There is no word in the English language that rhymes with orange. Spiders do not have moveable mouth parts. Defenestration is the act of throwing someone or something out of a window- see “Defenestrations of Prague.” These are just a few of the thousands of factoids that remain firmly lodged in the Liberry Lady section of my brain.
When I retired in 2009, I had spent twenty five years working at the Information Desk of the City Of San Diego’s Central Library. I was hired in the 1980’s as an assistant librarian. I do not have a Masters in Library Science, which is required for librarian status- hence Liberry Lady or Ms.Information. The old card catalogs were being phased out and it would be close to a decade before computers became available to staff and patrons. That means that I had the good fortune of initially learning to use print resources to answer your questions and that I was there when the first wave of computer technology- no world wide web, no email- was introduced to staff and patrons.
I think the public is often left with a vague sense about what librarians and assistant librarians actually do. Yes, we look up materials in the computer and arrange to have them transferred throughout the system. Yes, we provide story time for your children. Those activities constitute a small part however of the services provided in your library which also include school curriculum development, adult programming, outreach, and collection development. And above all- we answer hundreds of thousands of questions on every imaginable subject over the phone or at a public service desk.
Libraries exist to provide everyone with open access to information, whether you are working a cross word puzzle and want to know a four letter word for indigenous people of Japan (ainu), or if you are an inventor applying for a patent, or are filing for unemployment online, writing a school paper on Medieval customs or searching for a bagel recipe. It doesn’t matter in a very basic sense why you are seeking the information and we never ask unless it pertains to the actual question or possible answers. That is what open access means. Democracies depend on this kind of unrestricted open access to information.
Even though we seldom ask why you want certain information, most of you are quite willing to provide the details. Those details are all about life and death and everything in between. Decades ago I received a phone call from Hawaii. The caller asked if we had a criss-cross directory which could be used to find a name and address from a phone number. The caller revealed that he worked for the police department in Hawaii and that the body of an adolescent in the morgue was found with no identification except for a San Diego phone number. I was able to provide that information.
The social nicety of responding to a caller’s “how are you?” with “fine thank you, how are you?” can result in the unexpected if the caller responds “I have puss running down my leg.” I didn’t want to linger too long on the mental image I conjured, so I asked if he had seen a doctor about the condition. I listened to a prolonged, interesting accounting of how he had the same condition as a child and even the Mayo Clinic was of no help. I managed to finally ask “how can the library help you, sir?”
“Leeches. I need to find out how I can get some leeches. They got rid of the infection when I was young.” Of course the library could help him procure leeches! I also spent days data mining everything I could find on the topic of leeches, medical and otherwise. Go ahead ask me….
The broad usage of personal computers has certainly changed the kinds of questions asked. Few people call for the time of the sunset or the phases of the moon anymore. Many people with computers do however continue to call for assistance because they do not know how to conduct a search or are uncertain of the veracity of what they find. Library staff members continue to be information navigators who assist those of you with computers. This kind of assistance is too often overlooked and undervalued.
Still, not all questions require a computer for answers. One perplexing question I received throughout my long tenure at the library was the request for “today’s date, including the month and year.” It took a few years to understand why some of you were asking this question. The last time I was asked this question, the caller remarked that I probably thought it was a really stupid question. “It’s not stupid at all. There are many people who have had serious head injuries. They have told me it is like starting all over again every day that they wake up.” The caller started to laugh, and before I could comment, she said “I have a head injury! Thank you!”
The most difficult aspect of answering a question is not necessarily where to find the answer. The reference question itself is often a complex intellectual exchange between professional staff and you. The ability to determine the actual question is “The Mojo.” It is not always easy.
Parents often call the library to “assist” their children with school assignments. One such parent informed me that her child needed a photograph of Charles Main. I responded that I didn’t recognize the name and asked if she new why this person was noteworthy- musician, historical figure, athlete, etc. The mother had little information except that her child needed it for history class and that Charles Main was French. Of course. Charles Main. Charlesmain. Charlemagne. Mojo! And I explained that while photography wasn’t available when he lived, I would send her a book with a portrait.
Working at the Information Desk all those years was the best job on the planet- that’s why I did it for so long! Your questions were interesting, illuminating and important. Thank you all! Long live libraries!
PS: Who was shot, poisoned, beaten and drowned in 1917?