Monday, December 7, 2009

The Impossible Reference Question?

In library school a frequent topic in my reference classes was how to conduct a good reference interview with a patron. I had a question at work yesterday that even with training from school and a few years of experience at the reference desk I was unable to answer. Here's a summary:

Me: "Reference and Information desk, can I help you?
Patron on phone: "Hello...I need to find David. He lives in Evanston. I need his phone number. Can you find David's number for me?"

To begin I asked a couple more questions, what was David's last name and how was the last name spelled. Unfortunately the more I spoke with the patron the more I realized the woman on the phone was unable to give me the information I needed. Mentally she wasn't comprehending what I was asking her and was not able to either spell the name or give me more information on David. I didn't know how to help her.

As I waited on the phone while she struggled to describe who David was and where he lived I realized although she had the voice of an adult woman she was communicating at the level of a small child. After a few minutes of listening to her repeatedly ask me to find David's number in Evanston I asked a fellow reference librarian if she had any suggestions on how to help her. She spoke with the patron but was also unable to get any more information. At that point we ended the call with the suggestion to contact us again when she had an address or last name of David.

So I'm wondering what more I could have done to help her? This particular patron was unable to answer the questions we asked her and was really asking an impossible question, to find a person named David who lived in the city of Evanston. As a librarian I hate being unable to help a patron no matter what the question is and I'm hoping that the woman has someone kind helping her wherever she is. Maybe they should include this topic in library school reference classes, how to handle a patron without the mental capacity to ask the questions they need answered.

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