What To Do When You Know You Should Know Something But You Don't

As reference librarians, we are expected by the public to be know it alls. Many patrons ask me questions and they seem surprised when I consult a resource to answer their question. I have also fielded questions over the phone where the patron has said, "If you don't know it off the top of your head, don't bother looking it up--I'm in a hurry." Sometimes this confidence can be a refreshing moment in a day of lost books, damaged books, disputed fines, rowdy patrons, and long lines. At other times, however, it can be a tad disconcerting because sometimes, we haven't got a clue.

Now, the problem isn't always that we don't know anything. Sometimes, the patron is mumbling (or we're hard of hearing.) Sometimes, the patron was sleeping:
"Do you have Raven in the World, by Aldiss Hussey?"
"Do you mean Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley?"

Sometimes, we're wrestling with inadequate technology, like a million dollar catalog that struggles when you search for more than two terms at a time. Sometimes, the patron doesn't have a clue (just kidding, the patron's always right.)

Anyway, after we say, "I'm sorry, could you please repeat that?" there are a number of things we can focus on to keep our patrons confident in our abilities.

First, we must radiate assurance as we subtly Google the bizarre words that we thought we just heard. This is the point where we are silently thankful for Google's "Did you mean...." result that can make us look so intelligent when we say, "Ah, yes. Here it is!_____________" and say the phrase correctly as if the patron said it that way to begin with. Yes Google is scanning our libraries, serving as the first resource for curious patrons and putting us out of jobs, but really, this kind of image protection is priceless. Just don't let the patrons know what you did.

Next, blame the computer. The patron has no idea what's going on on your side of the monitor. They believe that we are whipping through secret databases, archives or technical "web stuff." They don't have to know that you're frantically Googling, Amazoning, Worldcatting or whatever alternate resource you are using because your catalog freaks out when too much is asked of it (au: Grisham AND su:lawyers....1,000 results....au:Grisham AND su:lawyers AND kw:cancer....does not compute.)

Third, use clarifying questions that help you avoid exposing your lack of knowledge, while you try to piece together the information the patron is really looking for. This is similar to the tactics many of us use when we can't remember someones name: "Hey there, you. I haven't seen you since...since...since....How long has it been?" In library terms, this would involve questions like, "How do you intend to use this information?" or "What aspects of the subject do you wish to know about?" or "Tell me what you know about it so far." Caveat: This approach does not work well if the patron's question was, "Where is the restroom?"

Finally, if all else fails, casually laugh and tell the patron that you don't really work there--you were just looking for the real librarian--and slowly walk away.

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