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The Collation

How to ask a reference question

Thank you all for your guesses on this month’s Crocodile Mystery. You have proven, once again, that we have the best readers on the internet! Some folks got pretty close to the answer (and I want to give a particular shout out to Elisabeth for her comment of “Number of breakdowns per month, clearly“, which might be a little too on the nose; and to Jane, because her guess of “Consumption of chocolate” is, um, probably accurate!).

The actual answer is that the graph shows the number of reference questions that I and my colleagues answered in each month.1 These days, the vast majority of our questions come in either through our Ask A Librarian form, or via email.

Librarians (especially reference librarians) are here to help. We talk about this constantly. (No, really. If you’ve ever met me in person you know that this is something I don’t shut up about.) But we also recognize that asking questions—asking questions of a presumably knowledgeable stranger—can be a bit intimidating. What if I say something wrong? What if I sound silly? What if the librarian laughs at me? (Spoiler alert: you won’t, you won’t, and only if you say something intentionally funny!)

At the risk of sounding like a candy advert, there is no wrong way to ask a reference question. But in this post, I thought I’d give some suggestions and examples of the kinds of things that are really useful to include in a reference question. The sorts of things that might not occur to you as the question-asker, but can make all the difference for the question-answerer.

Here is a (slightly edited) reference question that I recently sent to another research library:

Dear Colleagues,
I’m trying to confirm a citation to a poem titled “Ye Old Poem” in a manuscript that might be at <Your Library>. I found this citation in Awesome Book by Nifty Author (Publisher, date, p.XX).
The citation is to <institutional shelfmark #YY>. However, I’m unable to find this manuscript in your catalog—as far as I can tell, the <shelfmark> numbers skip from YY-1 to YY+1. Is that true? If so, do you have any idea what the correct call number for the cited manuscript might be? Ultimately, I’d be interested in getting an image of the poem, but in the short term I’ll be happy with having the correct citation for the manuscript that the poem appears in!
Many thanks,

So what was I doing here? Let’s break it down:

  • I start saying exactly what I’m looking for: I need the citation for a specific poem. This helps give the librarian a sense of the scope of the question.
  • I give the information about the poem as I have it—this is important for all types of questions, but particularly for poems. Early modern poems often didn’t have formal titles (especially ones written in manuscript rather than printed) so what I call the poem might not be what the library calls the poem; but it’s at least a starting point.
  • I say where I found this citation. This is SO IMPORTANT. Mistakes with shelfmarks/call numbers are pretty common. If the librarian has a hard time finding the manuscript and poem from the information that I’ve given them, at least they have a starting point for trying to track it down. Maybe I transposed two numbers in the shelfmark. Maybe the book messed up the shelfmark. Maybe I didn’t note down a particular piece of information because I didn’t know it was important. Special collections shelfmarks have all sorts of oddities in them and it can be easy to leave out a key piece of info if you don’t know that it is necessary. And none of this even takes into account the fact that the call number can change, so what might have been correct when the book was published, might now be inaccurate.
  • I say what I’ve done to look for this manuscript. This lets the librarian know what steps I’ve already taken, so that they don’t necessarily have to replicate work that I’ve done. This is especially important for questions that are more topic-driven than item-specific. If you’ve already consulted several specific books/articles on a topic, tell me that so I don’t suggest them to you!
  • I state what both my immediate goal is (to get the correct citation for the poem) and what my ultimate goal is (to get images of the poem). Again, this lets the librarian judge the scope of the question.

Obviously, these steps are specific to my particular question, but hopefully they give you a sense of my thought process, both as the question-asker in this situation, and as a regular question-answerer.

One thing that I should have included, but didn’t (bad librarian, no cookie!), was anything about my timeline. In my case, this request was for an ongoing research project, so I didn’t really have a deadline. However, if you have a specific deadline for the information you’re requesting, please make sure to include that! It helps us prioritize the order in which we answer questions.

So to generalize:

  • Be specific and complete in your request. Instead of saying “I’m trying to find a letter in the collection of John Smith’s papers,” say, if you can, “I’m trying to track down a letter written to John Smith by Jane Clark. I believe the date of the letter is 1807 or 1808 and discusses Clark’s favorite pastry.”
  • Be explicit about what you’re asking for and what your end goal is. Do you need the citation to the letter? Do you need images of the letter? Do you need a transcription of the letter? Those are three very different questions for us.
  • Tell the librarian what steps you have already done to try to answer your question. “I’ve searched in your catalog/finding aids/digital image collection, but was unable to locate this letter.” “I’ve already got the following books on the subject, but would love some more suggestions.” Or even, “I’m just starting work on this topic and I have no idea where to start.” That’s fine too! Just give us a sense of where you are so that we can tailor our response to be as useful as possible.
  • Let us know if you have a specific timeline or deadline you need to meet. It might not always be possible, but generally, we’ll do our best to accommodate you.

Oh, and the end result of my question? I got both the correct citation for the poem and a reference image of the poem! (Of course the image generated as many questions as it answered, but that’s research for you…)

  1. And if you’re wondering why the graph shows August-December, rather than another time frame, it’s because we’re using a relatively new system to track our reference questions. In July 2022 we discovered that we were accidentally double counting some of the questions, so the stats for January-July 2022 are… not quite accurate.