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Serendipity is Not Quantifiable, by Rochelle Hartman

Posted by Editor on June 7, 2011

By Rochelle Hartman, on Tinfoil Raccoon here.

On the back of our statistics sheet, we jot down a few reference questions every few days. We’ve been doing this for about two years for a couple of reasons. For awhile, it felt like all we were doing was looking up phone numbers and logging people on to computers, and frankly, that was kind of depressing. Thankfully, we’ve fixed the computer issue with technology and friendlier policy. We also wanted to be able to present our board with a more narrative version of our work, should they need or want it. I’ve poked through enough literature, lists and discussions to know that few people are convinced that their statistics are truly reflective of the work they do. We’ve talked, as a team, about changing our stats, but those discussions have never gotten traction. Instead, we’ve enhanced them with narrative.

The types of questions we write down tend to be the type that showcase our mad skillz as reference pros–the type that will make the board think, “by golly, they’re earning their keep!” The questions probably aren’t any big deal to you reference types or to Google-fu brown-belters, but I think they show our value to the community beyond logging people onto computers or looking up phone numbers. Here’s a selection from the first half of this year:

  • Information and pictures of hotel decor in 1970s
  • I am giving a workshop on travel for older people. What resources do you have?
  • What is the American Dietetic Association’s position on white mushrooms as far as functional foods are concerned?
  • How much does a family of four spend of food in a week in La Crosse?
  • Wisconsin rule & law for juveniles who are living in residential institutions
  • Strange things are happening in a home in XXXXXXX.  Can you tell me if anything happened here that make it haunted? (This is actually a pretty common question that our Archives Department fields.)
  • Current books on how to approach venture capitalists.

So, these are reasonably meaty questions, and I know that staff spent a good amount of time on them. They are questions that show our expertise and our continuing relevance as a department, because, as we see on a daily basis, most people can’t Google their way out of wet paper sack.

But, that’s not what this post is about. I got a reference question from a young man yesterday, the likes of which is not on the sheet of tracked reference questions. It was so simple that I was able to answer it off the top of my head. And it was so amazing that it made my heart nearly burst with joy. This is the first week of summer vacation, so we’ve had a lot of young people in the library. He looked to be high school-aged, but could have been in college. His question?  “Do you have a poetry section?” Since he was student-aged and a boy, I assumed this was a forced march for him, so I asked him if he was looking for something in particular–maybe even a particular poem (which I would have tried to Google for him). “No, I just want to browse.”  Just. Want. To. Browse…Poetry?  I kept my cool. I probably smiled a little too broadly, but calmly directed him to 811 and let him do what libraries have let patrons do for decades: provide him with the non-commercial experience of leisurely browsing and discovery. Of picking a starting spot, angling his head, and scanning a shelf, maybe several, before something popped out. Maybe it’s a familiar author from a class that makes him pull a book from the shelf. Maybe it’s a marvelous title. Maybe it’s a jacket blurb. Or maybe, like a lot of us, he judges books by their covers. (This is still how I select much of what I read, browsing the recent arrival shelves, and it’s the part I like least about my e-readers.)

My interaction with this patron shows up in my reference tally as a “D” (“Desk”), and hopefully, if we’ve done our job as selectors, it will show up in the circ stats with whatever he’s checked out. But what lies in between, whatever happens in the stacks, only Ranganathan knows. That’s pure serendipity. And serendipity is not quantifiable.

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