Let me preface by saying, prior to this job, I had very little experience in providing onsite reference.
At my last job in Death Valley, I helped the occasional researcher. Mostly, this consisted of giving them a brief tour of the library, our holdings in the library, and how to access our OPAC. But mostly, I redirected them to one of our more seasoned employees about accessing our archival collections. There’s only one time I can readily recall being in a position to quickly determine a person’s research needs and determine the appropriate collection. One of the education staff members was looking for information on incidents and accidents in the park. My mind instantly thought of this one collection in particular because I was in the process of retroactively processing it. It was the first time I felt comfortable helping someone.
But, by and larger, I accumulated my reference-related skills through providing research support through Teaching American History. There were several differences in this experience. First, for the most part, this was done entirely “offsite” i.e. via email and by phone. Secondly, I was not so much pulling collections for them but determining appropriate repositories and their staff that had collections of interest to my teachers. Thirdly, if unable to get to the repositories themselves, I often went in their stead and did some digging in the collections. Lastly, through question and answer, commonly referred to the reference interview, I worked with my teachers to determine what exactly they wanted
It was in my first day behind the reference desk at the National Archives did I feel like a deer in headlights. I had been doing offsite reference requests (received via email or by phone) for a couple of weeks. I found point number three from my TAH experience to be extremely useful. And, I had dabbled a little bit in reference interviews. But, it’s quite a different story to have a real, flesh and blood person in front of you. They’re looking to you to know the answer and their expectations are high. My first time at the reference desk tested not only my customer service and archival skills but my knowledge of NARA’s holdings.
I’m not going to say I did stellar. I made some mistakes. Sometimes a better answer to a researcher’s question came after they had already left for the day. But you know what? It’s all a part of the learning process. I know that eventually I’ll get there. That certain knowledge and expertise will come in time and will become second nature.
Sometimes, at work with my coworkers, I jokingly refer to my steno notepad as my manual for this job. Everything anyone has shown me or taught me how to do, I made notes. And, I still refer to it often. But, I know there will come a day when I can put aside the notepad and just do it.
I look forward to that day.