So I know I like to have a little bit of fun here on Librarian in a Banana Suit. In the last few months alone I’ve written about helping patrons find sex books, finding out if betrothed couples are second cousins or not, and scouring the catalog for novels about psychoactive soy sauce.
But there are many other facets to this job, too — many of them quite sobering. Working closely with the public as trusted liaisons between them and their deepest information desires, we’re often asked very sensitive questions: we receive reference inquiries about domestic violence, unemployment, learning disabilities, and sexuality, and I’m astounded and humbled that patrons think of the public library as a place to find answers to these kinds of questions. We can often refer them to social service agencies around the community, which I like to think means we’ve connected them with information that will ultimately really help them.
That’s not what happened a few weeks ago, though. I was asked a different sort of question, one that was incredibly sensitive but indeed required the skills of a reference librarian. Towards the end of the evening, a patron came in to look for the obituary of her friend. She had been trying to get a hold of him on the phone for months when a mutual acquaintance told her that he’d committed suicide earlier this fall. “I just want black and white confirmation, in print, that it’s true,” she told me.
This is the kind of question that, although it technically falls under the librarian’s domain, we don’t really learn how to answer in library school, nor are we taught how in our on-the-job training. Yet I found myself employing the same reference tools — orienting myself to new databases, searching newspaper archives, trying alternate spellings and truncation, following breadcrumb information trails — until I finally located an obituary aggregator that pointed towards the Social Security Death Index. He was there, with a date of death that matched what she’d been told.
I’ve never been in that position before: of telling someone that her friend has passed. She’d been sitting at a table reading while I conducted the search, and so I was able to pull up a chair next to her instead of telling her from across a desk. I’d made a print-out for her to keep — the “black and white confirmation, in print” that she’d requested — and then described where I’d located the information. Then I told her I was really sorry.
About a month ago, I read a column in American Libraries questioning whether librarians should be authorized to practice “bibliotherapy”: introducing readers to books, both fiction and nonfiction, that may help them deal with personal problems and begin the process of healing. Psychologists have cited a concern that bibliotherapy, when practiced by non-experts, is not based on empirically validated solutions and may actually be detrimental to recovery. The same could be said for any number of sensitive information topics, including having to tell someone about the suicide of her friend. But when someone comes to the reference desk looking for help, before turning her away I want to step back and ask myself: is there anything I can do to help this person, as one human being to another? Although some situations can be exceptionally sensitive, I think librarians must be on the right track as long as we’ve honestly acknowledged our positions, and convey information always with empathy, and kindness.