A-ha Moments In Librarianship

One of the chief joys of being a teacher is when you see a light come on in a student’s head — when they have an a-ha moment. Maybe you just explained something differently and got the student to slightly shift their thinking, but that shift makes all the difference in the world. When your perspective changes the whole world changes.

Librarians don’t always get to see these a-ha moments in the classroom but every once in a while we get lucky. I recently had two of these at the reference desk and they both came via chat. One student was trying to find primary source documents from around the time of the Battle of Vienna and John III Sobieski. The only problem was he wanted translated ones since he didn’t read Polish or German.  After we both did a little searching I found some translated documents linked from the Wikipedia entry on the Battle of Vienna. When I mentioned that I found them in the Wikipedia references he or she said “oh I never thought to look in the references!”

The other student was working on a research project having to do with customs or folkways within a specific community. The student’s main problem though, was defining her topic. We chatted for probably 15-20 minutes talking about what she was interested in. Most of the conversation on my end was asking a lot of questions, clarifying and making some suggestions. The student was interested in the community of modern Egypt (and the revolution stuff going on). We eventually got her question focused down to the political and power customs in contemporary Egypt. At the end of our conversation she said “that was exactly what was in my head but I didn’t know how to say it!” I replied that sometimes it’s helpful to simply have someone to bounce ideas off of and ask questions. Sometimes a good reference answer is actually a bunch of questions.

These were definitely moments that make it all worth it. Being able to see people change and learn is one of the great joys of librarianship. Do you have any memorable student a-ha moments? Please share them in the comments.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. A few weeks ago, I was getting my hair cut and my stylist mentioned that she was finishing up her degree and had a big paper due. I asked what she was going to write about and she said she wasn’t sure. We ended up talking it out and by the end, she said pretty much the same thing you described in this post. I had to say, “You know, if you ask a librarian at your school, they would help you like this too,” but it was fun to have a reference interaction in my regular, non-library life.

  2. That’s so cool that you did topic definition with your hair stylist! I hope she added a free bottle of shampoo or something for your help. 🙂 And it goes to show that at work you’re not just going through the motions. You genuinely enjoy helping people and even talk about it for fun in your everyday life.

  3. A girl came to the desk the other day with a stack of books to check out. She was waiting for a friend to bring her ID so I asked her if she’d found all the information she needed.

    She responded that she had and was surprised at how many books there were on her topic because she’d only found two in the catalog. Apparently she’d figured out that by browsing around those two books in the stacks, she could find more books on the same topic. I didn’t get to see the “ah-ha” moment and I don’t know if she’d ever had any library instruction, but it was great to see how excited she was about the books and finding all the other books in the stacks.

  4. Jess, it’s really fun to see when students get excited about research or their topic or finding information, especially when they weren’t expecting much. Sometimes students are phoning it in on their project or waiting until the last minute, but the best interactions are the ones where they are genuinely interested. That interest and excitement is contagious for me and makes me want to help them even more.

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