"But people take it seriously!" the man said.
She walked with him to his cubicle and helped him with the Facebook.
Ironically, a fair chunk of a reference librarian's job has become helping people search for information. Said Andrew Medlar, the Chicago Public Library's assistant commissioner for collections, every Halloween they get patrons who want to know if Resurrection Mary is real, every science-fair season "every other reference question from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. could be about capillary action and turning a carnation different colors." But more straightforward queries — "Who was the Blackhawks captain in 1978?" — have been replaced with harder questions: Can you help me find a job? Write a resume? Develop a small business?
Said Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association, "the job has become about self-directed learning, working within a community — I actually think 'reference librarian' will go away. Nobody knows what it means now."
Consider the Arlington Heights Memorial Library, just down the road from the Mount Prospect library.
It just completed a $2.8 million renovation, including a markedly different approach to reference desks. What you find on the main floor now is a stylish white tower inscribed with the word "Info." Standing at this tower — standing, all day — are librarians waiting for questions, poised at computers. Patrons stand alongside librarians and watch the search, the point being, said Nancy Kim Phillips, the library's info services manager, to break from the cultural image of a reference librarian perched above a patron, eyebrows arched.
As for callers? There's a call-center reference desk, tucked away in a windowless room, with librarians on headsets.
Ask librarians if changes like this have been painless, and you hear a familiar refrain, about old-school reference librarians who grew disgusted. On the other hand, said Mary Pat Fallon, incoming director of the doctoral program at the graduate school of library and information science at Chicago's Dominican University, "When I was attending Dominican (less than a decade ago), people in the reference program were mostly middle-aged women looking for something to do after their kids were raised. Everything was heavily print based. And now we get retired policemen, kids with piercings — more gender balance, more acceptance of how the job looks now."
Indeed, as startling as it is to hear Skokie's Greenwalt, who is 33, tell me that "libraries have never been about books. Books just happened to be the medium used," it's not that different from what Mary Williams, the longtime manager of Chicago Public Library's Avalon Park branch (and a reference librarian for 32 years), said:
"No matter what the reference tools of this job become, you cannot replace the human element in this."
Almost every reference librarian I spoke with who had been a librarian before and after the rise of digital culture told me their jobs had become exponentially more sociable and hectic. But back in Mount Prospect — albeit on a Monday morning, after the school year — there were moments the reference desk was so slow, that human element was very much in evidence, if not in the way Williams meant. When it got quiet, Heath and Smolin reassured me it was not like this all the time, then sat silently side by side for stretches, looking up expectantly as a patron approached the desk and continued past, headed for the free computers.
Heath got up and walked around.
She asked the handful of people browsing the actual bookshelves if they needed help. None did. She went back to the desk. Someone asked for help with the fax machine; a man in a straw hat asked about wireless access. As often as Heath and Smolin heard these questions — as often as they were asked about the location of the bathrooms — they were unfailingly warm and efficient. A woman asked for a DVD of "Mad Men," and though it didn't sound much like reference, Heath sprung from her seat and hunted down the disc.
When she returned, I asked: When was the last time someone had a question that required her to find a physical book in the library's stacks. She thought for a long moment, then said, "Last week! Last week someone called and wanted — no, wait, that's different. Gosh, I remember doing it, but can't remember ..."
The Facebook guy was back.
"I got to tell ya," he said, "but I am Facebook dumb! I am not getting this." So Heath stood and left the reference desk and sat beside the man for a few more minutes, until he knew how to work the computer.