Thursday, October 18, 2018

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L.E. Phillips reference librarians: 76,343 questions ... and counting

In the technology age, reference librarians still dish out a whole lotof info to the public on just about any subject you can imagine

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    Reference assistant Jonathan Lebakken tells a caller Wednesday that L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library has a fax machine available to the public. The library’s reference desks responded to more than 76,000 questions in 2016, a 4.5 percent jump from the previous year. View more photos at

    Staff photo by Marisa Wojcik
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On Anna Zook’s first day as a reference librarian at L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, she picked up the phone to hear a distraught caller on the other end.

“Our guacamole is turning brown — what do we do?” the voice frantically asked Zook that night in April.

Without needing to research it, Zook advised that adding lemon or lime juice would do the trick to slow down discoloring.

“They were so thankful,” she said of the callers who Zook assumed were entertaining guests from the noise she could hear in the background.

Despite an age of information overload, the public library in Eau Claire is seeing an increase in the number of questions asked of its reference librarians and assistants. 

In 2016, the library answered 76,343 questions, an increase of 4.5 percent from the previous year. In 2015, library staff answered 72,716 questions, library director Pamela Westby said.

Much of the traffic is for questions related to technology.

“It’s surprising the amount of people who don’t know how to do anything on a computer,” said Jonathan Lebakken, a reference assistant.

Marie Eisenhuth of Eau Claire got some help from Lebakken on Wednesday about printing a photograph from her email of her extended family that was taken during her sister’s 66th wedding anniversary.

“I ask a lot of questions, and they’re very helpful,” she said of the reference staff. 

Renee Ponzio, the library’s reference services manager, said particularly in the past five years, the library staff has noticed an upswing in technology questions. 

“Kids give parents tech devices, explaining it once before they’re gone, and their parents don’t know how to make it work,” she said. 

Library staff members keep track of queries by placing slashes on a sheet of paper next to categories for reference, directional, procedural and technology questions. 

Those reference transaction numbers are compiled from each reference desk in the library and filed in a report to the state Department of Public Instruction, primarily known for overseeing the public school system in Wisconsin.

While directional questions such as “where is the bathroom” help library staff understand ways they can better serve their patrons, those questions aren’t included in the final reference transaction number. 

Of the questions that are included, Ponzio said, they’re not so easy and quick to answer anymore. 

“We don’t get asked, ‘What is the capital of Brazil?’ ” she said. 

Instead, she takes a call from a man looking for the circulation of the Tradin’ Post Buyer’s Guide, or from a family in Sweden looking for a family member’s obituary.

Despite the more “in-depth” questions library staff receive, Ponzio said, they can find what they’re looking for. 

“We don’t generally give up,” she said.

Contact: 715-833-9206,, @EDohms_LT on Twitter

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