For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
March 27, 2002 - The Community Reference Question
Sometimes, you come to the library with a question.
It isn't always clear, though. Sometimes, where the question starts isn't where it ends. For instance, you might begin by asking, "Do you have anything on the Civil War?"
We say, "Yes! Heaps! Can you tell me a little more about what you're looking for? Are you trying to find out how it started? Are you curious about some of the key military leaders?"
By degrees, by fits and starts and stages, the real question finally comes out. You aren't after general information about the Civil War. You want to know the maiden name of the wife of Jefferson Davis, the provisional President of the Confederacy.
From there, it's really pretty simple. (And in case you're wondering, the answer is Sarah Taylor, daughter of Davis' commander, Colonel Zachary Taylor, who later became a general and President of the United States.)
This process -- going from the first question to the real question -- is known to librarians as "the reference interview." Our librarians are pretty good at it. When someone comes to the library (or calls, or even emails us), the odds are very good that we'll be able to track down the answer to their question, at least once we know what the question really is.
But just suppose that you never got around to asking us. Then, one day, we call YOU. "I was talking to a friend of yours," says the librarian. "He says you wanted to know the maiden name of Jeff Davis' wife. We've got that for you. It was ..."
In other words, suppose we answered the question you never got around to asking us?
Sometimes, whole communities have questions. Just as with our patrons, the questions aren't always clear. They start off in one direction, but come to rest somewhere else entirely.
Suppose we applied our reference interview expertise to those problems? Suppose we tried to answer community reference questions?
This isn't to say that the library will BE the answer to the question. For instance, the community question might be, "How do we manage our water resources intelligently?"
The answer might be a whole host of strategies. The change of zoning laws to prohibit Kentucky bluegrass. Dams. Special additives to the lawn that soak up moisture, and release it slowly over a period of months.
That doesn't mean that the library will sell desert grass seed, build a dam, or sponsor scientific breakthroughs.
But we could summarize our research for publication in local newspapers. We could buy more books and videos about desert seeds. We could bring in speakers to talk about successful dam projects. We could plant demonstration library lawns.
It could be, from now on, that you'll find more librarians sitting in on your local meetings. Why are we there? Because it's our job. We're listening. We're asking questions. We're trying to help our communities find some answers.