on the fly reference

As librarians we can see them coming a mile away. People with questions. They see something in our eyes and know we have the answer, or know where to find it. We're mistaken for clerks in stores, hosts at parties, and librarians in other libraries. No wonder librarianship is often described as more of a calling than a job.

"Library people develop a generally benign facial expression for the workplace which they keep on all day." says library educator Karen Olcen. Our dispositions indicate a willingness to help and not ridicule, and perhaps to even find the elusive Answer. As a result, we often do information work in our off hours, either as volunteers or as ready reference for friends and relatives.

This sort of On The Fly reference is at once familiar and foreign. Many of us reach instinctively for the keyboard that isn't there, or wish that we were back with our books. Often we are working with or for non-librarians who have a different idea of the job to be done. Makeshift information desks are often added as an afterthought at large events, to keep the organizers free for more managerial tasks.

"I feel like a sort of information MacGyver", one librarian told me, "I have to try to answer questions only using the materials I have available"

I have frequently found myself doing On The Fly reference. I have worked at info desks at Seattle's Folklife Festival, the Direct Action network HQ during the WTO protests, and this year I staffed the Playa Info desk at Burning Man -- a seven-day outdoor music and art festival in the Nevada desert. Other librarians I have spoken to have worked at infoshop desks at demonstrations, written annotated bibliographies for musicians, done research for non-profit groups in their communities, and frequently acted as personal librarians for friends. As librarian Coco Halverson related to me "My cell phone will ring as I am eating dinner and my movie-industry pal might frantically ask 'Coco! Does an elk make noise? I'm doing sound effects and have a deadline of midnight!' Well certainly, let me just reach in my purse for the 13-volume set of Grzimek's Animal Life Encyclopedia!"

When I worked at Playa Info at Burning Man, I felt well-prepared. My ability to subtly queue people with a quick glance meaning "I see you, and you will be the third person I can speak with" amazed my colleagues. The top questions were, as expected "What time is it?" "Where are the bathrooms?" "What are the upcoming events?" However, the next tier of questions and concerns were all new to me "We're out of water and need to get some more, quickly" "I can't find my friends, can you help me?" "Is the nearest phone really twelve miles away?" [it was]. When we ran out of maps by the fifth day, everyone with a location question was either walked over to the one big map or taken outside and pointed in the proper direction. The most helpful reference tools we had were mini-maps, small circles of paper printed with the general street layout. We could put a big red dot where the person needed to go, hand it to them and off they'd go. I wore one of these maps on my outfit at all times to make sure people knew they were available.

In the public library, we rarely, if ever, needed to answer questions that could immediately affect someone's health or welfare. At Burning Man, many of the questions we answered were in this vein. "I'm locked out of my car" "My dog is missing" "I'm out of my medication" Added to that the fact that many of the question askers were sunburnt, hungry, thirsty, tired, half-dressed or undressed, or under the influence of _something_, and our work was cut out for us. Conducting a reference interview with someone dressed in a fuzzy bunny outfit is a unique challenge. Similarly at the library you mostly deal in facts, not rumors and rumor control. At events, you become a voice of authority and may have to answer questions like "is it true that...?" and "who's in jail?" The editor of the local paper took to stopping by the info desk a few times a day just to find out what we'd heard. We talked to more people at the event in a single day than almost anyone else there. Making sure you have proper answers before you open your mouth becomes crucial. Once rumors could be verified or debunked, then we'd add that information to what was on hand, so that succeeding staffers had the straight scoop. My favorite rapidly spreading story was the one that involved Timothy Leary's ashes being burned up with the Man that year. Everyone knows they were shot into space in 1997.

Karen Schneider's American Libraries column from November detailed the challenges faced by librarians whose patrons had a whole new set of information needs in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. Librarians printed extra copies of maps of New York City and Afghanistan, stayed open their regular hours or later, and were prepared to listen and help people who often just needed a safe place to be, or a friendly face to talk to. Their work focus subtly shifted away from reference materials and towards filling more emotional informational needs.

When Chuck Munson worked at an information table during the IMF protests in Washington DC, he found some interesting overlaps with library work "Maintaining activist confidentiality is similar to patron confidentiality, although at the library you don't have to worry about surprise police raids.... cops are always looking for information about who the activists are. When the police shut down the convergence center, several quick thinking information desk volunteers smuggled out the signup sheets and housing lists."

A major challenge with On the Fly Reference can be ascertaining the community norms quickly and accurately. At Burning Man this year, there was Internet access provided via one of the participants, a fact that concerned some of the veteran info desk workers who were looking for a total holiday from their jobs and email. People coming in inquiring about connectivity for their laptops would hear either "Sure!" or "No!" depending who they spoke to.

Making clear decisions about what information was or was not public was a major topic of conversation. Sure, there was a satellite phone available for extreme emergencies, but we had to determine what constituted a true emergency. And the Fornication Station, while wanting to keep their exact location a secret, had posted several events in the public calendar garnering many tough to answer questions. The more we could provide a united approach to requests, the more the event looked well organized and the staffers looked well-prepared. Sometimes the only interactions people have with event workers or administrators are via the help staff. Making sure that their interactions are smooth and fruitful is key. As in the library, the answer "I don't know" was out of the question.

This highlighted to me a major difference between the info desk culture and the reference desk culture -- at the reference desk you are often providing pointers to existing materials. At the info desk you are often assembling information in order to create new reference materials. My ongoing feeling was that if I sat at the information desk long enough, putting facts together, making handouts, and talking to people, it would become a library, de facto or otherwise.

Working at information desks showed me how experienced and talented many of us are at providing information compared to the average event volunteer, even though the work we do rarely feels like work to us. It also hit home that there's _something_about librarians. If we don't find the patrons, they seem to find us. If situations are disorganized, we straighten them out, often explaining as we go. As Gerry, an Ohio librarian told me, "Sometimes librarianship is just gracefully telling people 'I don't know -- but I'll find out, for your sake and mine'"

For further reading:

Karen Schneider's interviews with librarians after 9/11

Burning Man information services

Jessamyn West is a freelance librarian and maintainer of librarian.net.

Sidebar : On The Fly Toolkit

So, you're going into an unknown situation and are expected to answer questions like you've been there all your life. How do you prepare? What do you need? Here's a toolkit for being an impromptu information superstar.

Things to Bring

comfy shoes, snacks and water - you may be standing in one place for a long time
timepiece -- "what time is it?" is still the most frequently asked question
pens, paper, tape and rocks -- for drawing maps and makeshift signs, rocks and tape keep things on the table
phone -- be aware that you may have the only local phone and if people see it they may want to use it
local information -- bus schedules, maps, phone lists, restaurant info

Once You're There

take a walk -- learn the area somewhat, note some landmarks, gauge distances paying special attention to locations of phones, bathrooms, and ATMs
identify yourself -- make sure people know you are there to answer their questions -- nametags that just say "INFO" can be all it takes
talk to people -- how do you contact the other people you may need to talk to for answers such as event organizers?
survey info -- what do you have available, what might you need? other people are often your best reference sources.

As You Work

note and refer -- see if there are ways to make handouts with oft-requested information, posting a large FAQ list can cut down on repetitive questions, as can good signs
live and learn -- in a multiple day event, keep notes of what to bring on day two, speak to organizers about what would make the info area more productive
stay vs. roam -- some events work better with a central information location, in other situations it's best if you go to them, don't be afraid to get out from behind the desk
straighten and organize -- lots of stuff gets dropped at an info desk, keep it clean and make essential information stand out


debrief -- talk to other workers about the events, see where there is room for improvement
self-assess -- see if you learn anything about yourself and how you work in unfamiliar surroundings that could be useful in your professional life
feedback -- let organizers know what works and doesn't for next time