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?