Saturday, October 23, 2004

The gee-whiz factor

We get all kinds here at the Circulation Desk, but sometimes you have to wonder about the average incoming student's basic library skills when you get questions like this one:

"Um, do you guys have a list of all the books you own?"

These are Harvard's best and brightest we're talking about here!

The best part is that the conversation didn't end there:

"Sir we have an online catalog right over--"

"No, I mean the interesting books. Don't you keep some kind of listing?"

"It depends on what you mean by 'interesting'- are you thinking about old books?"

"Sort of."

"Well then there's the Harry Elkins Widener collection, which is up the ramp and then the stairs. You can't miss it."


"Or did you mean rare books and manuscripts? Because those would be in Houghton."

"Oh. They wouldn't be here?"

"No, sir. I'm not so sure they're open today, either. Yeah, they closed at 1."

"So you don't have a list?"

"You could try Houghton's website. Or the online catalog."

"Hmm. Okay. They said there was a listing somewhere."

"Who did?"

"I'm not sure."

"All right, then."

At some point I was saved by the phone or a patron with a real question; I forget which. The important thing is that my clueless friend wandered away and never returned, although something tells me that he'll be back when I least expect him.

It's funny, because although the 'Reference Interview' seems like the most commonsensical thing in the world - especially when you're talking about it in the abstract - the real-life application of it can be absolutely deadly if your interviewee doesn't quite get how libraries work, in which case it's like trying to guess the color of Humphrey Bogart's tie by watching Casablanca over and over again.

"You mean grey?"

"No, it's a color!"

"Off-white then?"

(Patron stomps away in frustration)