Reference Librarianship: Notes from the Trenches

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A daily diary of actual interactions between a reference desk librarian and his patrons

Reference Librarianship documents a year in the life of a young librarian working in the “trenches” at a library in the Midwestern United States. This one-of-a-kind book provides a daily diary of every librarian/patron transaction—no matter how mundane or absurd—to demonstrate not only how advances in technology have affected the reference librarian’s job, but how the public’s expectations have changed, as well. The book also includes observations by a now-retired reference librarian on the current state of the field based on these unedited interactions.

Over the past two decades, the job of reference librarian has seen many changes. But in many ways, reference desk work hasn’t changed a bit, with its mix of odd, humorous, routine, and ridiculous requests that capture what it’s like to deal with patrons day after day. Reference Librarianship paints a clear picture of the field for library school students, provides emotional and philosophical support to practitioners, and reminds library administrators of what life was like on the “front lines.”

A sampling of the daily transactions documented in Reference Librarianship:

Monday, May 19, 2003:

  • pencil
  • pencil
  • network down
  • I tell people that I can’t sign them up for an Internet terminal because the network is down and they just stand there, staring into space
  • One of them asks for three days worth of newspapers
  • microfiche machine explanation
  • Sorry, Sir, the network is still down (multiply by twenty and insert randomly into the remainder of the day)
  • magic tricks, but he pretty much knew where they were
  • One of our large interior plate glass windows shattered. No one was hurt and it made a fascinating noise, like a crystal waterfall landing on soil.
  • “Books on prostitution, you know—whores?”
  • Someone from the County called to ask if any criminal activity had occurred on a particular street. Someone else referred her to us. She was dubious—with good reason.
  • “Math puzzles.” Okay. I show him the books.
  • “Just math.” Certainly. I show him the books.
  • “I need them in Spanish.” Grrr ...
Reference Librarianship is an enlightening, educational, and entertaining look at the real world of reference desk work. It’s an essential read for reference librarians (both public and academic), library administrators, and library school students, as well as anyone who works with the public.
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Editorial Reviews

Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Valerie C Sweeney, BFA, MLS (Duquesne University)
Description: Each chapter in this book begins with a two-page essay by Charles Anderson touching on an issue he sees as relevant to the reference librarian today. Each chapter finishes with a record of Peter Sprenkle's time on a reference desk in a public library, originally recorded for publication as posts on Sprenkle's blog, RefGrunt.
Purpose: The authors state their purpose as "paint[ing] a clear picture of the field," "provid[ing] for" librarians, and reminding administrators what life is like for their reference librarians. The essays purportedly address contemporary issues in reference librarianship, but the book covers no new ground and in fact rehashes a lot of unnecessary old ground: should the library also function as a coffee shop/Internet café/bookstore; the everything-is-free-on-the-Internet patron assertion.
Audience: It is written for reference librarians or, at least, it's written in a way that leads me to believe that the authors think reference librarians read this sort of book for fun.
Features: The book would have been better left as a blog and the journal articles which it appears it started out as. The book was published in 2006, but the blog entries date from 2003 and feel dated. I realize not every public library was on the leading frontier of technology and so perhaps they are working out a lot of the kinks, but how many Internet sign-ups and server crashes can you make fun of before it gets wearisome? This is the primary problem with the book — the original blog made for fun reading when you had a few minutes of downtime. It's always nice to know you are not the only librarian answering endless bathroom and printer questions. But chapter after chapter of it, in a supposedly professional book, gets boring quickly. The book makes for fine pick-up/put-down reading, as long as you are not expecting anything that can be used to better your reference librarian skills, or help solve some of the issues of the day.
Assessment: This is a forgettable book. It's written well enough and, as I said, the blog entries can be amusing in little bits. But I wouldn't recommend adding it to a collection for any sort of professional development purposes.
Library Journal
Nothing ever prepares the library school graduate for his or her first reference job. Loaded with 40 hours of graduate study and the sheer passion to deliver the most current information while finding that proverbial needle in the haystack for every passing patron, the freshly minted librarian is somber, serious, and ready to apply every resource at any cost. Retired reference librarian Anderson (Puzzles and Essays from "The Exchange": Tricky Reference Questions) and adult services librarian Sprenkle (Waukegan P.L., IL) have written just the book to lend a good laugh and bring the newbie back into reality. This seasoned librarian's monthly blog, entitled "A Grunt's Diary," of manning a reference desk at a public library for a year is filled with reference requests from quirky patrons. "The other librarian on duty (Call her `Librarian Y') got a customer who wanted the Internet but had never used it before. Librarian Y suggested that she do the searching. He agreed. What would you like? `Sex,' he replied. What about sex? `Porn.' Never had a customer asked us to download porn before!" Some of the funnier items involve the nature of the questions themselves and, of course, all of the Internet login, network crashes, and printer/copier/computer technical errors. This reviewer was skeptical about this book at first, but the authors provide some classic examples of daily reference life and reveal little truths about a reference librarian's love of helping others. Highly recommended for all reference librarians and LIS students.-April Davis, Libn., Chantilly, VA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789029478
  • Publisher: Taylor & Francis
  • Publication date: 8/28/2006
  • Pages: 274
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.60 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Table of Contents

Preface. Chapter 1. Directional Questions. "Just Point Me to the…" A Grunt’s Diary: May-June 2003 Chapter 2. The Library Has Everything. “Alice’s Restaurant” or “Do You Have…" A Grunt’s Diary: July 2003 Chapter 3. Something Is Not Working Here
“The Computer/Printer/Copier Is Broken." A Grunt’s Diary: August 2003 Chapter 4. The Computer Is Not Listening to Me! Computer Literacy versus Printed Literacy. A Grunt’s Diary: September 2003 Chapter 5. The Library Does Not Have What I Want Reprise and Coda. A Grunt’s Diary: October 2003 Chapter 6. Why Are These People in the Library? The Library: People’s University or Social Service Center. A Grunt’s Diary: November 2003 Chapter 7. Reference Questions “I Need Help!” A Grunt’s Diary: December 2003 Chapter 8. Policy Questions “Why Does (Doesn’t) the Library…” A Grunt’s Diary: January 2004 Chapter 9. The Library As a Retail Outlet How One Library Transformed Itself into an Xpress Shop. A Grunt’s Diary: February 2004 Chapter 10. Staffing Tomorrow’s Library Hire for the Smile, Train for the Job. A Grunt’s Diary: March 2004 Chapter 11. Building Tomorrow’s Library “Why Did I Tell You I Was Going to Shanghai?” A Grunt’s Diary: April 2004 Chapter 12. How Did We Get Here from There? Where Did We Go Wrong/Right? A Grunt’s Diary: May 2004
Conclusion. References. Index

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