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World AIDS Day

Jessamyn West lists a number of good Web resources on

AIDS inspired one of my first real-time, patron-in-front-of-the-desk Internet searches for reference, in 1993, when I worked at the science/business/government desk at Newark (NJ) Public Library. A man walked up to the desk and announced, “I’ve been diagnosed with AIDS.” I walked to our reference shelves, and was horrified to see that our books on the topic were seriously outdated. (But we had twelve reference books about cats.)

We had one phone line at the reference desk, with several extensions throughout the reference area. That meant when I needed to use the Internet (and at that point most librarians could not fathom anyone “needing” to use the Internet to begin with), I had to holler “on the Internet!” and then during the search pop my head up like a prairie dog to guard the phone line from that tell-tale hiss and crackle that meant someone had picked up the phone and broken my connection. (Yes, we did have a computer, a dusty old Compaq placed there for catalog access and the occasional Dialog search.)

Several moments from that reference experience stand out for me to this day. I remember finding dazzling quantities of current, high-quality information from government sources. I remember the patron’s surprise and amusement at my unorthodox reference methods. Most of all, I remember the sense that the patron needed me to minister to him even more than he needed the information; no matter how it is done–with a book or a computer, in person or across the Web, reference service, like any good public service, is its own sacrament.

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