01 January 2004

Promiscuous Presidents and Dispensable Penises: A Day in the Life of a Reference Librarian Intern

By Laurie Ito Hardenbergh

[This journal entry is based on the author's experiences as a reference librarian intern at a community college.]

8:59am - I arrive at the library. Although I've been working here for two months, every time I pull into a parking space within a two-minute walk from the library, I can't help but get a little giddy. Parking near my place of employment? For free?! Forget large research libraries - this is the way to go!

9:10am - I observe a bibliographic instruction class for "developmental" students. I soon learn that "developmental" is simply a politically correct term for "really shouldn't be in college yet."

I did not wake up this morning thinking I'd be explaining the ritual removal of sexual organs to a student trying to prove the inherent evilness of Africans.

10:07am - I assist the instructional librarian with guiding the students through a library exercise. I am slightly alarmed upon hearing the librarian remind the students, "Don't forget to put spaces between words."

A student in the front row raises her hand and asks for help with question #3 that asks her to find the author of the book titled (ironically) How to Succeed in College. Her strategy thus far has been to run an author search for "Smith." I ask her why she has chosen to search by author and she simply responds, "I thought someone named Smith might have written it." I force myself to conjure up my most pleasant smile from my waitressing days and tell her that I have a "new way" that will go a lot faster . . .

Another student raises her hand. Much to my astonishment, I find myself having to tell her, "Don't forget to put spaces between words."

Another student tells me she's having trouble finding information on her topic: "Sally Deming," Jefferson's slave and mother of his children. I tell her that she's having problems because the name is actually Sally Hemings. Then I help her use the catalog and am amused to find there is a whole subject heading devoted to "Jefferson Thomas 1743-1826 - Relations with women." In an attempt to interject some humor into this otherwise tiresome class, I say to her, "Wow, Thomas Jefferson slept around so much that the Library of Congress created a whole subject heading for it!" Nothing. Not even a smile. Maybe I've been hanging out with librarians too much. [Mental note: Find out if other presidents have this subdivision on their subject headings.]

Another hand is raised. This guy tells me his father left him when he was really young and he wants to learn about the psychological impact of not having a father. We find some books in the catalog and he wants help finding them on the shelf. On our way to the shelves, he says, "Why don't you just number the books 1, 2, 3, and so on?" I blink. Must . . . suppress . . . urge to . . . be sarcastic . . . Breathe. I smile pleasantly and calmly explain to him that this way he can see all of our books on the same subject grouped together. Moreover, he can go to any academic library and find the same kinds of books in the HQ777s. "Huh!," he exclaims, "That's a pretty good idea!"

11:09am - It turns out that there is a subject heading for "Clinton Bill 1946 - Relations with women." There is also one for "Clinton Bill 1946 - Sexual Behavior" for which we have seven holdings. Hmm.

12:37pm - Reference desk. A student wants a journal article on "trying kids as adults." This is his first foray into the world of article indexes and I'm trying to convince him that he can do it and that it's not scary. I find that the oh-so-intuitive descriptor for his topic is "Juvenile Courts - Waiver of jurisdiction - analysis" and realize that article indexes are scary.

1:03pm - "Hi, I need some help - it's kind of a touchy subject," says the blonde student approaching the reference desk. "I need non-Internet information on the problem of [cough] the African Americans." For a moment, all mental effort goes into making my face appear as neutral as possible. I am now having a flashback to this week's reference class in which we were told that the first question asked in a reference interview rarely has anything to do with what the user actually wants. I try to find some consolation in this possibility. Upon pressing for "more specifics," she informs me that she is writing an argumentative paper in response to an essay they read in class by a guy who says white people and everyone not in Africa is evil and ruining the world. In retaliation, she will be writing a paper about how the continent of Africa is just as bad, or worse.

She has some creative ideas. She wants information on slavery in Africa to show that they had slavery as well. Fine, I find her some books on slavery in Africa. "Didn't slavery, like, start in Africa?" she says. I tell her I'm not sure, but that slavery has existed in many cultures including Ancient Greece. I also try to explain how, as bad as it was, slavery often filled a societal need because the slaves had lost their social support networks and needed food and shelter. She is very interested in what race the slaves were in Ancient Greece, and I cannot get it through to her that it wasn't until white American colonists starting stealing black Africans that race became inextricably linked to slavery.

She also wants statistics on AIDS in Africa because "Like, they don't use contraception and spread AIDS everywhere - didn't AIDS, like, start in Africa?" I find her a journal article covering AIDS statistics in Africa, but she is not happy to see that the most common means of transmission in Africa is from breastfeeding mother to infant. I also find her some books on the history of AIDS. Her next idea is "refugee camps." I ask what in particular about them she is using to support her argument. Is it their existence? Treatment in the camps? Lots of countries outside of Africa have refugee camps, I tell her. Pause. "What are refugee camps?"

It is becoming apparent from her use of words she does not know that she has done some research on her own, so I ask her about her research strategy thus far. She produces a handful of articles from a website about various murders and other "bad" things that have occurred in Africa. I remind her that just that morning there was a triple murder-suicide in Tucson's east side and that anecdotal evidence is weak, and her paper would be stronger if she identified more systemic problems unique to Africa. Of course I am also thinking that she needs to frame these problems within the context of colonialism and the global political economy, but it's not really my place . . . or is it? We didn't cover this in IRLS 524!

She produces a list of call numbers of books she has found on her topic. She requests assistance in locating the books on the shelf. The first one is a BJ, which is a little odd but I lead her to the shelf anyway. Sitting right next to Amy Vanderbilt's latest is the item with the call number she has written down, Basic Black. It is an etiquette book. What kind of absurd search query led to a title like this? I can only imagine that she typed "basic book on blacks" in the keyword field.

We then get to the GNs where she has written down a call number for a book on female circumcision. Now, while I feel her paper topic is hopelessly misguided and, frankly, offensive, I can see how the African custom of genital mutilation might suit her. Oddly, we hold over 10 titles on this topic because it is a frighteningly popular research theme. I tell her it is a controversial issue and many people are opposed to this practice so this is a better fit with her paper than the etiquette book. "What is 'female circumcision'?" she asks. One of the student workers is shelving books a few feet down and looks at me with a sympathetic smile. Well, a smirk, really. I did not wake up this morning thinking I'd be explaining the ritual removal of sexual organs to a student trying to prove the inherent evilness of Africans.

I send her on her way with a gigantic stack of books, and an uneasy feeling in my stomach.

1:46pm - The phone rings, and I'm told it's a reference question for me. I pick up the phone. A male voice says, "Hi, I have an Internet question for you. I was wondering which physicians in Tucson offer sex change operations." I'm immediately glad that this is on the phone and not in person. I conduct a brief reference interview, somehow thinking that if I speak in vague terms and pretend that it might not be him seeking the operation, it's somehow more professional. I know that this will not be a quick search, so I ask if he wants me to call him back or if he wants to hold. He opts for the hold.

Perhaps it was because he said it was an "Internet question," or perhaps because it's just a habit no amount of library science training can shake, I dive right into Google. While I find plenty of bizarre stuff including some graphic photos I really didn't want to see, I realize this approach is fruitless. I consult with a librarian and we flip through a reference resource I didn't even know existed - Completely Queer: A Gay and Lesbian Encyclopedia. Unfortunately, nothing relevant turns up. In the meantime, a student worker comes to tell me that the patron wants me to call him back, but requests that I not say where I'm from or what I'm calling about because he's at work. Fair enough.

Post-call debriefing with the librarians. One of them declares that I have won the "Weird Reference Question of the Week" award.

2:16pm - Desperately not wanting to call him back to say I couldn't find anything, I decide to call Wingspan, a community center for lesbians, gays, bisexual, and transgender folk in Southern Arizona. Jackpot. I find out about the Southern Arizona Gender Alliance (SAGA) and the nice Wingspan guy gives me a whole bunch of other helpful information. I check out the SAGA website and am thrilled to see a list of medical resources in Tucson and what kinds of things they do. I must resist spending too much time poring over a list that offers such services as "facial feminization" and "sex empowerment."

2:20pm - I call back the patron who I now see has given me his full name, despite his wish for discretion. I dial the number, trying to be as discreet and vague as a Planned Parenthood employee calling a teenage girl about her birth control prescription. He whispers hello, and I hear him close his office door. I tell him of my finds, and start telling him about a great male-to-female transgender support group called Desert Girlz which meets on the second Tuesday of every month down on 4th Avenue - and he interrupts me to say, "I don't want to do all that community stuff. I just want to amputate it."

Now I am definitely a woman, but I find myself crossing my legs protectively and involuntarily wincing. Again, I am exceedingly grateful that this is a phoned-in reference question. I recover quickly and try to convince him that "community" is not a four-letter word and that support from others in the same situation can be invaluable, but he'll have none of it. I also now realize that the pretense that he's calling "for a friend" has been supremely shattered. My patron adds, "I don't want to really do the transgender thing." I'm thinking So he just wants to get rid of his penis but not be a woman? I decide that I have fulfilled and possibly exceeded my role as a reference librarian and the call is ended.

2:27pm - Post-call debriefing with the librarians. One of them declares that I have won the "Weird Reference Question of the Week" award.

2:33pm - I pack up and go home, basking in the knowledge that I have made a difference.

Top Five Lessons Learned Today:

  1. I cannot assume that all college students are familiar with a computer keyboard.
  2. It is difficult to balance personal and political convictions with meeting a user's information request.
  3. Transgender and transsexual do not always go hand in hand.
  4. Thomas Jefferson slept around a lot.
  5. It takes humans to find information, not computers. There are questions that neither Google nor a good reference collection can tackle.

Bottom line: In our increasingly technology-centered profession, sometimes it takes a guy with a penis he doesn't want to make you value humanity.

Lori Ito Hardenbergh is a SIRLS student who in all likelihood will be graduating this spring. She dreams of being a reference/instruction librarian at an academic library in D.C. Her hubby and two greyhounds will accompany her on this journey. Lori is also, in case you haven't noticed, the editor of this webzine.


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