It is the second day of the summer term, and we’ve seen lots of students, many of whom are new. And they tend to fall into two basic categories: students home from universities who are taking one or two classes and first-time students who are starting their college careers in the summer. Both are nervous: They’re unsure of where classes are located. They don’t know the college’s policies. And they don’t want to appear ignorant.
Many students come to the circulation desk and start the conversation with, “This is a stupid question.” Of course, it’s not. If you don’t know where your class is, why wouldn’t you ask someone associated with the campus? It’s certainly much less stupid than wandering through five buildings hoping that, through some special intuition, you find the right room.
If the printing system is different from the one you’re used to, why wouldn’t you ask someone who’s sitting near one of the printers? It’s less crazy than standing by a printer waiting for ten minutes hoping your document magically appears.
I don’t wonder this idly because I too have been afflicted by the fear of asking questions. In fact, I once hovered so long in a bookstore working up the courage to ask if they needed salespeople that I’m pretty sure the staff thought I was a shoplifter. In fact, embarrassed over my lack of assertiveness, I finally crept out of the bookstore without even asking about a job.
In college, I would go to the library determined to ask for help in finding a source, but when the reference librarians didn’t look up and meet my glance, instead I wandered off in the stacks hoping the right information would leap out to the floor at my feet.
I don’t blame anyone but myself for my odd behavior. But now that I work in the library, I remember my own fear of asking for help and perhaps being snapped at or turned down. So it’s our one big rule. (Although a rule that’s not hard to enforce. The library staff loves to help people.) If people look confused, we don’t wait for them to come to us, we go to them. We make sure we make eye contact when students walk in the door so that they don’t feel they’re interrupting us if they come up to the desk.
Still, I know that no matter how friendly we seem, there will be some students who won’t ask for help they sorely need. And I hate that. I still regret some of the opportunities missed because I was too shy to ask someone for help. So for those of you out there like me, go ahead and make yourself ask that ‘stupid’ question. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how kind and generous most people are.