Order out of chaos

At a meeting just before Christmas break my boss said that I often made order out of chaos. I chuckled at the thought of my parents hearing that. The last two years of my professional life was figuring out where my department was, where we had to go and getting the team ready to GO. Maybe my boss already saw it then, but apparently some of the chaos was turning to order. As January wraps up and I look back on the first month of 2011, I think I starting to see it, too.

While I love trying to make sense of it all, I realize it's really freaking hard. My work in higher ed has taught me that I can take nothing for granted and that I have to do my homework and check it thrice. It's challenging, but entirely exhilarating when done well. I find in my personal life sometimes others don't see it that way. Though people will banter on all varieties of subjects, they can't go very deep when confronting the complexities of a topic, be it racism, revolution, world economies or poverty. There are many examples of aborted conversations in my personal life. And as a librarian I have seen people crash and burn at the very thought of some real deal research to try and understand those complexities.

Over the 2010 holiday I picked up a few full-day shifts at the public library. It sort of took me back to the old days of 8 hour reference desk shifts at an academic library I worked at. I shuddered. Working that long with the public is exhausting, especially you're pedaling information and not a commodity.

In the first half hour of my afternoon shift, I got a call from who is hands down my favorite caller to date. First, if you know who Underdog Lady is on the Howard Stern show, then you can pretty much substitute that voice for my caller. That afternoon, the patron nervously asked about two cities up north and which was better for a homeless person to live in.

"I know it's not an easy question to answer," she quickly said, her voice teetering on the edge of an anxiety attack. I agreed that it was a difficult question and had a few moving parts. I assured her that with a bit of research we could at least start answering that question.

I commenced with the reference interview. The first city that actually popped into my head was Portland, OR. She wasn't very interested in that. I began to ask her questions about what type of data she was looking for, basically, what she meant by "better for a homeless person."

"No data," she replied.

No data. Of course not. I asked her why she wouldn't be interested in say how many homeless shelters, churches, missions, etc. there were in the cities. I said that there was information about how much private funding goes to counties' humane causes. I asked her why she didn't want to browse some newspapers for stories on the homeless in those cities. Our NewsBank database subscription is tremendous and has a comprehensive collection of newspapers from all over the state, not just the main rags. What about census info on poverty? She would hear none of it.

Anyway, I knew where all of this was going. It was only a matter of time before my trying to answer her question would make her have a mini-meltdown. And so it began with a pause...and then...

"Well, can I have the phone number to (City 1)'s police depart-- no- never mind, this is getting too complicated," and hung up on me. The end of this call was very similar to the last.

The encounter lasted about five minutes and I thought back on how it could have been different. How could the question be answered better? I recalled the first call with this person a few weeks back and decided she was looking for a quick answer from a librarian that is easy to understand, no more than 2-3 sentences and still completely legitimate. The acceptable answer to her question would have sounded like this, "(City 2) is better for the homeless because people are friendly and the police do not harass the homeless too much." Yet, because I would NEVER make assumptions on things I don't know of, I would never throw a quick answer out like that.

Which brings me back to making order out of chaos. It's terribly difficult. Higher education and my adventures in research have taught me that the truth is never served up on a silver platter with no strings attached. In the case above, the truth was there and could have been discovered, but not without work. You must work for knowledge.

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