As I've repeatedly suggested, sometimes the hardest part of doing an effective reference interview is overcoming my own annoyance with or even prejudice against customers who don't know what they're asking for.
Apparently, I have a not-so-latent, A-student resentment toward people who not only don't know things but don't know how to find out for themselves. As I told a colleague: "Kinda makes you wonder why I became a librarian, doesn't it?"
Fortunately, customers keep walking up to the service desk, whether or not I want them to, and they keep asking for help, whether or not they know what they are talking about. Sometimes it can make life interesting...if I pull back on my own choke collar and really pay attention.
One day recently, I was double-teamed by two friends who walked up, both of them with confounding questions, the original versions of which bore only a superficial relationship to the information they each actually needed.
Customer One said he needed help to find out the statute of limitations on a law.
I groaned to myself for several reasons.
First, even if I pretend to know how to search legal questions, I know that state statutes are unconscionably difficult to search, even when you know where to start. Even if I could find the law, finding a statute of limitations could be a labyrinthine process.
Second, from experience I've learned that the typical customer knows most of what he thinks he knows about law from TV. TV reduces law to dramatic clichés and misinterpreted urban legends (just as it does every other subject), and viewers grab hold of what they think they heard and insist that they know the real facts—never mind that they've just asked a professionally trained librarian to help them *harrumph!*.
All this meant that, instead of beginning with an online search, I started walking Customer One over toward the print version of the Florida Statutes, partly to stall while I asked further questions, partly so that I could show him just how labyrinthine a search we might have to do...if he actually needed to know about a statute of limitations, which I doubted.
"Well, which law are we looking for? What's you situation?"
"I'm trying to rent an apartment, and the landlord refuses because I did time in prison thirty-five years ago. I want to find out what the statute of limitations on that law is."
I know that "statute of limitations" refers to how long after a crime a person can still be prosecuted for the crime, not to how long after incarceration a person who is trying to gain employment, housing, etc., can legally be denied. We're actually looking for something else.
"In that case," I said, "it shouldn't matter what crime you were convicted of or how much time you did or when. The question is, can a landlord deny you housing?"
"I think what we really need to do is find out who can help you out with fair housing matters. Let's go back to my desk while I hunt."
Through a series of steps, I managed to find the local office of the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
I called that office, identified myself, and explained that, though I knew I might be calling the wrong office, I had a customer who needed help with a "fair housing" issue. When I briefly described the situation, the HUD staffer hummed and hawed, yet she agreed to talk with my customer.
I winced when he started all over again at the very beginning of his problem presentation to me.
However, the HUD staffer apparently knew how to do reference interviews, too. She must have told him what steps he needed to take, whom he needed to talk with, etc., because he finally thanked her, said goodbye, and shook my hand.
"There's a statue in a public park that really needs to come down 'cause it's offensive, and I want you to tell me how to get it down!"
Silly me! Because I know and like it, the first statue I thought of which some people might find offensive was the "Winged Victory" in Jacksonville's Memorial Park.
However, I knew not to ask what statue or what park. Don't need to go there. Not my business. What I did needed to ask was what he'd already done...if anything.
"Well, I thought about calling __________________," he said, naming a local politician who thrives on controversy.
"Yeah, that might work," I deadpanned. "Let's see whom you would need to contact in the City's Department of Recreation and Community Service, since they manage the parks. That's where you would first want to file a complaint."
Maybe the reader can find a phone number for Parks on this website. (Tell me in a comment.) I gave up after several minutes of being led in circles through different links.
I apologized and directed Customer Two to 630-CITY, Jacksonville's helpline.
"This is the City's helpline. They will know whom you should talk to and how you should file your complaint. Sorry I can't find the direct phone number. It used to be on the City's website, but I guess they've changed that."
I grrred to myself silently, but, fortunately, my customer was satisfied with this alternative.
So, two customers whom I didn't feel like helping, because they didn't know what they really needed, challenged me—without knowing they had—to be a real librarian for real people.
It would be nice if I eventually learn this lesson for good, since it keeps coming round on the wheel.