The tale of the terrible digital reference interaction, part I

Portrait of the pickup artist named Mystery

Mystery, a famous pickup artist.

Once upon a time (last March), my Reference and Information Services professor, the wonderful Michelle Holschuh-Simmons, asked us to complete observation analyses of two providers of reference services. I chose to unobtrusively observe the reference desk for a few hours at my local public library and participate in a reference interview as a patron with the digital reference service to which the library subscribed, AskNow, which has since ceased operation.

I chose a reference question and a fake persona for my digital reference interview. I was an SJSU undergraduate student who wanted to know about the pickup artist phenomenon in popular culture for a women’s studies class.

Now, before I continue with the story, let me emphasize how relaxed I was before the reference interview. It was to be conducted via instant messaging (IM). I had never communicated with a librarian via IM before, but I’ve been using IM software for ten years. I can adapt to new interfaces quickly. I’ve IMed with coworkers, friends, family, and casual acquaintances. I figured I could handle whatever this digital reference interview threw at me.

I was wrong. So wrong. I’ll give you the short version of what happened: the librarian to whom I was assigned (let’s call him James) knew nothing about the pickup artist phenomenon and asked me to explain it to him. I panicked. How much information did he need? Would he get impatient and cut me off halfway through my typing the explanation? I scrambled to come up with a professional-sounding explanation. It took a while, and soon after I hit the return key, he asked me where I went to school. I told him I went to SJSU, and he directed me to the SJSU King Library’s databases. At least he had the courtesy to show me what the database homepage looked like via screencast. James then told me I could sign on again if I had further questions, bade me goodnight and signed off. Nary an open-ended question in sight (save for the “what is the pickup artist phenomenon” question)!

After the IM session ended, I started kicking myself for telling James I was a student. You see, it gave him an easy out. “She has her own library,” he probably thought.* “Why is she coming to us with this?” That brings up a good question. Is there such a thing as a wrong patron for a library? Yes, in some cases. For instance, I wouldn’t have asked a medical librarian to tell me about pickup artists. If the medical librarian had a sense of humor, they might point me to some resources on venereal diseases, but their job is to serve doctors and patients. The digital reference service, on the other hand, is there to serve everybody, including college students. The same goes for public libraries.

While James actually served me, as a library student, I found his approach to my question lazy. Our interaction could barely be called an interview. Where were the open-ended questions? For instance, he could have asked, “what kind of resources are you hoping to find?” or “what exactly are you writing your paper on?” or “in what ways are pickup artists a part of pop culture today?” I didn’t want to help him, either, because I wanted to mimic what a shy patron without actual library experience would do. All in all, I think I did the right things.

I thought I’d end this part of the story by answering my own reference question. Below is a list of resources that someone might find helpful when writing about the pickup artist phenomenon in popular culture.

  • Grazian, D.G. (2007). The girl hunt: Urban nightlife and the performance of masculinity as a collective activity. Symbolic Interaction, 30(2), 221-243.
  • Kilgannon, C. (2007, November 4). The art of the pickup, as novices seek advice. New York Times, p. 1.
  • Lianne, G. (2005). Ladykillers. Maclean’s, 118(36), 38-40.

And, if you’re interested in casual ethnography:

Well, that’s it for part I. In part II, I’ll discuss why I think instant messaging is not always the best choice for digital reference interactions.

*My other theory is that James leads a secret life as a pickup artist and doesn’t want some nosy college student discovering the techniques he uses to bed thousands of women a year.

4 responses to “The tale of the terrible digital reference interaction, part I

  1. Oh, clearly the latter theory about James’ secret life is correct. Could he also be the Annoyed Librarian, thus giving him a doubly-secret life?

    Seriously, though, I think there’s another aspect of this transaction worthy of consideration. How comfortable do librarians feel providing reference assistance on a topic they are not familiar with? I know this is a concern for LIS students. Is it a concern we “grow out of” with more experience or are even experienced librarians uncomfortable helping patrons with topics outside their comfort / knowledge zone?

    Thanks for recommending my blog on your resource list (LIS Conversations After Class). I’m enjoying your blog’s insights into student life and will follow it from now on!

    • Thanks! I refer to your blog often when looking for advice on getting through and succeeding in library school.

      You bring up an excellent point. Now that I think about it, I might have come across as a little insensitive to his discomfort! I do feel bad that I came at him from left field with that question, I just wish he wasn’t so quick to dismiss my question. I figured a difficult question would lead to an in-depth reference interview. At the same time, I am one of those concerned LIS students you mentioned who is frightened of receiving those types of reference questions. Dealing with discomfort wasn’t discussed much in my reference course. I’ll have to ask some librarians for input. Thanks for bringing this up. I’m going to tie it into my next post!


    • P.S. I didn’t even consider the Annoyed Librarian possibility. Noted.

  2. Pingback: The tale of the terrible digital reference interaction, part II « YA & MLIS (almost)

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