When I was a child, for as long as I could remember, my family's Encyclopedia Britannica set was missing two volumes — the two volumes that always seemed to pertain to my homework assignments. And so within an hour or so of getting home, I would sit at the kitchen table and call my neighborhood library and ask for the information desk. The operator would correct me: "You mean 'reference desk?'" And I would mumble that I did, then there would be a pause, a ring-ring-ring, a click, followed by a stern, erudite voice: "Reference ..."
Sometimes I hung up — the voice promised only intimidation, condescension.
But usually I would ask for whatever random fact I needed — the age of the deepest point of the ocean, the birthplace of the inventor of the sextant, the primary crop of South Dakota. The reference librarian, a patient woman of indeterminate age, would put down the phone with a hard plastic knock. I would wait about five minutes, then she would return to the phone and ask if I was ready and read what she found. Then I would hang up, come to an inevitable impasse in my homework and call back — again and again, every afternoon.
The American Library Association's big annual conference begins this week at McCormick Place. According to the association (which is based in Chicago, though infrequently hosts its conventions here), more than 20,000 librarians will descend on the city for six days, from Thursday to July 2. If you are shocked to learn there are 20,000 librarians left in the Age of Google, then you'll be floored to know that a sizable portion will likely be reference librarians — those very same souls who once sat behind elevated desks, explained how to load microfilm and fielded calls from children in need of the gross national product of Spain.
Yes, the neighborhood reference desk lives.
But not how you remember it.
"Don't feel bad for asking about us," said Toby Greenwalt, a reference librarian at the Skokie Public Library. "The reference desk job has become more of a consulting job now" — in fact, his title is virtual services coordinator — "but we are here. Right after school gets out for the day, we still get 'What is the capital of ...' questions. And before dinner, we still get people who need phone numbers. But some people can't believe we exist: 'What do you do?' 'Reference librarian.' 'Oh, people still go to libraries to ask things?' You get that."
Last month alone, the reference desk at the Skokie Public Library received 4,500 questions.
And yet, you have to wonder: What could I ask a reference librarian that my cellphone doesn't already know?
So last week I embedded myself for several hours on a fairly typical small town reference desk, the reference desk at the Mount Prospect Public Library, which in 2011 received more than 200,000 questions. If you're one of the people who called or walked up to this desk with an inquiry, there's a good chance you spoke with Dale Heath, the head of research services at Mount Prospect Public Library.
Heath is 42, studied library science at the University of Iowa and has the perky posture and helpful eyes I once hoped for in a librarian. The reference desk is on the second floor and sits in the center of the action; it's long and shaped in a half circle, with a white, glowing translucent facade. The walls around it have soft colors and twee Alexander Calder-esque mobiles that dangle from the ceiling, twirling in the air conditioning.
Heath started here 12 years ago, she said, when the library still had limited Internet access, "when the job was still pretty traditional." She looked around at the work cubicles, each occupied by a patron hovering over a computer. As we waited for a question, she told me about the typical questions she gets now: There are still the tweens who need homework help (though fewer than a couple of generations ago). There are the elderly patrons who aren't comfortable with computers and the families who don't own computers. A man calls regularly for the latest inflation data; a women calls to find out more about the national health care law.
"Another woman just called to ask if it was true that the Obama administration was pushing legislation to strip soldiers of religious freedoms — we get a lot of questions from people who listen to talk radio all day."
Patti Smolin, her reference partner, returned from a search. She carried photocopies of a doghouse in the middle of a flooded field, a picture that ran in the Daily Herald in 1971. A patron wanted a good reproduction.
"We Google," Smolin said. "We use Wikipedia. But we remind people, those are only starting points."
The goal of reference desks, Heath said, has become "informational literacy, seeing reference in a broader sense, pointing people toward reputable sources. We often get patrons who've exhausted the Internet."
Or been exhausted by it.
A cheerful, potbellied man in a gray polo shirt approached the desk, saying in a half whisper: "I'm not good with social media, but I know I have to be good at it. I get the concept. But I don't understand how it works? This woman unfriended me on the Facebook; she took offense at something I wrote and unfriended me."
"'Unfriend' is such a bad word," Heath said, sympathetically.