I had to laugh as I started this week’s readings for 605, as I came across the Oranges and Peaches anecdote. In short, a student asks a reference librarian for help finding a book entitled Oranges and Peaches, which turns out to be a mondegreen (mishearing) of On The Origin of Species (Cassel, 2009, p. 22).
This happens so often, and not only in library contexts. It’s a great reminder that language is socially constructed, and that we all carry around slightly different versions of the world in our heads. Three great examples from my own experience come to mind:
A patron approached me seeking a list of books by an author she enjoyed, named Joanna Brady. A catalog author search turned up nothing. She handed me the checkout receipt for the book she had just finished, which listed Exit Wounds: A Joanna Brady mystery. Lightbulb moment! She (and I) had assumed that Joanna Brady was an author’s name, but it was actually a character, and the series title! In this case, the library’s cataloging and receipt format proved confusing. Of course a patron who sees a name on their receipt would assume that they were seeing an author. Asking more questions up front might have allowed me to run a different search that would have avoided the confusion.
Another instance involved a patron who asked me for a book entitled In Depth. To begin with, I misheard him and began by searching for “In Death”. Once that was cleared up, I still was not finding any results. I moved outside of our catalog to worldcat and amazon, without success. I began to ask how he had heard of the book, hoping to be able to find a reference within a publication, and he replied that it was reviewed on C-Span. I hopped on to the C-Span website, and wouldn’t you know, In Depth is the name of the segment the author appeared on, not the title of his book. Thankfully the patron knew the date of the broadcast he had seen, so we were able to identify the correct author and ILL several of his books.
Lastly, my absolute favorite incident, which did not occur in the library but which required quite a bit of detective work, happened while I was working the disability services office at a community college. Students would come in and tell us the names of their professors and the dates of their tests, and we would acquire copies in order to provide accomodative testing. One student filled out his form improperly, and we were unable to locate him, his course or his professor in our database. His name was something ridiculously generic like Bob Smith, so there were about 15 of them in the system, and he had given his professor’s name as Miss Sheldon. After a few phone calls, I discovered that there was no professor at the college with that last name. I resorted to scanning the entire staff directory. It turned out that while there was no “Miss Sheldon”, there was a Michelle Dunn, and she had a student by this name in her class. Mystery solved.
These are some of my favorite stories, because it’s extremely satisfying to work your way through the mess of misunderstandings that can come in between you and another person. It’s a good reminder that even when a patron says what they mean, we probably don’t hear what they mean. The patron is as much a part of finding the answer to his or her own question as we are, so ensure that the process is fully reciprocal, participatory, and keep an open mind (even about things you might think are set in stone, like the very title you’re looking for!)
Cassell, K. A., & Hiremath, U. (2009). Reference and Information Services in the 21st Century, 2nd Edition (Second ed.). New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers, Inc..