Posted by: Maria | April 20, 2010

Maria’s Reference Desk Nightmare Comes to Life

So, here there I was, sitting at the reference desk, googleychatting with  Emily.  It’s Tuesday afternoon, and things were kind of slow.  But lo, a student approacheth!  I quickly shut down the chat window and commenced reference-interviewing.  I then found out that this student wanted to find scholarly articles about why it is a bad thing that homosexuality is portrayed positively in the media.

And…here is where I panic.

I tell him, “I’m sorry, could you hold on for just one second please?”  And I dash to two different librarians’ offices, hoping to pawn this kid off on someone else.  But alas!  I couldn’t find anyone!  And I couldn’t keep this student waiting forever!  I took a deep breath, resumed my position at the desk, and began to help him.

I asked him what kind of searching he’s done so far.  I asked him where he had looked, and what keywords he used.  He told me that he had found some articles online but his teacher wanted him to find peer-reviewed material.  I directed him to Gender Watch.  I instructed him on keyword selection and search query construction.  I showed him how to find the full text of an article and how to check the “scholarly” box to make sure he’s getting peer-reviewed sources.  I did all of the correct librarianly things.

But I couldn’t help but question him a bit further about his point of view.  Here is where it devolved from neutral reference interview to the personal.  I asked him in my politest, most I’m just curious voice:  “Do you really think gay people shouldn’t be on television?”

“No,” he said, “I just don’t think homosexuals should be portrayed in such a positive light, like there’s nothing wrong with it.”

“So you think it’s a bad thing for gay people to be portrayed positively?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.  “It’s treated like it’s not even an issue.  I just think it’s wrong to be a homosexual.”

Dear reader, I couldn’t help myself.  I said, “Well, you’re talking to a gay librarian.”

He looked momentarily stunned, but quickly regained his footing.  “I’m not trying to be rude or anything,” he said.

“And neither am I,” I said.

“I mean, I’m a Christian,” he said.

“You know what?  So am I.” I told him.

He looked at me.  “Really?” he asked incredulously.

“Yes, really,” I said.  A few seconds pass.

“Anyway,” I said, redirecting our attention to my computer screen.  “Do you think that this database will help you?”

The reference exchange continued and concluded without further incident.  I showed him once again how to access the database, and he took notes.  I reminded him what I told him about keywords, and he took some more notes.  And then he walked away.

It took me awhile to stop trembling.   I chatted at Emily, telling her what happened.  My library director walked by and I told him.  And I might have cried a little bit.

Did I do the right thing?  Professionally, I think I did.  I showed him how to find information on his topic.  But beyond that, beyond the most basic reference transaction level, I think I did the right thing in a critical, moral sense.  Coming out is one of the best tools to combat homophobia and bigotry.  By telling this kid that he was talking to an actual gay person, I think I pretty much blew his mind.  Maybe he’ll rethink his position on gays.  Maybe he won’t.  Maybe he’ll rethink his position when he is totally unable to find reputable scholarly research that supports his point of view.  Or maybe not.

What would you do?



  1. I would do (and did) what you did! I had a very similar experience a few years ago. A student came to the desk asking for information about why gay people shouldn’t be allowed to adopt. I was stunned, disturbed, tried to find someone else to take the question… And then I answered her question, and came out to her, and she went on her way. In my case, I don’t know how wedded (ha!) she was to her topic (it was for a pro/con paper), but I remember being shaken by the exchange.

    You did all you could do! Good for you for holding it together and standing your ground, while still remaining professional. That is so hard sometimes.

    • Thank you, Gretchen! Thank you so much for sharing your own story and the reassurance. On the way home, I kept obsessing over the whole exchange, thinking of things I could have said, or other databases I could have showed him, and whatever else. It does indeed shake one up. But this kid? He was totally shaken too. Meeting an actual gay person? That was mind-blowing for him. And meeting an actual gay person who also professes to be a Christian? I kind of felt sorry for him, in a way, having to confront evidence that so thoroughly contradicted his worldview!

  2. First off, yikes! And good for you. I’m usually too dumbfounded by statements like that to come up with coherent responses. (I remember being left completely speechless by a student in my high school health class who thought gay people shouldn’t be allowed to have jobs because what if one hit on her?)

    On an incredibly more trivial level – I had a student who wanted help finding research that said no one went to see Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 because it was full of lies. I did my best to give a reference interview while kindly pointing out that the film had actually made an unprecedented amount of money for a documentary and that perhaps she might like to focus on how it wasn’t effective in persuading anyone since it was so inflammatory. The librarian next to me on the desk was more blunt.

    There are times when we shove our morals aside, (I helped a student research the argument in favor of killing wild horses), but sometimes it is part of our job to explain to people why exactly it is that they can’t find reputable information defending their point of view. I remember an example from grad school of a student wanting research explaining African Americans had inferior intelligence based on skull measurements – the librarian found the study and the (many more) studies refuting it.

    • Good points, Ellie. If I had been more with it, I might have tried to explain to him why it was unlikely that he was going to find reputable, scholarly information supporting his point of view, and that actually the research would probably say the contrary, but I just didn’t have the presence of mind at the moment. Alas!

  3. Good on you for tackling such a hard issue. One of my most difficult reference transactions was the time a skinhead patron asked for books on white power. I’m Jewish and helping him without finding another librarian to cover it is still one of my proudest reference moments.

    I do have to disagree slightly (since you asked). I think in the interest of privacy and intellectual freedom I would not have come out to him. I understand your reasons for doing so and I agree that the way to change people’s minds is to show them that GLBT people are everywhere. However, I think your job in that moment was to find him information. Not to challenge his belief system and not to try and change his mind. Plus, what if he’d just been assigned the topic and didn’t believe it at all?

    I believe that confidentiality and privacy are just that. We can’t just honor it when we agree with what the patron is looking for. We have to push through and do it *all the time*.

    • I hear you on that, Manya, and thanks for your comment. I know that I blurred the boundaries of privacy and professionalism when I outed myself to him. I think I just saw it as a teachable moment, albeit one that went beyond teaching him about information to teaching him something about life (or trying to). I don’t think I necessarily wanted him to change his mind. Instead, I wanted to make concrete something that appeared to be something in the abstract to him. I don’t think information is neutral, even though we like to teach it that way.

  4. That was brave. Huge props to you!

    • Thanks!

  5. I think you handled it right, but I think in a way the situation was simplified for you by the fact that you are gay and a Christian. You were able to be instructive simply by telling him who you are. But what if you were neither gay nor Christian and equally, or almost equally, had a problem with the student’s question? In that situation, simply sharing who you are wouldn’t be instructive, and there is no easy way to confront the issue. Even if you were gay but just not Christian, it would have been a little more complicated to find a good solution.

    • Thanks, Rory. Indeed, it was awfully convenient that I identified as both gay and Christian, and it would have been a very different teachable moment, if one at all, if either or both were not the case.

  6. Hey Maria,

    I work with one of your good friends here in Boston; she sent me your way to read this piece.

    First, as a gay American in the year 2010, living in the NorthEast, I often forget that this issue is still very much present. Second, I send you bear sized e-hugs because I cannot imagine the strength and professionalism it took to a. stand your ground and b. do it in a respectful way.

    I think that you are doing what needs to be done: you are in the position to educate. Education is so much more than mere classroom environments. Education involves tangible involvement in the world that surrounds us. You did this young adult a huge service; you made it relevant and you made it clear that being gay is not shameful. Accolades.

    Some of my most important life experiences came when my world (as I knew it) was turned upside down. It made me re-examine how I processed certain issues; it helped me become a more critical thinker.

    So, the bottom line is that you may not have changed that patron’s view – – yet. But, if more people, gay or straight, are more open and honest about the world around them, maybe this young mind will learn tolerance.

    Thank you for sharing.

    ~jenn from Boston!

    • Hey, Jenn! You must be Amanda’s friend. Thanks much for your comments and support. Yes, this happened in southern Indiana, where the population tends to be Christian, Republican, and socially conservative. The campus has come a long way toward GLBT visibility–we have a Safe Zone program and lots of faculty support. And yet, the Gay Straight Alliance on campus continues to have their office vandalized. It’s depressing and frustrating, but I have to believe that chipping away in small ways will bring about change, somehow. Thanks again for reading!

  7. So much of this goes to the heart of the ‘soft animal’ part of our discussion at Rory’s blog yesterday, and about the panel we’re doing at the diversity conference at Princeton in July. We’re whole people at work, and I don’t think that disappears.

    I also don’t believe in objectivity. I don’t think any of us really has it, and I think when we say we do we’re being dishonest. So, I think it’s great that you told that student that you were gay–that’s obviously going to affect your ability to give reference service to a bigot! How could it not? He ought to have access to that information! I find that my mind often clouds over completely when a student asks me a reference question that’s a total affront. Like you, I’d try to find somebody to sub in. If that’s not possible, I think it’s helpful to say “I’m a socialist/I’m gay/I hate gay people/I love capitalism,” whatever, so that the student knows we’re coming from a perspective. I remember once working with a student who was doing a paper arguing that Israel’s military activity in the Palestinian territories was justified. The western media often agrees with him, but I was unable to locate sources, I think because of the particular blinkers I wear on that issue. I let him know the ins and outs of database searching as well as my political position, which gave him the freedom to seek out somebody else as well as some basic tool instruction that set him off in the right direction. I’m not a proselytizer at the desk, but I do think it’s helpful to let people in on the facts about ourselves.

    I also think there’s something so interesting here about the way that we femmes are unmarked members of a marked category, and what ends up spilling over us because of that.

    But all of that aside, *hugs* to you. This stuff is so tough!

    • Thank you, Emily, thank you. Especially thank you for being there when I incoherently googleychatted to you right after this happened. I love that you bring up the “soft animal” idea. I am a person! A human person with human feelings! When I talked to my director about this, he told me that it is okay to respond as a human person with feelings in professional situations, which was helpful to hear right at that moment. Thx for the support!

  8. […] is an interesting exchange going on over at the Library Praxis blog in response to a post by Maria Accardi about her experience assisting a student who wanted ” to find scholarly articles about why it […]

  9. Maria, I’m sorry that I didn’t compose my comments here, as they just ran on and on. I’ve posted them on my blog at instead.

    • Thanks, Stephen. I commented on your blog post over on your site. Thanks for reading!

  10. Kudos to you, Maria! Very, very brave; you’re a hero!

    As an aside, what if this kid is the one who has been doing all the vandalism and it all of a sudden stops?! Your heroism in coming out would be validated!

    • Thank you, Captain Sassy. I really appreciate your kindness. It would be kind of amazing if this kid turned out to be the vandal!

  11. maria,
    i agree with emily (as i often do) about the unmarked member of a marked category, AND on the idea that we can not and will never be objective. who thinks that is a reality? journalists, librarians, supreme court justices..none are objective. i think that one of the best things about my job, is that i get to give people different/new/unobserved/uncomfortable points of view while teaching. this was a teaching moment for that boy, and i would have done the same thing. i am sending you squeezes of reassurance. you did the right thing, and may have made a difference in his life. this is part of our jobs.

    • Thank you, Lia! yes, I did indeed see this as a teachable moment, even if it wasn’t about Information or Research or the Library, but about actual real people instead. It was important to me that he knew that “a homosexual” was not just some abstract concept. Thank you for the reassurance!

  12. First: big hugs. Second: I’m right there with Emily & Lia, in terms of feeling like this disclosure is helpful in helping the student understand that this isn’t an objective process — that different people will get different results because of the way we approach the search or the process. One thing I’ve done in the past — in situations where I had difficulty with a query on political, technical or intellectual grounds — is encourage students to come back again and see what another librarian can do to help. Not in a passing-them-along kind of way (I make my best attempt first), but in a way that acknowledges that we’re not all the same, that we come to the desk with different knowledges and inclinations and ways of approaching both individual questions & the world at large.

    • Thx for the hugs, Alana. I agree that no matter how hard we try to make the library a neutral zone of information exchange, it rarely works that way in reality, because we are people with subject positions and baggage that get in the way. I think you can be both professional and human at the same time. Or, I’d like to believe you can.

  13. I’m of two minds, or I see two strains here that as a practitioner and manager disturb me. First, I think your (Maria) responses and exchanges were wholly appropriate given the question, time, place and most significantly the library user. It could just as easily have been another person and the appropriate response would unfortunately be IMHO to suck it up. In those instances you can try to make the teachable moment part of the interview and teaching process – “You realize that there isn’t much here to support your position..” or something to that affect.

    The strain that bothers me is the prevalence of comments that seem to allow for personal positions and beliefs to influence and even undermine the assistance we’re supposed to provide – objectively. I’ve dealt with holocaust deniers, klan members, militia types and ardent PLO supporters – and I’m Jewish and Israeli. Unless you’re talking about throwing me in the oven, you’ll be helped in as professionally a manner as any other user, as distasteful as that may be to me personally.

    If you chose to be a librarian then you self-selected to work with people and all their issues, foibles and bigotry. It isn’t about you.

    • Oh, I’ll work with anybody, Richard. But if I’m getting in my own way in terms of helping them because of who I am or what I believe, something that does actually happen in real life to most of us at some point or another, I think it’s important to let them know that. In case you’re responding to my comment.

    • Indeed, being a librarian means helping people with their information needs, even when it makes me uncomfortable. It’s not about me, yes. But I’m still a person whose objectivity can be hindered by questions like this, so it seems reasonable to me to tell the student if that’s the case. The student will still get their needs met, regardless.

  14. Kudos

  15. Maria, you are nothing short of awesome. What marks you as an exemplary librarian and member of academia is not just how you handled the situation that is the object of this discussion but how you transformed it into this discussion. While you’re concerned about whether or not, in that moment, you did the “right” thing, I think the fact of this discussion demonstrates the thoughtful, critical, generous perspective you bring to your work.

    As a fledgling librarian-to-be and a less fledgling gay person, I’m really interested in the discussion about objectivity. I would agree with those in the discussion who see objectivity as something far more complicated and elusive (if existent) than a self-sustaining disciplinary standard. I would offer that objectivity/subjectivity might be set aside more usefully for attention to an axis like critical/uncritical. It is without question that you helped your student have a more critical understanding of his topic (if part of critical thinking involves the mere fact of encountering, without necessarily processing, evidence that is difficult to assimilate to our prior understanding). Regardless of whether your engagement of him could be considered objective or subjective, it was critical.

    Or perhaps, lest I be understood to abandon objectivity altogether, critical might be a term that traverses the objectivity-subjectivity continuum. Critical might lie somewhere between objectivity and subjectivity, and I would argue that THIS is where we should be aiming (and where you hit the mark).

    I’m about to self-select into academic librarianship, and I hope, with all due respect to those who have established the discipline and profession before me, that objectivity isn’t what I’m self-selecting. Or else it would seem that I’m self-selecting my own obsolescence. I don’t think it would take a human to facilitate users objectively. But I do think it would take a human to facilitate users critically.

    On I think a different but related point to Emily’s wise comments about marking and unmarking, your encounter gestured toward something fundamental about how queer sexualities operate as information: their vulnerability to presumption and inaccessibility. Put differently: the student’s essay was about sexuality, and your outing (and the awkwardness and exchange that followed) introduced him to something far more accurate about sexuality than his teacher’s much more conventionally “objective” encouragement that the student find peer-reviewed sources (I read this encouragement as a possible way for the teacher to get out of asking the critical questions that any teacher should have asked such a student…and so, by turn, as also a reinforcement of queer sexualities, even sexuality itself, as somehow irretrievable information, given the fact that the teacher basically sent the student on a wild-goose chase).

    Thank you for your bravery and your critical approach to information! You’re a model for a fledgling to follow.

  16. I’m not a librarian, but a friend who is sent this post to me. I didn’t think it was possible for me to love librarians even more, but now I do. Why can’t more conversations be like this?

    You all rock.

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