One of the first things I learned in library school (despite my sometimes disparaging comments about the general state of library education, I did learn some things there) is what I now think of as the IANALIANADIANAA disclaimer. I Am Not A Doctor I Am Not A Lawyer I Am Not An Accountant. If you work in a public library, you know the drill: I can help you print off a list of workers comp attorneys in the area, but I can’t give you any advice about your workers compensation case. I can help you search MedlinePlus, but I can’t give you a diagnosis or advice about your prescriptions. I can show you where the tax forms are, and I can even print more off for you, but I can’t do your taxes.
Those are all easy enough: my legal knowledge is close to nonexistent; my knowledge of medical conditions, despite being the daughter of a doctor, is limited solely to psychiatric disorders; and I have a computer program do my taxes.
But often I get questions at the desk that are looking for other kinds of advice, and these are harder to interpret.
At my first-ever library job, I worked regularly at the children’s desk. I got a lot of questions from adults, though, perhaps because the actual reference desk at that library was a fortress-like monstrosity with staplers and scissors chained to it, or perhaps because I was closest to the copy machine. One evening a young woman came in with a paper she was writing, wondering if I could proofread it.
I was fairly certain that this was outside the bounds of “other duties as described,” and that I was in fact supposed to tell her that I could not do that for her. But it was a quiet night in the library, and it was a short paper, just a page long, and I used to teach freshman composition. I said okay. I did a quick job, fixing just proofreading stuff, since that was what she had asked for, but she clearly needed more help. I asked what school she went to. It was a community college nearby, so while she went to use the computer, I did a little sleuthing. Sure enough, they had what sounded to me like a writing center. I jotted down the information, and before the patron left, I gave it to her, suggesting she stop by or give them a call. She thanked me.
Then I emailed the contact person I found listed on the page for the center, just to let him know I’d sent someone there, and hoping that it was the right place. He wrote back the next day, and I still remember his words. “It breaks my heart that students don’t know about the center.” I told him I’d do my best to spread the word.
Over the years as a librarian I’ve gotten a lot of questions from patrons that hover on the boundary between providing library reference services and providing advice. I’m not, I suppose, supposed to tell people that their resume would look better if they formatted it differently, or that yeah, it does sound as though the situation with their landlord does sound like a case for the tenant-landlord association. And I don’t go right out and tell them these things, or walk around looking for those situations. But I can’t claim never to have answered such a question.
The other night I went to hear a talk by the historian Staughton Lynd. He spoke about the organizing mistakes of SNCC and of SDS‘s ERAP project*, and about the philosophy of accompaniment. He realized, he said, that after he got his law degree and went to work with steelworkers and later prisoners, that he suddenly had skills to offer to a fight that belonged to both of them, not just some amorphous idea of how he wanted to help people and do good. And he talked about something his wife Alice said at the time, when she was doing draft counseling: “The meeting between the draft counselor and the draft counselee is a meeting between two experts.” I don’t think I’ve ever heard a more perfect definition of library work, and I got to tell Alice Lynd that after the talk.
In her case, she was the one who knew all about draft boards and regulations and the requirements for being a conscientious objector, but the draft counselee was the one who was an expert on his own life, on what it would mean for him if he had to go to war, on what it would mean for his family and his own conscience.
I am an expert on searching databases and using basic computer programs. I am an expert on circulation policies. But the patrons are the experts on their own lives — on their job searches, on their quests for knowledge, on the books that got taken with a non-custodial parent after a divorce, on the experience of having a relative or friend in the prison system whom they’re trying to locate.
I always tell people that I went into librarianship on the theory that at least it would do no harm, and that’s true, but that’s not all of it. I went into librarianship because I have the skills for it, and because, as it turns out, those are useful skills. They’re skills that allow me, even for just the few moments of a reference transaction, to encounter another expert, and to work together with her. I am, daily, humbled by that experience, and I hope I always will be.
*Remind me some day in my copious spare time to contribute to some of these Wikipedia articles.