While folks were making comments on the hipbrarian article in the NYT Style section this past weekend, I was doing one-on-one bibliographic instruction via IM. The person I was helping is a non-traditional student (early 30s) working on his first bachelor's degree. I used to work with him, but still keep in touch because he's talented, thoughtful, earnest, and truly one of the most decent people I have ever met. Our continued relationship is personal and professional--he bounces ideas and projects off me and I rely on him to steer me away from negative thinking when I'm in a funk. This summer, he's in a Comp II class and has a bunch of papers to churn out. Writing is not his strength and he knows it. He's not a terrible writer and could do enough work to just get by, but he's taking his time with drafts and asking for me to read his work. He wants to improve.
He had started work on his second paper and pinged me via IM. He had a rough thesis statement, and what he wanted from me was advice on how to read the four books he had chosen to use for research. I said that first I would go to the indexes to look for words related to my thesis, but offered that I'm able to skim and synthesize pretty quickly, a skill that not a lot of people have. Then I paused. "Wait a minute. Did you look at ProQuest for articles?" After a few more questions, it became clear that it had not occurred to him AT ALL to use his university library website, or his employer's website to get started on his research.
Did I mention that my friend is a webmaster for a public library? And that he has spent a lot of time trying to make the library's databases as accessible as possible? Think about this. If online library resources are not on the radar of a pretty smart guy, in a decent undergraduate program, with mad web skillz and a library job, something is seriously wrong. (Don't even think about dissing my friend...how many people in your library know ALL its resources?)
I convinced him to use the books to get started, and assured him that he could find tons of articles about the concepts written about in the books. First, he tried his university's library website, without much guidance from me. He came back asking about results from what I figured out was a state union catalog. That, I told him, would only (mostly) list titles of print sources held by libraries. I explained that he needed an article database that he could search by keyword and from which he could get full-text articles. I reviewed the e-resources for the university library--it was just too much for what he was working on, so I told him that he could get everything he needed from the public library.
I suggested ProQuest again, and he took off on his own, reporting back that he got very few results, none of them useful. My hunch that he was using subject search was correct. "NEVER start with a subject search," I coached. I explained that subject headings were made up by librarians and wanna-be librarians who did not think the same way as real people. At this point, he gave me access to the database so I could offer some more specific advice, and challenged me, "Race you." I came up with an unwieldy list of results in short order. He was not too far behind, clicked on one that looked good, then asked "Where's the article? All I see is an abstract." I explained that there were limiters that could narrow his search, including one for "full-text." Even though I use databases every day, I had to stop and study the interface and make sure I was being very clear, specific and jargon-free in my coaching. As hard I as I try, I still catch myself using librarianese when working with patrons. I gave him a couple more tips and he finally started getting appropriate results. My friend had a "eureka" moment when he realized just what a powerful tool he was working with, and I regret not saving the chat transcript. It was really a high-fiving/Chariots of Fire themesong sort of moment. I typed in "W A T E R W A T E R" and told him I felt like Anne Sullivan Macy to his Helen Keller. Maybe it wasn't quite that world-rocking, but I felt an exhilarating sense of victory before the inevitable question of "why is this so damn hard" set in.
My friend apologized for being dense, for not just knowing in his bones how to do this. I told him that he owed apologies to no one and that, truthfully, apologies were owed to him. Something is really wrong if library services make people feel stupid. While I appreciate the discussion about the nuances and implications of the NYT article, I've found it entirely beside the point of what our concerns should be. Patrons could give a crap about the image of the folks behind the big desks or in the stacks. I've read recently that the only survey question you need to ask a patron/user/customer is "After using the library today, would you come back?" (I mean all points of service--phone, web, in-person.) Who wants to come back to a place where they feel stupid and helpless? It doesn't matter if you do your job in a jacket and tie, stockings and heels, tats and vintage, rumpled Dockers and Birks. It matters even less what you look like, drink, or wear once you're out the door. What matters is that our users find librarians who are kind, patient, and helpful, a physical space that they can navigate without a map and where they feel welcomed, materials that are useful and accessible, and resources that don't require hours of instruction. What matters is that when you ask them, "Would you come back," they answer, without hesitation, "yes".