Academic journal article Notes

Music Reference as a Calling an Essay

Academic journal article Notes

Music Reference as a Calling an Essay

Article excerpt

Not long ago, I answered a routine reference question for a graduate student who is a regular user of the library. He did not thank me immediately but moved away and paused for a moment, looking a little embarrassed. Then he walked back to me and burst out: "People like you are worth their weight in gold. Thank you for your calling into this area." It was my turn to be embarrassed, and I mumbled an inadequate "You're always welcome." Now, I am used to people being effusively grateful for small favors at the reference desk, so I was not entirely surprised by the level of thanks. But I had not thought of music reference as a "calling" before, and his comment spurred me to think more deeply about what I was doing in my job. This essay is the product of that thinking. I reflect on my own experience of music reference, draw conclusions that I believe can be applied to any reference desk, and discuss the style and philosophy of reference that I have developed over the years. All the questions and dialogues quoted are verbatim reports from conversations at our reference desk (honest!).


It is a commonplace of teaching about "the reference interview" in library schools that users often do not know what they need, or if they do, they often do not know how to express it. What library school did not prepare me for was the variety of means users employ to evade the question and the reasons why they evade it.

A common opening gambit at the reference desk is some variant of "I know this is a stupid question, but...." What the user generally means by employing the word "stupid" is: "I think I ought to know this already, so I'm embarrassed to ask." Underneath, there is a fear of appearing stupid which the user begins to address by using the word itself. It is customary for librarians to laugh at the "stupid" questions they receive, and I have seen several lists of them circulating on E-mail. Typical examples: "Do you have a list of all the books I've ever read?"; "I need to find out Ibid's first name for my bibliography." Okay, these questions can be fun, but they usually have a logic of their own, and most are far from stupid. Let us rather laud the questioners for their bravery. Here is a recent example:

UNDERGRADUATE: I have a really stupid question....

ME: What would you like to know?

UNDERGRADUATE: Well, a friend of mine told me that you have a score of all Mozart's horn concertos on this floor and I can't find it.

This is a good question. Most of the scores are on the floor above the reference desk. The score he has in mind is in the Neue Mozart Ausgabe, which is shelved on the same floor as the reference desk.

How about this dialogue, which begins with a question that is apparently ludicrous in a music library?

UNDERGRADUATE: Do you have music in this library?

ME: We have lots of music in this library--scores and recordings. What kind of music are you looking for?

UNDERGRADUATE: I'd rather not say.

ME: Well, are you a singer or an instrumentalist?


ME: [sizing her up and cutting to the chase] Are you looking for a song from a musical for an audition?


ME: You're a singer, then.

UNDERGRADUATE: No, I don't think I'm good enough to call myself a singer.

The student is probably a freshman and has clearly never been in the Music Library--perhaps any music library--before. She tries an "icebreaking" gambit. I try to get her to the point. Her reply throws me for a moment, then I try a direct question. Again, her reply throws me at first. What does she really want? Something about her age and demeanor tells me she is a singer, and it is common to have inexperienced users looking for songs for auditions, so I try that. My informed guess turns out to be correct, and her reply fills in the logic of her bashful "No" and "I'd rather not say. …

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