Magazine article American Libraries

On-the-Fly Reference: The Art of Answering Burning Questions in the Nevada Desert. (Reference)

Magazine article American Libraries

On-the-Fly Reference: The Art of Answering Burning Questions in the Nevada Desert. (Reference)

Article excerpt

As librarians, we can see them coming a mile away. People with questions. They see something in our eyes and know we have the answer, or know where to find it. We're mistaken for clerks in stores, hosts at parties, and librarians in other libraries. No wonder librarianship is often described as more of a calling than a job.

"Library people develop a generally benign facial expression for the workplace, which they keep on all day," says Seneca College, Toronto, library educator Karen Olcen. Our dispositions indicate a willingness to help and not ridicule, and perhaps to even find the elusive answer. As a result, we often do information work in our off-hours, either as volunteers or as ready reference for friends and relatives.

This sort of on-the-fly reference is at once familiar and foreign. Many of us reach instinctively for the keyboard that isn't there, or wish that we were back with our books. Often we are working with or for nonlibrarians who have a different idea of the job to be done. Makeshift information desks are often added as an afterthought at large events, to keep the organizers free for more managerial tasks.

"I feel like a sort of information MacGyver," one librarian told me. "I have to try to answer questions only using the materials I have available."

I have frequently found myself doing on-the-fly reference. I have worked at info desks at Seattle's Folklife Festival, the Direct Action Network headquarters during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests, and in August 2001 I staffed the Playa Info desk at Burning Man, a seven-day outdoor music and art festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert. Other librarians I have spoken with have worked at infoshop desks at demonstrations, written annotated bibliographies for musicians, done research for nonprofit groups in their communities, and frequently acted as personal librarians for friends.

As Coco Halverson, reference coordinator at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, related to me, "My cell phone will ring as I am eating dinner and my movie-industry pal might frantically ask 'Coco! Does an elk make noise? I'm doing sound effects and have a deadline of midnight!' Well certainly, let me just reach in my purse for the 13-volume set of Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia!"

When I worked at Playa Info at Burning Man (, I felt well-prepared. My ability to subtly queue people with a quick glance meaning, "I see you, and you will be the third person I can speak with" amazed my colleagues. The top questions were, as expected:

"What time is it?"

"Where are the bathrooms?"

"What are the upcoming events?"

However, the next tier of questions and concerns were all new to me:

"We're out of water and need to get some more, quickly."

"I can't find my friends, can you help me?"

"Is the nearest phone really 12 miles away?" It was.

When we ran out of maps by the fifth day, everyone with a location question was either walked over to the one big map or taken outside and pointed in the proper direction. The most helpful reference tools we had were mini-maps, small circles of paper printed with the general street layout. We could put a big red dot where the person needed to go, hand it to them and off they'd go. I wore one of these maps on my outfit at all times to make sure people knew they were available.

In the public library, we rarely, if ever, need to answer questions that could immediately affect someone's health or welfare. At Burning Man, many of the problems we solved were in this vein:

"I'm locked out of my car. What do I do?"

"My dog is missing. Who can help?"

"I'm out of my medication. Where can I find some?"

Add to that the fact that many of the questioners were sunburned, hungry, thirsty, tired, half-dressed or undressed, or under the influence of something, and our work was cut out for us. …

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