Monday, December 07, 2015

The True Meaning of that Christmas-Related Reference Question

Alternate title: In Search of the Perfect Reference Interview: In which Bryce asks more questions than she has answers for.

Note; All gifs in this post are from the movie "Emmet Otter's Jugband Christmas", which is unequivocally the best otter-based holiday film to date. They are not at all related to the text.

The Storytime Underground Facebook Group is a great place to share successes and get all-around support from the global Youth Services community. Occasionally, there will be a question whose answers are so varied and possibly polarizing that I get sucked in and can't stop thinking about it. Last week there was a question like that:

Screenshot shared with permission of original poster.

For accessibility, here the text of the question You can also click this link to read it and responses at Storytime Underground:
I just had an older child (10+) ask me a very difficult question via an online reference service I volunteer for and I'm wondering how you all would handle it. They said that their parents say Santa is real, but all their friends say he isn't and they wanted to know if he is real or not. They disconnected from the service before I could give them an answer, but I'm trying to figure out what to say if it comes up again!
I was considering linking them the "Yes Virgina, there is a Santa Claus" letter and telling them that he is real even if it's only in their heart and mind, but I'd love to hear what answers you might give in this situation. I wouldn't want to step on the parents' toes, but I wouldn't want to flat out tell them that Santa is real when they directly asked me about his existence. It's a bit of a sticky situation! would YOU answer this question?

I really have to commend youth services librarians here, because the first response I've gotten from anyone NOT in youth services to this question is "Holy [expletive]!"

Full disclosure: I grew up in a Catholic family and every year we celebrate the Polish tradition of Wigilia. After midnight mass, “Santa” has historically come to our house. This includes last year, when the youngest celebrating Christmas morning at our house was 30 years old. This is the lens through which I viewed this question. I understand I am viewing this question from a privileged place, and I also acknowledge that there is privilege in wanting your child to believe in Santa at all. 

I think this question and its responses were so interesting to me because I immediately knew what I would do: just like when kids ask about the existence of Big Foot, or the Loch Ness Monster, or Darth Vader, I would ask, “Hmm, what do YOU think?”, listen, and invite them into the library to look at some books about the topic. Do you know for a FACT that “Star Wars” is not a documentary shot in real time? Are you absolutely sure?

BUT. BUT.  As I read through the comments, my “oh, of course!” idea of what to do was massaged into a grey area putty. Some affirmed Heather’s thought that “Yes, Virginia,” would be a good start. Some commented that the answer would be a truthful, if gentle, “no”, to which others responded with tales of heartbreak as children or for their children.

It was difficult for me to wrap my head around some responses, but, having made a commitment to myself against the easy shame-based and absolutely not trauma-informed thoughts I discussed in my Pearl Clutcher post, I strove to understand where those responses might be coming from and took a critical look at my own.

The way I see it, it appears as though the commenters who answered this question, as youth services staff, value the same thing: connection. When running a reference interview, we value connecting patrons to resources and answers, as well as connecting with each patron through relationship building.

It was which of these that edged out in priority for the commenters that intrigued me most.

Given my answer above, you may have realized that this is what I prioritize in reference interviews. Well, sometimes. In this particular case. My desire to connect with the patron on a personal level, and find out why they are asking and maybe let them feel heard, out-edges my priority to provide them with the answer that might be generally accepted as “correct”. While this was my first response, and one I could defend with talk about relationship building in the library, I could definitely see how it could be a detriment depending on the child. By not providing an answer, I may be seen as complicit in the child’s parents’ “deception”, and the child, already feeling betrayed by adults, may decide that their librarian can also not be trusted. And that is serious business, because it is in direct opposition of my stance that a youth services library staff member may be the only model for healthy adult relationships children have and we should always act as such. I could defend this by saying:  if the children did feel heard in our conversation, were to return and were to confront me, we could talk it out. But that would be up to the child and not a guaranteed opportunity.

Another angle to answering this question is exactly that: answering the question, whether that answer is “yes” or “no”.  Prioritizing a connection to resources sounded harsh to me at first blush (especially if the answer was “no”), but as I read more I realized that prioritizing a connection to resources is to treat this question like any question on any given day, which is realistically providing a necessary service to our patrons regardless of the time of year. Conversely, as some commenters implied, an outright answer may lead to undermining the parents’ faith in the library, leading them to not return.

So in the end, whatever you prioritize in this reference interview, you could end up with a child who does not return to the library. Merry Christmas.

Seriously everyone this movie.
Ultimately, I think that the underlying message portrayed in this question is an important and uplifting one: librarians are continuously some of the most trusted members of the community. Youth services librarians are approached to answer the questions that can define childhood. Libraries can be seen as a space for children and families to explore their realities, whatever they may be. And librarians can be seen as guides to help patrons navigate tough situations, because of the connections we make.

And that, my friends, may be  the true meaning of this Christmas-related question. And holy [expletive],  that is some powerful stuff.

So what do we do with it?


  1. The best I can come up with is: "Go and talk to your parents. Have a conversation about Santa, what Santa means to you and your family, and what your friends are telling you." I'm a firm believer in the fact that parents should be the ones to talk to their child about Santa. Yes, other kids will say something, but it's up to the parents to come clean because, like you said, it has to do with relationships. If it were possible to talk to the parents, I would tell them something similar. After all, it IS possible to have Santa be a part of your life for years to come, just as you've mentioned with your family's traditions.

  2. Ack, this is such a difficult question. Because, on the one hand, like Monica says, it should be a conversation between the children and parents. But on the other hand, that's a total value judgement we're making! What if the kid asked for books about something more private, like what to do if they think the might be gay. We totally would trust the kid's right to privacy and information - because the kid is the patron at that moment, not the parent! I just...don't know how I would react!

  3. I KNOW! It's so difficult. I've so been going back and forth about all of this. I really adamant about one answer and then I think... well... and I start at the beginning!!

  4. I think I would fall back on the old "answer a question with a question"--why do you think your parents and your friends say different things? Are you interested in whether someone will really show up and give you presents, or in exploring this cognitive dissonance, or in the history of Father Christmas/St. Nicholas stories? (not in those words, obviously) With a child this old, I might walk them through sharing with me their observed evidence for/against Santa's existence and helping them come up with a strategy to "research" if they couldn't resolve it themself. But that's probably my school librarian side talking!

    I haven't had this particular reference question, but I have had students ask me if I believe in Jesus, or if it's true that people who don't believe in Jesus are going to hell.