Reference: don’t be an asshole.

librarianship

I read an article on Lifehacker today entitled How to Know When You’re Wrong (and What You Can Do About It). Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we’re arguing with people who insists they are right in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Dachis’s article explains practical steps to take when you find yourself being the unreasonable party.

One of his suggestions was to fight that drive to hold on to erroneous beliefs. Intuitively, we all know that something isn’t true simply because we believe it to be. Yet, we often find ourselves seeking out evidence to back up our own claims. This, obviously, is detrimental to good communication and, what’s worse, our own intellectual development. It got me to thinking, though, about reference service.

It has been about a year since I staffed a reference desk. At the time, I had lots of library experience and was a fresh library school graduate. Right before I left that position, I was helping a young girl and her mother find books for a report on evolution. When we made it to the stacks, the mother felt the need to clarify that, while her daughter was required to write the report, her family simply didn’t believe in something so silly.

Instantly, a switch was flipped in my head. I was no longer helping a girl find a book; instead, I was now tasked with educating these neanderthals. It was up to me to loose them from their shackles so they could see that their Intelligent Design beliefs were nothing but shadows flickering on the wall of a cave. So, instead of finding books on evolution, I started seeking out books that detailed why Intelligent Design is wrong and others that didn’t even acknowledge it as a possibility. As a testament to my folly, I sent a girl in middle school away with Richard fucking Dawkins.

And that’s just an example. Thinking back, I’ve done that tons of times. And I’ve seen other people do it, too. As librarians, we bring certain skill sets to the table and it’s hard to let them go. We should use our expertise to educate us in our research, but never as a rule book. When we provide our customers with materials that support the positions we personally hold, we are doing a disservice. It is in our best interest to be objective.

Think about that the next time a customer irritates you. Are you, in some way, being an asshole when providing research assistance? Are you being the Rush Limbaugh of reference?

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4 thoughts on “Reference: don’t be an asshole.

  1. “I was no longer helping a girl find a book; instead, I was now tasked with educating these neanderthals.”

    Pun intended? Heh.

    Sometimes I go to mass at work. There’s some lady who, when the priest asks for prayers, yells out, with an edge to her voice, “That the evil of abortion may end.” I fucking hate her so much. And I’m sitting in mass, where I’m supposed to be clearing my head and getting into a spiritual zone, and I want to punch her in the face. I am aware of my hypocrisy. But she’s a bitch and I hate her.

  2. When my son (now 12) asks me a question regarding politics or religion, I try my best to be objective. I usually just tell him my position up front (even though he usually knows), but then proceed to try to explain the others without using too much bias. It’s difficult.

    1. It’s hard. With your kids, it’s especially important, I think. I know that there plenty of beliefs my parents instilled in me that I vehemently disagree with now. Children need guidance, sure, but there’s a fine line to walk between that and unintentional indoctrination. It’s really cool that you make the effort to be objective; I don’t think that most do.

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