What Not to Ask

PUBLIB is running a thread on why people are reluctant to ask for help in a library. Several posters state it’s a no-no to use the h-word when asking patrons if they need assistance. I had no idea that the simple act of asking someone if they need help sends certain individuals screaming into the stacks without a even an ISBN number.


So why is it so hard to ask us for help? Is it the pilled sweater pulled over last summer’s reading contest t-shirt? The latte stain on the knit tie? Or that blizzard of crumpled kleenex that spills out of our sleeves when we bend over to pick up a miniature golf pencil? Maybe it’s because some patrons harbor a deep, dark fear of the library and its inhabitants, from the homeless guy snoring face down in the middle of the latest issue of Allure to the slightly creepy library tech who just loves shelving books in the true crime section. So what do we as professionals do? According to the latest research in phobia treatment, sufferers who confront their fears head-on or even try slightly risky behavior (running to the edge of the roof of a high-rise building for those with vertigo, for instance) do better than those who indulge in avoidance behavior. As a public service to those of you dealing with shy patrons, I present possible opening salvos that are guaranteed to help them face their worst lack-of-knowledge nightmare:

  • Give up?
  • I have a master’s degree in this–what makes you think you can find it on your own??
  • You should have learned this stuff in high school, ‘ya know.
  • It’s for me to know and you to find out.
  • There’s no such thing as a quick question.
  • So who wants to know??
  • The answer is not @ your library.
  • We’re not into managing your knowledge right now.
  • Read. (in the corner, over there, away from this desk….)
  • You waited in line to ask me that???

Please–no need to thank me. The next time see a previously-timid patron sauntering up to the reference desk bursting with confidence due to your constant barrage of humiliating questions, just think of me.

4 Responses

  1. Loren
    Loren February 18, 2004 at 1:03 pm | | Reply

    This would help considerably with the new image of “librarians who kick but” formerly “librarians with guns”…

  2. Laura
    Laura February 19, 2004 at 10:14 am | | Reply

    I’ve taken part in that thread, and actually I don’t think it’s just about libraries. I mean the thread obviously is about libraries, but some people are reluctant to ask for help in general, not just in libraries. I’m thinking here of the oft-quoted (true or not) inability of males to ask for directions for instance. Other people seem to have a hard time with professionals in general. I’ve never done well with doctors or dentists. I never seem to manage to say what I need to say when I’m sitting there.

    I think some people’s fear of help-seeking in libraries is just a specific instance of a general fear. I also think we can sometimes be pretty mean and clueless about dealing with people. Librarians often underestimate the power they have and seem to be unaware of the impression they make on users.

  3. Joan
    Joan February 20, 2004 at 2:05 am | | Reply

    Maybe the fact that you’re telling someone they should have learned these things in high school is enough to make somebody run away screaming. Librarians ARE intimidating. I feel dumb when I ask them questions.

  4. Chessa
    Chessa February 25, 2004 at 8:04 am | | Reply

    I agree with Laura, I think it has to do with a general fear of seeming ignorant. I get sweaty palms when I can’t find something in *gasp* a music store (i’m experiencing anxiety right now just thinking about it!). I don’t usually have the same experience around books, but that’s just me. For other people it’s directions, video stores, libraries.

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