Monday, November 10, 2008

Impossible Questions

A few years ago, I took part in an interview for a library job where one of the questions was, "Tell us about a situation in which there was no possible solution-- what you did in response?" I thought of the most impossible situation I ever had, where a patron who spoke English as a second language wanted a book about the Headless Horseman and followed the plot-line of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and yet was not Washington Irving and not in the children's section because her 13-year-old son was far too advanced for children's books. After doing an extensive search, another librarian and I figured out that the woman may have read the book in translation in her home country and thought the translator was the author.

There were copies of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in both the children's and adult sections of the library, but when it was apparent that none of the librarians on staff could produce the book she described that was not written by Washington Irving, the woman stormed off with her embarrassed 13-year-old son in tow. It felt like an impossible situation.

Later on, it occurred to me that I hadn't answered the interview question correctly. What the interviewers may have wanted to hear was a chirpy, "There are no impossible situations! Here is an example of a situation that might have seemed impossible to someone else, but I was able to solve it using the know-how of my library science degree plus years of experience."

One of the major challenges a library staff person can do is to figure out what a patron really wants when it's different from what a patron says s/he wants. In that same job interview, I talked about another patron who wanted information on an ancient form of Judaism, and I figured out that what she actually wanted was Janism, an offshoot of Hinduism.

Have you ever dealt with the impossible questions, either in your work environment or in an interview? What did you say? What do you wish you had said?

9 comments:

Beth Kephart said...

Tell me your wonderful answer still got you the job. Chirpy just doesn't do it, not all the time, and increasingly less so in a complex world that requires real answers.

The impossible questions are my son's, always. He wants to know the future. I can never promise.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Beth: While I got into the job pool, my overall rating wasn't very high. When I asked the institution why I had such a low rating (the equivalent of a "B") despite my strong credentials and skills demonstrated in the assessments portion of the evaluation, the answer was, "Aside from storytelling and children's programmming, the interviewers couldn't really tell what you were about." Whatever they wanted for the answers, I wasn't able to read their minds to find out!I'm hoping I can still be part of that institution in the storytelling and children's programming end of things, but it will have to be as a performer, not as a librarian.

abcgirl said...

that feeling of "mystery solving" is one of my favorite parts of reference work at the library. just last week, a guy came up and was trying to find a movie with viggo mortenson that had a Spanish title, something like "the sad pirate" he thought he could remember "triste" being one of the words. After some poking around on IMDB, i found the film "Alatriste" which more or less matched his description. Although he started to argue with me that the word was "TRISTE" not something that started with "A," after I read him the summary, he decided that yes, that was the movie he was looking for. a nearby patron chuckled and said, "i love librarians."

my favorite impossible reference question was the kid who came into the library insisting that we help him find a road map of the Amazon Jungle. When I told him that there weren't really any roads through the Amazon, he became quite agitated. Ah well. Those are the ones that make good stories.

Mary Lee said...

If you got a "B" because you weren't "chirpy," then I think that grade should be one of your proudest moments ever. I want a librarian (or salesclerk, or waitress, or principal) who can THINK! But that's just me!

Lone Star Ma said...

Okay, now I'm even madder that I didn't become a librarian. I always wanted to be a detective when I was a little girl.

Vivian said...

I'm with everyone else. I don't want "chirpy." Sounds like you're having more fun being true to yourself and your talents. You rock.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

To be honest, I don't know if they wanted chirpy. I had no idea what they wanted. When I asked what they were looking for, they said they indicated that they were looking for a certain type of personality, but I never got what that was. I take my B and wear it proudly. "B" is for Book! And ballroom dancing! Well, I don't know how to ballroom dance, but it's still good.

bookbk said...

I had one of those just yesterday! A patron wanted a book she remembered reading to her daughter, a real classic, based on Welsh mythology but no, not a collection of folktales, a novel...and the author's name had the word "Llwellyn" in it. So I searched Llwylyn in various spellings, came up with nothing, and then asked, on a wild hunch, "Maybe it's The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander?" and showed her the cover.

"I think that's it!" she said. "And there are two L's in the name..."

p.s. that interview committee was SILLY not to hire you.

Alkelda the Gleeful said...

Bookbk: Yes! I feel as if I do that all the time when I'm looking for a book from my childhood. Thank you for the vote of confidence. I think things work out for the best in the long run... at least, I hope they do. There are a number of things I love now that I probably wouldn't have learned had I gone back to work as a librarian.