Last week my colleague Will Walker sent me a link to a photo essay blog discussing some of the more interesting questions that were asked at the New York Public Library during pre-Google times. NYPL is posting photos on Instagram each Monday from their reference archives of questions they have received over the years. I don’t know about you, but knowing that makes my Mondays a little better.
I did enjoy looking through the questions that they have received along the way and chuckled at some of the questions that reminded me of my own experiences working public and academic reference desks. My personal favorite from the NYPL collection was the card that showed a variety of questions that were asked in a single phone call. This was not unlike my experiences with an elderly gentleman who made a habit of calling the public library reference desk asking me questions about how much I thought a painting might be worth or where he could find a manual for an antique small appliance whilst he rummaged around in his attic. Answering questions or helping others find the answers they seek is a large part of my job. Truth be told, it’s actually one of my favorite parts.
All of that has me thinking about our ETBU students and how they ask questions and interact with me at the reference desk. How do students go about finding answers to the their questions? In my world, we call this “information seeking behavior” and we study how users engage in the search for information. One thing we have learned about information seeking behavior among college students is that they don’t often think to approach the reference librarian for help.
Librarian Barbara Fister discussed why students don’t ask questions at the reference desk in her appropriately titled Fear of Reference article. She found that students were embarrassed to admit that they didn’t know something that they thought that they should already know. To them, it can appear that their fellow students already have this library thing down pat and here they are just trying to figure out how to find a journal article (when truth be told, many of them couldn’t tell you the difference between a journal and an article).
The reference desk isn’t the only place that this happens. There is something vulnerable about asking a question and admitting that there is a gap in your knowledge. There is some element of trust involved with letting another person know that they know something you don’t know. After all, most of us can recall that annoying, “I know something you don’t know” sing-song taunt that our grade school peers used to tease us on the playground… or was that just me?
In life, we need to be able to ask questions. It starts with curiosity and the humility of admitting that there is something you don’t know. We see examples of people asking questions all throughout scripture. We know that the Bereans searched the scriptures each day after Paul and Silas taught to make sure that they were telling the truth – one assumes they were asking questions to guide them in their research. Proverbs 2 encourages readers to “cry out for insight and ask for understanding.” Jesus was even known for responding to a question by asking another question. Clearly, questions are part of the process of learning and seeking the truth.
We know we should be asking questions, but that still doesn’t change the fact that sometimes asking a question can be down right scary. So how do we help our students become more comfortable voicing their questions? I believe we start by making them feel safe to ask questions.
The first two weeks of the semester generally sound the same at the reference desk. Since we are still a good ways from research due dates, I can usually rely on the questions that I answer to be fairly basic – How do I login? Where’s printer 2? Do you guys have textbooks here? – you get the idea. And while some in my profession would see those types of questions misuse of their expertise – I say bring it on.
I welcome their questions because I know that if a student can feel comfortable asking me a tech support question during the first week that he or she might be a little less anxious about asking me for research help when the time comes. I hope that maybe if asking the first question isn’t too painful that we can break down that library anxiety barrier (yes, that’s a real thing we’ll talk about more later) that separates us that we can make some real progress in finding the information that they seek.
Last academic year 78% of the 733 user interactions we had in information services occurred in person at the reference desk. The experience those students had when they got up the nerve to ask a question is important to me. Whether I have a student who needs help finding an article involving a certain statistical method, or someone who just needs to know which printer to use, I’ll take that question. After all, I know what it might have taken for you to decide to ask it.