Leeches, Today’s Date and the Photo of Charles Main – the “Liberry Lady” Answers Your Questions

by on January 9, 2011 · 11 comments

in Culture, Education

Photo by Rich Kacmar

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.

Photo by Rich Kacmar

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?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

RB January 9, 2011 at 10:03 am

PS: Who was shot, poisoned, beaten and drowned in 1917?
Must be someone with special powers…perhaps a mad monk.


annagrace January 9, 2011 at 10:24 am

Quite right! Today we can google the search string and get the answer in seconds. Before computers, when I was asked the question, it took a while longer. I paged through a years worth of headlines in a chronology of the 20th century- the monk in question died in December of 1917…


RB January 9, 2011 at 11:06 am

When I was in high school well before calculators, I was required to take a library reference test. My class was given 40 kick butt reference questions and sent to the public library to learn how to find the answers (a kind of information scavenger hunt).

For me the year 1917 gave it away, so no Google or reference material needed this time.


annagrace January 9, 2011 at 11:56 am

Funny you should say that…. I felt really good about myself that I had found a source and the info in around 4 minutes. Flushed with victory, I recounted the story to another librarian who immediately responded “Rasputin” when I posed the question. My husband also knew the answer. Likewise any number of friends. And yes, personal knowledge of a subject can’t be discounted. On the other hand, we are all going to come up against a question outside the realm of personal knowledge.


RB January 9, 2011 at 1:37 pm

Yes, in science also, its not really about what you know as much as it is about knowing were to find it. I have been carrying around a four inch thick, CRC Handbook of Physics and Chemistry for 40 years. My favorite reference books are my copies of the Baseball Encyclopedia and Bartlett’s.


Sarah January 9, 2011 at 2:30 pm


Thank you for this article. I began going with grandmother to her local “friends of the library” meetings when I was only five and I have a deep respect for the “Liberry Lady”.

It was good to be reminded.



Ernie McCray January 9, 2011 at 7:07 pm

Great article. I’ve always been amazed at the information librarians or Ms. Information have at their disposal as I’ve asked some doozies over the years. I don’t recall ever not getting an answer. We’re talking pre “google.” Not as fast but definitely as accurate, maybe even more accurate. With a smile. That’s the bonus.


annagrace January 9, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Thanks Ernie. Smiles on both sides of the desk were always a bonus. The majority of people I served were appreciative, courteous and incredibly interesting. I made the acquaintance of a woman who worked in the couturier houses of New York in the 40’s; a beautiful man who hung out with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs in the 50’s and 60’s; an ex-con who told me an amazing story of a life redeemed; a brilliant poet; a resident of Rachel’s Women Shelter whose ability to accessorize with elasticized plastic storage covers left me envious; a homeless woman who had had lived in Polish refugee camps after World War II. And maybe I talked to you, too Ernie- pre computers. :)

It is apparent from so many of your posts how much you cared about your students and how much they still care about you and how much you cared about your colleagues and how much they still care about you. I was privileged in my own profession to serve visionaries and fools; the confused and the earnest; the sinners and the redeemed; the curious and the dull.

Most days I would remember some interaction or the face of a person I assisted and I would feel as if I were some odd high tide working the strange hieroglyphics left behind on a wondrous beach- gently gathering, gently gathering.


Susan Levy January 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I retired in 2009 after 32 years in a NYC-area public library, mostly in the telephone (and, more recently, e-mail) reference service. “Ms. Information’s” comments really rang a bell. Even with computers, librarians can help people word an effective, rather than scattershot, search.

Then there are the teachers who have education confused with Trivial Pursuit. I had a grandmother call whose grandchild needed what happened at 12:34 a.m. on May 6, 1978. Of course, both the grandmother and I thought it had to be some historic event. It turned out to be the sequence of numbers: 12:34 on 5/6/78!

Sometimes librarians can really help, enabling people to get around bureaucracy. I also had a call similar to the one from the police in Hawaii. My library didn’t usually offer criss-cross service by phone; it’s too easy to be inundated with calls from collection agencies. However, that night the call was from a hospital down South; they had a “Jane Doe” Alzheimer’s victim who was able to give them a phone number from this area. We were able to help track down what turned out to be a daughter.

Librarians have been described as “the ultimate search engine”. I’m proud to have been one.


annagrace January 12, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Susan- wonderful hearing from you! Do you find yourself, even though retired, going into “library mode?” I got a call at home, post retirement that turned out be a wrong number. I asked the caller whom she wanted to contact, and she explained that she was looking for the son of her elderly neighbor in another state who had experienced a sudden medical problem. I flipped open my laptop and started searching for the son’s name, which I found on the switchboard website. Of course I gave my source!

PS– I would never have figured out the 12345678…. Should I ask how you did????


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