Still They Persist

Last spring I wrote about the ethics of fake reference in a series of posts. About a year ago, a student in a library school course at an unnamed library school at a large state university in New Jersey popped up during my Sunday night chat reference shift lying to me and asking me fake questions.

Skip to one year later, almost to the day. I’m still doing Sunday night chat reference shifts. Reference students at the large unnamed library school in New Jersey are still lying to me. Apparently they didn’t read my posts from last year, so if you know the professor handing out this particular assignment – go lie to reference librarians at private universities and ask them fake questions – please pass this post on to them.

My first question is, what exactly do you think the students are supposed to learn from this? I really can’t figure out what it is. It can’t be how librarians at my institution (a private university, by the way) respond to genuine questions by our clientele or to honest researchers, because that’s not what happens when these students encounter me. Are they supposed to find out what happens when duplicitous library school students lie to experienced reference librarians and try to deceive them? If so, then keep up the good work, because that’s what the students learn when they get me on the line.

A friend of mine currently teaching reference says I don’t like to be "secretly shopped." That’s not the problem. If the shopping was secret, it might be okay. The problem is, I can tell from the very moment the first question is asked what is going on. (I’d detail how I can tell, but that would just give the deceivers more ammunition. Experienced reference librarians can probably figure it out.) From the very first question tonight, I knew. It was obviously a fake question, and, frankly, a particularly stupid and improbable one. I answered politely, then referred the query to the patron’s own librarians. I was trying to be kind. Once upon a time I was a library school student myself, though a considerably more honest one.

The lies continued. The person claimed to be a student at a particular college. Uh huh. Fine. I refrained from saying, "you really have no scruples whatsoever, do you?" Instead I merely asked, "you’re in a library school reference course, aren’t you?" Finally, the person admitted the truth, but then had the further gall to say, "I just wanted to know what librarians would recommend for X topic." Uh huh. Sure. If that’s all you’d wanted to know, you could have asked.

I’m not sure why I get so miffed about this, but I do. It seems to me a violation of professional ethics. Do the teachers of reference not see it this way? Am I not a professional with a job to do? Is my time not valuable? Do I deserve to be lied to by duplicitous students? As many around the country can attest, if I’m contacted directly, I’m more than happy to help students. Why lie to me?

I’m not sure what I can do but write about it here. Someday perhaps I’ll try to teach reference myself, to show how it can be done without asking students to lie to busy librarians.

Until then, I offer some advice to duplicitous library school students at the unnamed library school. Please don’t pester the chat service at my library. Your own library has a chat service. Bother those librarians. They are very good, and I’m sure they will resent your lies as well, but then again they work for your institution. If you absolutely have to chat up my institution. try telling the truth. It will get you further. You might not realize this, but the librarians where I work are pretty smart and very experienced. We do this for a living, and we can tell when you’re lying to us.

7 thoughts on “Still They Persist

  1. I’m not going to do the work, but it’s gotta be pretty easy to figure out who’s teaching the intro to reference class at Rutgers this spring. Here’s the school’s website: http://www.scils.rutgers.edu/
    I’m guessing you don’t really expect a random prof to stumble across your blog, so why not write him or her directly?

  2. I know I could write them directly, but I can’t be sure which person is teaching it. I found two different people teaching the on-campus version, but I know of at least one person teaching a distance ed version who doesn’t seem to be listed. Besides, I’d rather gripe in public. Maybe some library school students will see the post and think twice about the ethics of their assignments.

  3. Great stuff, Wayne.
    I agree there are better ways to evaluate reference services, and we partner with the local library school extension program to give students access to our service’s transcripts.
    We assign librarians to secret patron collaborative reference services all over the country in order as a standard part of training. Our thinking is that we want librarians to experience collaborative virtual reference as a patron so that they will sympathize with them.
    Could this be what library school professors are hoping students will learn? Lord knows, the rest of us need a reminder now and then. But that doesn’t mean there’s ever a reason to ask fake questions.
    I have plenty of my own reference questions that I’m stumped on or just want another brain to hack away at. I don’t identify myself as a librarian (it’s kind of embarrassing to not be able to find the answer sometimes), but I do admit places I’ve looked and strategies I’ve tried.
    Some things I’ve asked recently are: Do they really give out awards for cats saving human lives? Is gang graffiti real or just a government scare tactic? Who was the mayor of Bowling Green, Ohio in 1992? What are some philosophical frameworks for understanding ethics in evaluating virtual reference?
    Once in a while, I even get a decent answer.

  4. Wayne, the students have no power here. They can’t tell a professor the assignment is bad or unethical. Not really. I’d encourage you to email both professors. What’s the worst that could happen?

  5. Hi,
    I’m a reference librarian at a small art school that is located two blocks from a large university that has a Library and Information Science program. I am also an adjunct faculty member in that school. Due to our close proximity to the LISP, every semester I am interviewed and “shadowed” by students. The interviews consist of a series of questions about my experiences on the reference desk – typical questions, challenging questions etc. I don’t mind this; I love this profession and enjoy describing the thrill of the hunt. I am appalled that my time would be viewed by a professor in our profession as so expendable to send me purposely on a wild goose chase. Why in the world would a professor require students to act so unethically? More importantly, why is the director of this program allowing this to continue. There are a number of LISP all over the country who do not teach by such dubious methods. I would advise the LISP students in your area to give their tuition money to a more reputable institution.

  6. Hi,
    I’m a reference librarian at a small art school that is located two blocks from a large university that has a Library and Information Science program. I am also an adjunct faculty member in that school. Due to our close proximity to the LISP, every semester I am interviewed and “shadowed” by students. The interviews consist of a series of questions about my experiences on the reference desk – typical questions, challenging questions etc. I don’t mind this; I love this profession and enjoy describing the thrill of the hunt. I am appalled that my time would be viewed by a professor in our profession as so expendable to send me purposely on a wild goose chase. Why in the world would a professor require students to act so unethically? More importantly, why is the director of this program allowing this to continue. There are a number of LISP all over the country who do not teach by such dubious methods. I would advise the LISP students in your area to give their tuition money to a more reputable institution.

  7. I have had to do this assignment before, and at another library school. The purpose of it was to evaluate the reference service given through chat reference. Really the students probably pick the library that they are familiar with, that they know has the option of chat reference. When I did my assignment I had to do it in person and on chat, and it was to see if the reference librarians were exemplifying RUSA standards in their practices, to evaluate the services given, and then to say how we would have handled the question or situation if in their place.

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