A librarian at a reference desk is a beacon of knowledge in a world full of ignorance. A living, breathing repository of information. A helping hand, a warm smile, a direct conduit for the bathroom key. Let's be honest, here: a librarian at a reference desk is a sitting duck. A magnet for the friendly, the irrationally angry, the incontinent. That is the nature of the job, and most librarians accept and embrace it (some even love it, like I do. Did I mention that I’m a bit of a masochist?)
There are some patrons who feel that the librarian is there not only to provide information/book advice/computer help, but to listen to their problems, learn their secrets, give personal (or medical, or legal, or financial) advice, or just to act as a sympathetic, impartial shoulder on which to cry. In some cases, this might be true. Librarians often form close bonds with patrons, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing for a patron to feel comfortable enough to trust librarians with information about their lives. Ultimately, the librarian must be professional and set the boundaries about how far is too far.
I am constantly and consistently amazed at the degree to which people will share personal information. I suppose some of it stems from loneliness – the librarian is there to listen, and often, people just don’t have that luxury in all facets of their lives. Some patrons need actual help and don’t know where to get it (and the librarian can point them in the right direction, like to a hospital, social worker, or exorcist). At other times, the patron just plain doesn’t realize that he or she is secretly horrifying the person behind the desk. It's often an interesting sociological study.
- A female patron, who had just left the public restroom, gave me a detailed account of her digestive health (while I sat there, trapped, trying to keep an expression of abject terror off my face and my breakfast in my stomach).
- I had a telephone reference call with an extremely angry and high-strung man who was upset about being unemployed and broke (understandable). He kept dropping racial slurs (not understandable) and talking about his diabetes, all while calling me "girlie." Luckily, I was able to stop his diatribe and get to the question, which, incidentally, had nothing to do with any of the aforementioned.
- A man told me about his mother who had recently passed away (sad) and how she was buried next to his deceased father in the cemetery (sad, but sweet) and how they weren't buried six feet under the ground, but only 18 inches under (sad, sweet, and disturbing). He was definitely one of the lonely ones, and I could tell he wanted to talk more, but it was very busy in the library at the time, so he eventually shuffled away.
Then there's the type of personal information that the patron doesn't mean to share, like the time I accidentally discovered a guy's "Porn" folder when helping him save files on his laptop. But hey, I don't judge. I'm only here to help.