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On the Job: Answers at her fingertips

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Posted: Monday, September 14, 1998 1:00 am

MOLINE -- If Lisa Powell Williams doesn't know the answer to your question, she probably knows how to find it.

``People will say, `I'm sorry, but I have a really stupid question,' and I tell them there are no stupid questions,'' Ms. Williams said, leaning back in a chair in her office at the Moline Southeast Library. ``One time, someone called and said, `Who's the guy in the yellow coat with the hat?' It was Dick Tracy.''

Ms. Williams fields all kinds of questions in her job as a reference librarian for the Moline Public Library. In addition to being a working librarian, Ms. Williams also heads the adult and young-adult services, which includes the reference section and the library's collections.

Between management duties and working the reference desk, Ms. Williams never really has a ``typical'' day.

``Every day is something new, and it might be slow, but it's never boring,'' she said. ``I usually spend about a quarter of my time on the desk, and, of course, there's always a meeting.''

Ms. Williams usually works the reference desk in the morning, answering questions from patrons who telephone, e-mail, and come in to the library. She and her staff have noticed a cyclical pattern to certain inquiries.

In the spring, lots of high-school students come in with research-paper topics, Ms. Williams said. April is especially busy, she said, with term-paper deadlines nearing and tax day looming large.

Moline librarians answer more than 80,000 reference questions a year, Ms. Williams said. Though the librarians are happy to research most any questions, some things they can't talk about.

``We are legally prohibited from giving medical, legal or tax advice,'' Ms. Williams said. ``I can read the law verbatim from the books, but I can't tell you what I think it means.''

When questions come in via phone, the librarians usually take the patron's phone number and call back with the answer, Ms. Williams said.

``It could take a few minutes, or it could take a few hours,'' she said. ``Some of them take a little legwork.''

Even if she thinks she knows the answer to a question, she usually looks it up, just to be sure. It's a skill she learned early in life.

``My dad always told me to look things up,'' she said. ``It annoyed me to no end when I was a kid. As an adult, I'm grateful. You don't have to know everything, but you better know where to look it up.''

After her stint on the reference desk, Ms. Williams dons her management hat. As with middle managers everywhere, paperwork consumes a lot of her time.

She fills out schedules, making sure a librarian is working anytime the library is open.

She also reviews professional publications for new items to buy for the library's reference, history and travel sections. Each librarian is responsible for certain sections of the library and must budget the amount of money available throughout the year, she said.

Ms. Williams also schedules patron-instruction sessions, like the mini-classes now running on basic Internet use. Such help is more important than ever before, she said, as libraries are evolving into technologically advanced information clearinghouses.

``We'll help anybody with anything, but they have to be willing to learn,'' she said. ``People still ask me where the card catalog is. We haven't had one for a decade, and we're not going back.

``Libraries aren't tomb quiet anymore, and the old spinster librarian with the pen behind her ear is gone,'' she said, explaining how libraries have changed in the past two decades. ``The only thing relevant is the pen behind the ear. Librarians are technology-savvy, info-savvy and attuned to the pulse of the people and community, and are up on current events.''

The desire to help people drew Ms. Williams to libraries, much as it initially drew her to politics. She worked in various state political offices after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University with a degree in political science.

Though Ms. Williams loved researching issues, she soon tired of the cynicism and game-playing she often saw in politics. She went back to school at the University of Illinois and earned a master's of library-information science.

When Ms. Williams returned to her hometown in the Quad-Cities, she brought with her the enthusiasm for helping people learn to help themselves.

``I'm very passionate about what libraries can do for people,'' she said, animatedly. ``We are active, vital agencies that can help people's lives.''

What she thinks about:

-- Info overload: ``People said the Internet would push out reference librarians, but it's just increased our demand. Lots of people need help navigating and finding reliable information.''

-- Books on computer: ``They're nice for some people, but they'll never replace real books. You can't take the computer in the bathtub or up the tree or easily on a picnic. It's January, it's 50 below, and you're going to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa and a computer?''

-- Quad-Cities library interloaning: ``Not every area has great cooperation between public and private libraries like we do here. I give the secretary of state lots of credit for maintaining that cooperation.''

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