Saturday, December 11, 2010

Inquiring Minds Want to Know: Life at the Reference Desk

Based on reader comments, a popular recurring blog feature are the lists of intriguing, quirky, or just plain difficult, questions we are asked at the Reference Desk. We write about these questions  to let people know that you can ask a reference librarian anything and we will try to find you an answer. We also do this to show that not all problems can be solved by Googling for an answer, not that we don't love Google as much as the next person. And we blog these requests because they are fun;  reference librarians are like bloodhounds, we just like to be put on the trail of a tough question and track it down to ground. If we aren't answering reference questions, we feel compelled to read book reviews until we fall face-first into Publishers Weekly babbling incoherently about which books might be requested 3 months from now. Save us from that nasty fate, just ask us a question.


The One When Ellen meets a reptile:

"This is going to seem odd, but could you help me identify this?" the patron said, proffering a plastic bag.

Mindful of another librarian I know of who had been asked to identify a LIVE SNAKE IN A BAG, I asked if it was a bug.

"No, it's a snake!" AAAAH!!!!! SNAKE!!!!

I asked if it was dead.

"Oh no, it's alive."

Well, it turned out to be a tiny snake (tied up in yet another bag inside) with an orange belly and a ring around its neck.

Trying to remain calm and not rip through the pages of our snake books, ever aware of the SNAKE BESIDE ME! (SNAKE!), I gave up and Googled it to save time. It was a ringnecked snake. They're very pretty actually.

Then the snake left.
Patron: "He is going to go live at Free Acres now."

P.S. : Strangely, I got the ringnecked snake question from a local resident too, but my patron just described the snake, luckily for me. Cell phone photos would be good too. Even better, you Ringneck snakes out there, please either stay out of sight or carry I.D. in the future.

The One Where Ellen Meets More Icky Wildlife:

Poor Ellen, here's another shudder-worthy question she got: "What are those weird bugs in my basement?" asked the patron. "You know, they look like pale spiders, but they hop?" That's actually a pretty common question around here because Camel Crickets are pretty common in NJ;  they tend to be fruitful and multiply in basements. They wouldn't be so bad if they just sauntered, but they hop quite high and violate one's personal space, seeming to aim for the innocent laundry basket which is then flung into the air with a cry as the harried householder heads to the washing machine. Can you tell, I speak from bitter experience?

Here is Ellen's icky bug research technique explained: "So how do we go about it? The first step is to narrow it down to which type of insect it is: cricket, beetle, etc. Then we flip through photos in our insect reference books and web sites like What's That Bug until we find a match. For a more scientific opinion, Rutgers will ID it for you for a fee (it also identifies plants and fungi.)"

The One Where Anne Decides She Needs a Hearing Aid.  No, really:

"Four times (one day last spring) and twice (another day) a patron called, spelled a word and asked the reference librarian how to pronounce it.  The problem is that "b" sounds like "v" which sounds like "t" which, well you get the idea. So I replied to the caller by saying things like "v as in vegetable or b as in baby?" but the phonetic alphabet didn't appeal to him. He thought that if he spelled louder I would get it. I didn't. To make matters worse, the words were in German. We went around in circles with these questions, both of us getting frustrated. In between calls, which I may have answered accurately or not, I looked up the NATO alphabet, also known as the Alpha Bravo Charlie alphabet or radio operators' alphabet. Maybe keeping Alpha Bravo Charlie chart near the phone would be a good idea."
P.S.: I did subsequently get hearing aids but strangely they haven't helped me understand German.

The One Where Anne Pulls a Rabbit out of a Hat:

Patron: "What' s the book that I was told every library would have and it's used at the Naval Academy and it's about California and all about ships in the 19th century?"

Librarian: "You don't mean Two Years Before the Mast, do you? "
Patron: "Yes, that's it!"

That's the rabbit out of the hat effect in reference. Sometimes, the right answer bubbles up from the subconscious. In this case, I remember my brothers reading the book, although I never did. We sometimes use the Novelist database to find books by subject, but there's no database that can replace the speed of human memory. Hitting the jackpot like that makes up for all the times working at the Reference Desk can make you feel really stupid.
We'll save Questions That Made Us Feel Stupid for another post.

No comments: