Are we the friendly produce consultants of the information age?

After offering reference help to a student the other day and having it refused, I had what I can only call an evil thought. I’d like to share this evil thought with you now, at the risk having an evil influence on library discourse. Sometimes it takes a devil’s advocate, though, to inspire work on the foundations.

Imagine if you will, walking into your local supermarket to buy ingredients for tonight’s dinner. The produce section is first. In a prominent location, in front of the fruit, is a middle aged woman sitting at a desk, under a sign that says “Reference.” She looks at you with a pleasant smile and eyelids raised to communicate approachability. You walk up to her skeptically, out of curiosity, and she speaks first, saying, “May I help you?”

Your natural response is, “Oh, no, I’m just here to shop for supper – sorry to bother you.”

She puts a hand on your arm to stop you from leaving, saying, “No, that’s what I’m here for, to help you select the best produce for your needs. What are you planning to cook?”

“Well, just a stir-fry – but really, I’ve got a shopping list, and I’d like to just do my own shopping.”

She says, “Wait a moment! Not to imply anything about your knowledge of produce, but I am an expert, and I can help you make better produce purchase decisions than you would likely make for yourself.”

“(Ahem) Ok, well, could you just point me to the snow peas?”

“Of course – yes, they’re over there next to the mushrooms.”

“Thanks very much,” you answer, and continue with your shopping, wondering what kind of supermarket you’re shopping in.

As an analogy to reference service, this is obviously evil, because library users do understand what the reference desk is for, expect it to be there, and appreciate our assistance. But most reference librarians are also aware of how many library patrons seem to have no need for them. On my campus of 10,000 students, I know that only a small number make use of the services of reference librarians. Last year one student assumed that the desk was there for surveillance purposes, that the person sitting at it was a security guard, watching the students to make sure they didn’t do anything wrong. The student I offered to help the other day first felt uncomfortable accepting my help because she didn’t want to waste my time, and then didn’t want it because she felt she could do a better job responding to her own information needs than I could, and more efficiently. I have no way of knowing that she was wrong, not having the opportunity to do more of a reference interview and lacking knowledge of her own research strategy. It does seem that students and many members of the public today consider themselves more self-sufficient in their information seeking than they did a generation ago. So the devil’s question is, how unlike an unwanted vegetable consultant is the reference librarian of today, really? What do you think?

4 comments on “Are we the friendly produce consultants of the information age?

  1. Nice post!

    We’re quite like them indeed, I agree with that but it’s as u say: people expect us to be there.

    When I walk into a supermarket, I usually know my way around and I know what I want..but now and then I need some advice. Special meal or occasion, something like that.

    Today I had a reference shift and for the first time in months i actually got a lot of questions. An older woman, with their in her eyes who needed help with search for a poem. She just lost her grandchild and could not do it on her own.

    A student who did not know about Interlibrary Loan and scientific databases.

    Someone who used wifi and wondered if he could use a wireless printer too

    Someone who wondered if we offered a flatbed-scanner as well.

    Someone who needed recipes (yes :-)) for olive oli-bases meals.

    And so on.

    It seemed like most of the people who DID came in felt like asking questions too.

    A rare situation. Usually it’s more like your description.

    But just to be sure, let’s hang around a bit longer…

  2. In many situations, I think, one doesn’t need the services of a reference librarian, just as they wouldn’t need the services of a grocery reference person. I don’t need help finding snow peas, but later on I might well ask the wine person for a recommendation on what wine to serve with my stir fry. I would like to think that we can help people who have more complex questions. How exactly we go about letting them know that is, I suppose, the problem.

  3. Here in the UK I usually buy my fruit and veg from the local (year round) market vendor. He regularly cuts up some especially tempting and delicious fruit to demonstrate the fruit he thinks is the best of the day. Since I live in an area that has a large number of Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants lots of the fruit and veg are unfamiliar to me. I have learned to try new things, relying on him to talk me through cooking methods or recipe ideas. Last week he had a Jack fruit, a giant spiny-looking thing that tastes like a cross between a papaya and an apple. I was skeptical about the handful of jackfruit seeds he pressed on me with the instruction to boil them like potatoes, peel and eat, until I followed his instructions and wound up eating a summer dish that reminded me of boiled chestnuts–delicious.
    My veg man knows my name, who my husband is, and what sort of things we tend to eat. He is keen to point out new items, suggest new ways of cooking old favourites, and generally make it so that I look forward to my weekly visit to the market. When I wanted to make marmalade last January he was able to get me a case of Seville oranges, and he remembered to save a case of damsons for this summer’s jam making.
    I would argue that he is an inspirational model for the reference librarian–and that the supermarket analogy is a telling example of how the modern library has lost the plot.

  4. Like you, I’ve know students who think we are there for security — like a study hall supervisor, at best. I don’t think the purpose of the reference desk is understood at all much of the time. I love your grocery reference encounter!! It does a great job of helping turn the situation into one that looks absurd — and which is what I think some (many?) people experience in encountering a reference desk. AND, I love the comment posted by Kathy Whalen to provide us a direction to head in response. Thanks!!

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