQ website I agree that a polite, friendly, and quick response to this question is essential to forming positive impressions of your services.1
Why I Became a Librarian
I became a librarian because I loved solitary studying in libraries while a college student. The library, as a place, was very comforting to me. As a child, I would go to the Norwalk Public Library—a Carnegie library—which still stands on Main Street in this Victorian town in Ohio. The library was right next to the A&P grocery store, so when we went for our weekly groceries on Friday evening, we also picked up new books. As I got older, I could easily ride my bike to the library. Then as a teen, when it was no longer socially acceptable to be seen riding a bike downtown, it was not too far to walk. Libraries were a familiar, comfortable, and safe place with so many interesting books! I could be easily attracted by different areas of the library, just as today I am so fascinated by searching the Web.
As an undergraduate at Eastern Kentucky University, I practically lived in the library. I was majoring in history, political science, and education, all areas where you had to write many papers. I went to the library for instruction classes, but I rarely asked reference librarians for help. In grad school, as a political science student at Miami University, I got my own carrel and set up shop. It was easy to live in that library because they had great vending machines in the basement where I would go to socialize, snack, and get right back to work. They had long hours too! As a grad student, I did consult the reference librarians, who were always friendly and helpful. I do not ever remember leaving the reference desk without knowing where I was going next. I was a happy and satisfied user.
Once I made my decision not to pursue a PhD in political science, I considered my options, and becoming a librarian just made so much sense. I loved to search for information and I loved being in libraries. So off to library school I went.
The Challenges of Being a Library School Student
Once I went to library school at Kent State, I also lived in the library; it was a satisfying habit by then. They too gave me a carrel and I sought out reference librarians for assistance. They were mostly friendly. Do you remember, however, the way you felt as a library school student asking questions of reference librarians when you were taking your first reference courses? You think that because you are going to be a librarian, maybe you should not ask questions of the real librarians? And when you do ask questions, you sometimes perceive that the librarians might just be a little testy about answering your questions because, after all, you are a library school student and shouldn’t you already know how to answer your own questions? Why is there always that tension between library school students and reference librarians? I was recently asked this very question from a brand new library school student during a presentation at the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University. I told the future librarian the following: “Please do ask the librarians as many questions as you can and on every occasion that you need to!” I believe that not only does this exchange provide the student with direction, but it also lets them observe the librarians’ differing styles and approaches to discovering information. The reference transaction is a teaching tool, especially for those who will be doing the answering in the future.
On the Importance of Catalogers
I became a reference librarian because there was no other job I wanted more in the field. Being a cataloger was a contender, however. Today I still believe that you cannot be a good reference librarian without understanding the basic tenets of cataloging. I have a great deal of respect for catalogers. Once, while teaching a reference class in a library school, I was horrified to learn that cataloging was no longer a basic requirement. I proceeded to give my students a basic lecture on cataloging, subject headings, and different classification systems. They were even unfamiliar with the bright red Library of Congress Subject Headings, a tool I have always cherished. Today, even though we have cloud tags and metadata, you still must be able to tell users how to actually find a book on the shelf or the Web. I, for one, am not yet ready to abandon classification systems.
Who Have Been My Greatest Influences As a Reference Librarian?
The Early Years
I suppose some of my first influences and perceptions about librarians came as a small child. I visited the library often and read many books, even getting a prize for reading the most books over the summer between fifth and sixth grade. The children’s librarian, Carol Newton, was very tall, had a big smile, an extra loud laugh, and showed me the world of books. In junior high, I was elected the vice president of the library club and worked in the library. The librarian, Myra Carpenter, was caring, always very clever, and a wonderful inspiration. She could shush with the best. We kept in touch, and after library school she lent me copies of American Libraries to aid in my first job search.
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