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Questions for the Sake of Reference

April 7, 2012

One of the ways we’ve been learning in my reference class is by posing reference questions in different library settings, and then evaluating our experiences.

Thinking of a question to ask just for the sake of paying attention to what happens when you ask it, is kind of tough.

The questions I most need answers to on a fairly constant basis are decidedly not library questions. They are metaphysical and kind of boring: How do I feel more confident in grad school? How do I get good at time management and writing smarter papers? Is there a faster way to fold laundry? Where should I submit my resume? If all of the library things I am studying fascinate me, how can I decide where to focus in grad school? What do I want for dinner? Where did I put that gray sweater?

Things I always want to know about: Good things to read and odd bits of trivia. I’m too generally interested to tease out a specific and useful question there. Which means that almost any answer will make me happy on some level. But it’s hard to figure out what to ask.

And then there’s my stubbornness, which is equal parts determination to look up the answers myself and Zen calm that I can shelve the questions til I have a better answer. Whether that comes from an insight that puts pieces together, or from figuring out how to use the right tools to answer.

We’ve done an assignment where we pose two questions across a number of library settings. Comparing how we thought the answers worked via email, in person, over the phone, in online chat. Tracing techniques the librarians used to focus our questions, find us information, and how we thought the librarian was reacting to us and our question.

My two questions were:

Can you help me find books set in the 19th century, in New York? Ideally, by 20th century writers?

And I also asked about Ernestine Rose, who was  a white librarian in Harlem in the first half of the 20th century.

Mixed results on the answers– both very much New Yorky sorts of questions, so it made sense to ask at the NYPL and at academic libraries  based in the city. There’s no wrong answer on book recommendations, at least not until I’ve read the book and decided what I think of it.

And there’s a similar assignment coming up, where we prep three questions each, pair up, and take turns being “the librarian” and “the student” using a software program that librarians use for virtual reference. (Virtual reference means asking a librarian something in a chat window.

So, not only do I have to come up with something to be curious about, the question is for a classmate.

What to ask, what to ask?


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