“Let’s Look at One Another”: Ways of Seeing at the Reference Desk

This post was originally written for and  featured on the Penn Libraries TRL Blog.

“Oh. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another,” says Emily Webb in Thornton Wilder’s metatheatrical three-act play Our Town. After an early death from childbirth, Emily joins the rest of the spirits of deceased town members in the graveyard. Made with the clarity of mind death has endowed, Emily’s remark reflects on the brevity of life. We become so wrapped up in the daily tedium that we do not truly appreciate being alive or take the time to really see one another.

As an English nerd, this poignant scene resonates with me. I’m reminded to look up from my screen, to appreciate small pleasures, and to be present. As a library and information graduate student, I find fewer opportunities to realize these aims; my thoughts often lack focus as I switch gears from task to task. Library spaces also just inherently demand flexibility. Working at the Van Pelt Information Desk, for example, sometimes feels like a bizarre relay race and requires dexterity to move easily between a myriad of tasks. One minute, a printer is jammed. The next, someone calls regarding off-campus access to an article. Then, an undergraduate student wanders hesitantly over, looking for guidance for her research paper (due tomorrow).  After a while—especially on a busy day—these events can start to feel transactional. Everyone is in a rush, and once we connect patron and information, we move on to the next task at hand.

Monologue by Penelope Ann Miller from a 1989 Lincoln Center Production of Our Town. If interested, the full version of the play is available for Penn students, faculty and staff on Academic Video Online. 

While reading for my Information Literacy class, I came across two remarkable questions to which I immediately drew a connection to Emily’s dialogue in Our Town. In “Feminist Pedagogy: Changing Lives, Libraries, and the World,” Maria T. Accardi asks, “Did you really see the student? And did the student really see you? (151). This association gave me pause and is relevant, I think, to my interactions with patrons. What does it mean to really see and be seen at the reference desk—or, for that matter, in any teaching context? Accardi writes, “I think to truly see each other, to respect and care for the souls of students from a feminist pedagogical perspective, to borrow the language of bell hooks, means aligning the emotionally vulnerable parts of your own self to the corresponding parts of the student” (151). The feminist ethic of care Accardi describes embraces this intensely personal aspect of teaching and learning. To do so, we must slip into the metaphorical shoes of the student to see the exchange from her perspective.

Think about any time you have had to formulate a question that you do not know how to ask, or remember, as Accardi urges, how you felt as a student approaching someone behind a desk in a library. Consider the dread you may feel in admitting, “I don’t know.” Desks and counters can be intimidating; they place both a literal and figurative boundary between you and the patron which conveys authority. Also, consider the dilemma of being a student. Stress from imminent assignment due dates, imposter syndrome, and a hint of existential crisis create a potent cocktail of anxiety. Reflecting on the pressures of my own undergraduate experience, I remember thinking that my general activities could be loosely grouped into four areas: studies, work, sleep, and fun. Depending on the day, I usually only had time for three out of the four, creating a precarious triad dynamic of ever-shifting priorities. Sleep and fun were often shortchanged. Yet both of these—in addition to a multitude of other activities—are essential for mental health. We are often not privy to the thoughts and feelings of our students. Accordingly, we should be mindful of the sometimes-crushing stress that accompanies academic study.

Interactions at the reference desk can also be incredibly layered. In a matter of seconds, we must fully appreciate a student’s question AND figure out if we know the answer or—at least—where to find it. The student is most likely in a rush, and our answer must be clear and succinct to be meaningful. The question, too, often needs to be unpacked or even reshaped. There are lots of things to consider. Accardi (2010) describes narrative as a feminist strategy and writes, “Stories shape the contours of life” (12). When providing research assistance at the Info Desk, I ask students, “What’s going on?” The reference interview becomes a kind of dish session and transforms into having a narrative-like quality.  Stories help students express their ideas and research questions. They also help me to understand what steps they have already taken and what resources and tools they have used. I usually start to jot down keywords for searching to further develop together. Narrative also allows us to relate to one another. Through this process, I get a better idea of what the student cares about.  Students start to shine when they talk about their research. Their excitement and intellectual curiosity is palpable, and I become excited about their research, too.

Through these conversations and shared ideas, I try to be authentic and demonstrate my own interest to be seen in turn. I always tell students that librarians are nosy and want to know what others are researching even if it the subject is completely foreign to us. I am transparent in my searching and talk through the decisions I make. Sometimes I make a mistake, or a search query is not so successful. Together, we try different strategies and problematize the research question, turning us into co-investigators. I demonstrate searching but also ask for feedback and suggestions or turn over the keyboard and mouse to the student.

Body language, gestures, and tone also help me to convey approachability and interest. I frequently cast a gaze around me to see if anyone needs assistance. Sometimes students hover hesitantly, or confused expressions give me cues.  Eye contact and a friendly “hello” can be encouraging. Sometimes if you reach out, people feel more comfortable asking questions. I also try not to focus on other tasks while at the Info Desk; no one wants to interrupt someone who looks busy. Instead, I try to create opportunities to work with students and view the desk as a space for teaching and learning.

Further, giving students space to ask their questions can be beneficial. I try not to make assumptions and interrupt them even though I have answered where the bathroom is located hundreds of times. Sometimes they end up asking something else entirely, or they are able to better articulate their question because I do not rush them. In turn, active monitoring of the language I use is also essential to any interaction. Language is ideological and carries layered meaning. We cannot control the ways our words are interpreted, but we can try to be mindful and judicious in choosing them.

At the close of the Our Town, Emily asks, “They don’t understand, do they?” “Live people,” as she describes those still alive, are “shut up in little boxes.” As librarians, we need to reflect on our interactions with students to ask ourselves if we are engaging them critically and authentically. Through some of the strategies I have discussed, we can take steps breaking through one another’s exterior to cultivate a genuine interaction and exchange of ideas. Of course, every day is different, and sometimes we are too overwhelmed to dedicate such careful and purposeful focus to every individual who approaches the desk. However, I strive to use feminist pedagogy and its ethic of care as a framework for my interactions. In this way, I feel more present and able to really look at students to appreciate their voices and experiences.

Accardi, Maria T. (2016). Feminist pedagogy: changing lives, libraries, and the world. CHOICE: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries 54(2), 150-152. http://proxy.library.upenn.edu:3785/acrl/choice/about

Accardi, Maria T. (2010). Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction, Library Juice Press, ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/upenn-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3328244.

Wilder, Thornton. (1957). Three Plays. New York: Harper & Brothers.