21 March 2013

Fending for Myself: Why I've Learned My Way Around the Library

In yesterday's post I wrote about how I'd made "one of my rare visits" to my local library's reference desk and ended up submitting my first interlibrary loan (ILL) request. I also mentioned that I'd become "so used to fending for myself that it had never occurred to me to let someone else handle the details" of tracking down the column I so desperately wanted. I didn't elaborate on why I prefer to figure things out for myself in a library setting, but I know the habit started early in life.

The first library I remember going to was located in a little town not far from the Tri-Cities area in Washington. I must have been around four years old at the time, and thanks to Sesame Street, I was already reading. During one trip to this library, a book on a display shelf had caught my eye, but for some reason I hadn't taken it home. A new display was set up by the time I returned, so the book I'd hoped to check out that time had been reshelved. I remembered the title, though, so I actually asked a staff member to help me find it.

In retrospect, I'm not sure how I worked up the nerve to do that, because I was terribly shy as a child. I must have really wanted that book, or maybe it was the staff member who approached me. At any rate, I found myself asking about Litter—The Ugly Enemy. I must have been nervous, because I seem to recall that my question came out very quickly, with all the words mashed together:


I had to repeat myself when the staff member couldn't decipher my garbled request:


I upped the volume, but the speed remained constant.

At some point I finally managed to make myself clear and left the library with Litter—The Ugly Enemy: An Ecology Story in my hot little hands. And what a page-turner it was! (Not really. I only remember the title and cover image.)

Looking back, that encounter has all the trappings of a successful information-seeking experience. I communicated an information need and eventually received the book I didn't know how to find on my own. But did that long-ago event contribute to my current "lone unicorn" approach to information seeking? I believe it did.

Four-year-olds aren't exactly known for their crystal-clear communication skills, but I remember very clearly the frustration I felt when an adult didn't understand me. Being misunderstood happened often at that age. So many thoughts went crashing around inside my head that I wasn't able to express, because I didn't have the words. And when I used the words I did have to the best of my ability but still couldn't manage to get my point across, the frustration was nearly unbearable.

I'd like to think my communication skills and vocabulary have improved significantly since then, but sometimes I wonder. Last summer I was pretty sure I'd asked a library staff member why a certain book wasn't on the shelf in their non-circulating reference section. He appeared to be listening, but this was the answer I got: "Yes, the reference section's over there." Say what?! Obviously, the only words that got through to him were "reference section." Even though I have a more impressive vocabulary than my four-year-old self, it's still frustrating to be misunderstood.

That's why I like to cut out the middleman whenever possible. I hate relying on information waiters who tune out when I'm in the middle of placing my order, so I've learned to serve myself . . . and what a buffet it is! As the lone unicorn of the library, I know where all the good grazing spots are, and I feast often and well.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. I love George Bernard Shaw's famous quote that says "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place." Thank you for sharing something I can so identify with!

    Your lone unicorn approach is definitely my style, and I hope to read more about your grazing patterns soon.