Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Reference Receptionist

by Marissa Martin

I often feel that my work is a lot like the movie “The Wizard of Oz." This is not just because I spend all day thinking, “There's no place like home,” and wishing I had the power to hand out brains. Sometimes, my job emulates that of one of my favorite characters, the Great and Powerful Oz. Sure, you are probably thinking I might have an ego, but hear me out. Everyday I come in, a new person calls me seeking my disembodied voice because they believe it to be wise and filled with answers. Do you assume I am a reference librarian? But I do not work at a library. I am a receptionist at the Chamber of Commerce.

Like many other library students, I would love to find a job in the field. At this point, I would be happy to know my resume warranted at least some consideration before hitting the round metal filing cabinet on the floor. I live in Michigan, though, where the word “recession” was in common use long before the rest of the country followed suit. People may think the Midwest is not on the “cutting edge,” but we were trendsetters in this. Finding the dream job isn't an easy feat. I was lucky enough to land a good, steady job that could support me through graduate school, even if it did not seem likely to apply to my future field.

Before this job, I never really knew what a Chamber of Commerce did. When forced to guess during my interview, I said it had to do with business, and visitor's information. That is part of the story, but not all of it. To offer a very simple explanation, the Chamber is a member-based organization that provides a multitude of services to the businesses that pay to join. As their receptionist, I am expected to provide various support services to the main staff, answer phones, and greet visitors. It all seemed very simple and straightforward, and I came in on my first day expecting it to be pretty uneventful. “It's a job,” I said. Like all jobs, I hoped to learn something from it; I just assumed that what I learned wouldn't have much to do with library and information science. And then, the phone rang.

The questions I hear every day range from simple to thought-provoking, and occasionally border on alarming. An elderly man once asked me to spell the word “eagle” for him. No particular reason, he just could not remember how to spell it, and he was sure the Chamber could help him. My favorite reference question occurred when I arrived to work one morning to hear a 3-minute voicemail message from a woman who wanted to know a list of any famous and influential people that lived in this part of Michigan in the 15th and 16th centuries, among other things. I was not even sure where to begin in responding to that one, but she forgot to leave her contact information, so it was not an issue. She has not yet called back, but if you have any advice on how to handle it in case she does, your professional collaboration is encouraged.

At first, I was shocked by all the questions. I would never have thought to call the Chamber of Commerce with such questions, but for many people, I was the first person on their list when they did not know where else to look. Once I enrolled in the Reference and Information Services class in the SJSU-SLIS program, I was finally able to describe what I was experiencing, and realize that my seemingly uneventful job was unexpectedly providing me with excellent skills that could translate to my education and career objectives. My fellow receptionist joked that she sometimes felt like a 4-1-1 operator, but I feel more like a reference librarian.

I would say the most common questions I get are “ready reference." People want to know the size of the population in the county, where to get immunizations without health insurance, how to find scholarships for their high school graduate, and similar questions. None of these are services provided by the Chamber, but I was encouraged to try to answer them if I knew the correct answer and had time to do so. This is in order to foster good relationships and serve the community. And so I do, taking to heart the principles I learned in my class.

I follow the American Library Association's Reference Users Services Association guidelines. I attempt to engage the user and not only deliver them an answer, but show them how to use the very sources I employed to answer their question. I tell them the population, but not before telling them how to access census data for the area online. I have instructed quite a few callers on how to effectively use a search engine. At least a handful of Michiganders who had never heard the word “Boolean” before now incorporate it into their everyday work, and spend their time thinking of alternate keywords when their first try doesn't net them their desired results.

When the questions get more complicated, I do my best to point them in the right direction to get started, but then I suggest my favorite place to go with questions: the library. I explain to them how reference librarians are trained to help their patrons locate the answers to their questions, and have many resources at their disposal to help users find information. And then one lovely older woman told me, “You should do that job, sweetie. You would be good at it.” I explained to her that I was already studying for my Master's in Library and Information Science, and I hoped to one day find a job in the field. She laughed and said the school was training me well.

I came to the Chamber expecting to collect a paycheck and maybe learn something about my community, but I also learned an incredibly valuable lesson. Sometimes, we can gain experience in the most unexpected places. I do not have a lot of library-related experience, but I know that I can explain how my time at the Chamber of Commerce helped me become a better librarian to prospective employers. I am hoping to convince my bosses to change my official title to Receptionist and Reference Specialist. Either that or they could call me “The Wizard,” but I do not think that will get the right kind of attention for my resume. And I will always remember the lesson that, just like Dorothy's experience in Oz, you can make the best of situation, even if it is not where you thought you belonged. So until I find that dream job, I will be answering questions at the Chamber while clicking my heels together and saying “If I only had the money to pay back my student loans...”

Marissa lives in Midland, Michigan, and when not complaining about the snow, spends her time frantically looking for ways to increase her library experience. The search has recently paid off, as she has started her first paying job in the LIS world as a part-time analyst for a local research firm.

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