The curse of reference anxiety

This week, I’ve been wrested from the safety of my office workspace, surrounded by trolleys and paperwork, and thrust into the bustling atmosphere of a law library reference desk. It’s the start of semester so there are new students everywhere, wanting to know where the loos are, how they can find short-loan textbooks, and why the printers aren’t working.

I’m no stranger to reference, but I am a stranger to law students. I have a rudimentary understanding of Australia’s legal system, but I couldn’t use LexisNexis properly if you paid me. And people are paying me. I borrowed an old copy of the first-year intro to law textbook and a legal research guide, hoping I might learn enough to be useful while on the desk, but I know it won’t be enough. I also don’t know anything about fixing printer problems, and we had a lot of those today.

Now, I know I wasn’t hired to be a law reference librarian. If asked, I wouldn’t describe myself as a law librarian at all. I’m a cataloguer working in a law library. My strengths and interests lie elsewhere. I’ve also only been in this position for less than three months—I can’t possibly be expected to know all this stuff.

But it doesn’t help when someone comes to the desk and asks a question I can’t answer.

I wondered today whether ‘reference anxiety’ was a thing. Whether I might add it to my burgeoning collection of anxieties. I have anxiety. I’ve had it for years. It’s been exacerbated recently by a succession of personal problems—I can’t help but bring it to work.

Turns out reference anxiety is very real. A 2010 article1 [non-OA] by Adam Bennington in Searcher examined the causes of reference anxiety and its effect on librarians, along with some tips on when to cut your losses and accept an incomplete or unsatisfactory answer.

It still hurts, though.

You are the information professional after all, the expert searcher, the experienced librarian, the ultimate information broker. People come to you because Google couldn’t cut it. Not only do you want to help, but you want to help legitimize the profession by showing the client you can find anything.

When the searcher can’t uncover the answer, feelings of guilt, shame, and doubt in his or her professional worth can grow acute, especially in newly minted information professionals.

Don’t I know it.

If someone comes to the desk with a circ query, or a catalogue query, or a ‘where are the loos’ query, I know I can handle those, and my confidence is obvious. On the flipside, if someone asks me about finding cases, or choosing the right book for their essay question, or even how to fix the damn printers, I freeze. Not only can I not help them, I don’t even know where to look. If all three reference librarians are unavailable, I’m out of luck. I could ask the reference seekers to send an email and ensure someone gets back to them, but people need their printing right now, and they don’t teach printer repair in library school.

My heart rate goes through the roof. I can’t breathe, suddenly. My brain is going in ever-tightening circles. I can’t help them. What the hell am I here for?

We speak often about people who become overwhelmed by libraries and librarians, and the resultant user anxiety that creates. We call it, reasonably enough, ‘library anxiety’. Librarians bend over backwards to alleviate the fears of users who aren’t used to asking questions of people, not the internet, and we strive to make the library a welcoming and productive place. But that necessitates a certain level of reference skill.

I don’t have that skill, and I know I’m not expected to, but I like working here, and I want to do right by our users, my colleagues and my boss. I want to make sure every patron leaves with something. Whether that’s a case citation, or an email address for further help, or the number for the IT helpdesk.

Managing my anxiety enough to get them that something remains a work in progress. But all I can do is try. Perhaps after I’m done with the first-year law textbook, I’ll pick up a printer manual as well.

  1. Bennington, A. (2010). A practical guide to coping with reference anxiety disorder. Searcher, 18(3), 22-25,54. Retrieved from 

Five things I didn’t learn at #VALA2018 (because I didn’t go)

VALA2018 logo with sadface

This is my actual face.

I was sad to miss VALA this year. I had long dreamt of attending this huge library technology conference, seeing my favourite people, learning about what others are achieving in this space. The lineup looked amazing, and I’m sure I would have had a whale of a time. But I didn’t have a spare thousand bucks (!) to drop on a ticket. My workplace, where I am on a temporary contract in a non-library-technology role, would not have financed it either. So I didn’t go.

Instead, I attended vicariously through Twitter, where the @VALAlib account (ably run by @mpfl) live-tweeted throughout the conference. The organising committee also posted all the conference papers online before the conference, which turned out to be a boon for cross-pollination!

Somehow, between eyeballing the #VALA2018 hashtag and sitting at work trying to get work done, I managed to learn a few things… or not:

  • Everyone is off-message. If everyone at a conference agreed on everything, it would be incredibly dull. Yet I was struck by how often I seemed to hear conflicting messages in rapid succession. One minute we’re told that we don’t need 100% accuracy in our metadata. The next minute we’re told about all the wonderful things linked data can achieve, which depends on accurate linking and relationship-building. Which is it? Linked data is useless if it isn’t accurate, and such is the nature of digital that it’s either accurate or it’s not. There’s not a lot of room for error.

People were also deeply conflicted about vendors. Some people said we should love vendors. Some people were a lot less complimentary about vendors. Some people appreciated the people who work for vendors but not the socio-political circumstances that enable this work. Because I wasn’t caught up in conference frenzy, where you nod along to and agree with and blindly tweet everything that is said to you, I found I noticed these contradictions a lot more.

  • Do everything. Or not. We’re in a tough spot, skill-wise. We’re constantly encouraged to invest in our own professional development, in many instances by learning to code. On the other, we hear that upskilling ourselves in multiple areas is actually doing us a professional disservice, as an increase in skill is generally not matched by an increase in pay. Code is useful, code is good. Except if too many people learn to code, then it’s bad.

I agree that not all librarians would find coding skills useful or necessary in their work. But with library services becoming increasingly top-heavy, with less skilled staff continuing to lose their jobs, with the industry contracting, with the job outlook for librarians looking rather bleak, with our future becoming increasingly reliant on technology whether we like it or not, wouldn’t you want to make yourself as employable as possible, and learn some code basics?

  • Show me the money! The conference was also filled with exhortations to do things. Make that bibliographic data linked open data! Surface those ‘hidden’ local history collections! Don’t put up with crappy products and services from vendors! Yes! Sure! I will totally do all these things with no additional budget, no staffing, and on top of my existing responsiblities!!!1!

On one level, conferences aren’t meant to be realistic. Presenters will usually highlight the good things they do and gloss over the bad things it took to get there. (Andrew Kelly’s talk was a notable exception, and I’m sure there were others.) We’re meant to leave conferences hyped up and enthused and ready to make change happen in our workplaces and communities. But I brought a much higher dose of cynicism and realism to my remote conference experience. I can’t implement any of these radical and awesome ideas, or in fact any ideas at all, without additional funding, staffing, support and time. Or a permanent job.

  • Technical services librarianship is public work, and deserves to be valued. Finding myself a bitter, cynical husk at the end of this post, I decided to watch Angela Galvan’s heavily livetweeted keynote, ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Standardized’. I hoped it would energise me again. I wanted to reconnect with why my work matters, why tech services is not dead, why I spent three days lurking the backchannel of this conference in the first place.

It was immensely gratifying to hear Angela speak of tech services as ‘public’ work. Our direct patron interactions may be limited, but the interfaces and discovery systems we create, maintain and troubleshoot are the centre of most patrons’ experiences of a library. They may never visit us in person. They may never speak to a staff member. But they’re using our catalogue, our databases, our libguides, our websites. Those things don’t build themselves. They exist because a lot of people worked very hard (and a small number of people paid a lot of money).

The characterisation of tech services workers as the ‘backend’ of libraries is increasingly inaccurate. The metadata I work with is viewed by thousands of people. If they can’t access an online resource, it’s my job to rectify it. I may not get to decide what the library purchases and how much they’re willing to pay, but I can decide how that resource is presented to patrons. I game the search results all the time. I edit metadata every day to make it better and clearer for patrons to use. I may not be public-facing, but my work certainly is, and it’s about time library administrators really acknowledged this. A little self-esteem is a wonderful thing.

(Not gonna lie, I was also extremely here for the LexisNexis joke. Next week, part of my ref desk work will likely involve advising first-year law students how LexisNexis works. I hope they don’t ask me. I have no idea.)

  • Go in person next time. In the end, I was surprised by how much I got out of a conference I didn’t attend. I definitely learned more, but I don’t think I enjoyed it as much as I would have if I’d been there in person. I also missed out on all the networking and socialising, which many people say is the best part of conferences, and to be honest it felt a bit sad watching all these people have fun at an event I couldn’t go to. I’m very glad that the conference papers were uploaded ahead of time and I would encourage the VALA committee to consider doing this again.

But next time, I think I’d rather just go.