Category Archives: Refer Madness

Top Shelf Madness

Almost two years ago I started writing about strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk, in a series I call Refer Madness

My latest one, titled “Finding Angels,” is debuting over at Booklist, as part of the latest issue of “Top Shelf Reference” newsletter. This latest one is about a patron who came in looking for a book about angels, but actually desired something else. 

I’ll continue Refer Madness here, but hope to keep them going in Top Shelf semi-regularly. Thanks to Rebecca at Booklist for the opportunity! 

Refer Madness: Thanks, Man

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Coming out of a recent concert at the library, an elderly man asked if we had a calendar of events he could take home. I showed him where they were on the shelf, and as I was about to return to the desk, he started talking.

“You have a great facility here,” he said. He’d been a longtime library lover, longtime supporter. He remembered that when his home library was doing some major renovations, one of his neighbors was peeved about the cost:

“She said, ‘Why are they doing that? They’re using my money!’ And I said, ‘You don’t like that?’ She said no. So I told her, ‘Well, they need to keep adding new things and making sure people have the opportunity to learn and grow and get educated. You don’t want that?’ And she said no, that it’s not necessary and a waste of money. So I asked if she had any grandchildren and she said yeah. I said ‘Well, you don’t want those things, but what about them? You want to deny them a good library and good services just because [he leans in and says in sotto voce] you’re a tight-ass?’ No way, I said.”

I thanked him for his kind words and support and he went on his way. Often librarians at the public desk hear from people like the man’s neighbor, who rail against the use of taxpayer money for public services they don’t like. It’s a rare treat, then, to hear such unprompted, unabashed praise and support from someone who had nothing to gain by sharing it.

Refer Madness: Future Scientist?

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A mom was looking for her middle-school daughter’s next book. She said her daughter had loved The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and “all the Holocaust stuff.” But she wanted her to discover some real people as well. My first thought was the young adult version of Unbroken, but the library didn’t have that one. I asked if she liked creepy stuff and graphic novels, because then Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods might hit the spot. (Nope: “We showed her The Sixth Sense — big mistake.”) But she took it for herself, because she loved creepy stuff.

Then, right before the mother was checking out, I remembered we had Rachel Ignotofsky’s beautifully illustrated Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World on the New Nonfiction shelf. Real women, nonfiction, easy read. I gave it to the mother and hoped for the best.

In my dreams the girl reads it and has her mind blown by the badass women throughout science history, leading her to a career in science wherein she invents something that saves my life a few decades from now. Or she reads the first page, gets bored and discards it. Such is the way of things in readers advisory.

Refer Madness: Playing Favorites

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Every librarian has favorite patrons. Like parents we aren’t supposed to admit it, but it’s true. My favorites have developed because of how nice they are, for their interesting requests, or for their particular outlook on life. One of my favorites is an older woman, a regular, who is delightfully candid about the books she reads and, I’m discovering, shares my taste in reading.

She had Ann Patchett’s new book Commonwealth in hand to check out, and I said I heard it was good. “Yeah, I don’t know, we’ll see,” she said. She wasn’t fond of Ian McEwan’s Nutshell: “The baby in the womb? How dumb was that!” Her favorites this year have been When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance, and Before the Fall by Noah Hawley, which we bonded over. “So much people read is just trash,” she told me. “It’s nice to be on the same wavelength with someone.” I agreed and wished her luck with Commonwealth.

This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful for patrons like her.

Refer Madness: The Terminator of Ghent

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A gentleman called the desk with a pretty simple question: What was the release date of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines? Because of my prodigious ability to remember useless trivia (film-related especially), I knew it was 2003. But he wanted the specific release date, which IMDb told me was July 2. I thought that would be the end of the call, but it… wasn’t.

Here is the sequence of questions that followed:

  • Who was the lead actress in Rise of the Machines? (Kristanna Loken)
  • How old is she? (36)
  • What is her hometown? (Ghent, New York)
  • What is the per capita income of Ghent, NY ($37,643 in 2014) [Thanks, U.S. Census!]
  • What is Ghent’s percentage of white people? (94.5%)
  • What is Ghent’s percentage of black people? (1.6%)
  • What is the release date of Terminator Genisys? (July 1, 2015)
  • What is Ghent’s poverty level? (5.4%)

The thing I couldn’t figure out while answering these questions was whether this line of inquiry was pre-determined or if he started winging it after the first one. I got the sense he was pulling questions from a list since our back-and-forth moved along at a steady clip. But if that was the case, why bounce around between the Terminator movies and Ghent, NY? If he planned the jump between the two topics, by way of Kristanna Loken, why the sudden incursion of Terminator Genisys?

UPDATE: He called back an hour later with more. Still on a Terminator kick, he wanted to know:

  • Who was the female lead of the first two Terminators? (Linda Hamilton)
  • Is she still alive? (Yes)
  • Where is she from? (Salisbury, Maryland)
  • Where is that? (Between Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic)
  • What has she done lately? (Most recent movie is A Sunday Horse)
  • What is that film about? (“After a near-fatal accident, on a horse the experts thought was nothing special, a determined rider from the wrong side of the tracks defies all the odds to pursue her dreams of winning a national jumping championship.”)

Yep, he’s definitely just winging these.

Refer Madness: A Name that Named Names

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

A patron who calls regularly — usually looking for the value of an old book or baseball card — had a pretty direct question for me today: “Was Lee J. Cobb blacklisted?”

Nope, but just barely.

Born Leo Jacoby (get it? Lee J. Cobb[y]?), Cobb most iconically featured in 1954’s On the Waterfront and 1957’s 12 Angry Men, two highly regarded and politically aware films that comment on the Red Scare paranoia of 1950s America. According to Victor Navasky’s 1980 book Naming Names, Cobb was accused of being a Communist in a 1951 HUAC testimony by actor and actual former Communist Larry Parks. Called to testify but refusing to do so for two years, Cobb finally relented in 1953 and named twenty former Community Party members.

Cobb’s reason for doing so, as told in Naming Names, is fascinating and blunt:

When the facilities of the government of the United States are drawn on an individual it can be terrifying. The blacklist is just the opening gambit—being deprived of work. Your passport is confiscated. That’s minor. But not being able to move without being tailed is something else. After a certain point it grows to implied as well as articulated threats, and people succumb. My wife did, and she was institutionalized. The HUAC did a deal with me. I was pretty much worn down. I had no money. I couldn’t borrow. I had the expenses of taking care of the children. Why am I subjecting my loved ones to this? If it’s worth dying for, and I am just as idealistic as the next fellow. But I decided it wasn’t worth dying for, and if this gesture was the way of getting out of the penitentiary I’d do it. I had to be employable again.

And he was, the next year, in On the Waterfront, written by Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg, two other Hollywood figures who testified to HUAC.

Sources: 1

England Murder Bicycle Chemistry

rm

Refer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

During an otherwise quiet evening on the desk, someone messaged my co-librarian on our library’s chat service with a specific, but not quite specific enough, request. She wanted the title and author of a book in a murder mystery series, published post-2000. She then provided a some 200-word synopsis of the plots and characters in the series, which involved a young girl in rural postwar England who solves crimes in her village “using her bicycle and chemistry skills.”

She’d tried book-related listservs and message boards, to no avail. Since our go-to fiction RA librarian was gone for the evening, we were on our own. But not quite alone: I jaunted over to NoveList Plus, that magical database beloved by librarians and bookish folks everywhere, and entered keywords from the patron’s description—and which serve as this post’s title.

Boom. First result:

sweetness-pie.png

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is the first of five books in Alan Bradley’s Flavia De Luce mysteries series. Since NoveList’s plot description was surprisingly sparse, and I wanted to make sure I got the right book in the series, I cross-checked it with its Amazon page and sure enough, NoveList was right on target.

Putting the same search terms into Google yields nothing close to what I was looking for. Google can do many other things well, but its wide generalist’s net can miss what a targeted niche search like NoveList will catch every time.

Which, of course, reminds me of the Neil Gaiman quote you can find on every corner of the librarian internet: “In a world where Google can bring you back 100,000 answers [or in this case 6 million], a librarian can bring you back the right one.”

Thanks to the life-changing magic of NoveList, we got it right tonight.

Refer Madness: PB & A

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

Here’s an interesting one that came to the desk: the PseudoBulbar Affect. (Pseudo “false” + Bulbar, referring to the brainstem.)

A patron said she had it and was looking for some scholarly information about it. According to PBAinfo.org, PBA occurs when “certain neurologic diseases or brain injuries damage the areas in the brain that control normal expression of emotion. This damage can disrupt brain signaling, causing a ‘short circuit’ and triggering involuntary episodes of crying or laughing.”

These outbursts can be inappropriate (spontaneous crying or laughing when neither are warranted) and exaggerated (more intense or larger than the situation merits). Common causes include traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s or dementia, stroke, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The first reference to PBA is credited to the Charles Darwin, in his 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and it’s in the kind of language that sounds crass now to our more medically enlightened ears: “We must not, however, lay too much stress on the copious shedding of tears by the insane, as being due to the lack of all restraint; for certain brain-diseases, as hemiplegia, brain-wasting, and senile decay, have a special tendency to induce weeping.”

The more you know.

The Library Lives of Others

Earlier this year I started keeping a list of things people have asked me at the library information desk. It’s not totally comprehensive: some questions either aren’t noteworthy (“Where’s the bathroom?”) or slipped my mind during a busy rush. But even as a scattershot sample, it’s an interesting snapshot of what people care about. Here are the ten most recent items on the list people have asked me for or wondered about:

  • Introduction to Academic Writing by Alice Oshima et al
  • Casper DVD
  • Halloween DVD
  • Monster by Walter Dean Myers
  • Cars For U.S. Troops phone number
  • History of Monroney stickers on new cars
  • The Court and the World by Stephen Breyer
  • Stonewall Uprising documentary
  • My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  • The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

So we have five books of diverse genres, three very different movies, one phone number request, and one reference question I was able to find info on pretty quickly (and learn about myself). A more accurate representation would have more requests for phone numbers and addresses, but it still gives you an idea of the kinds of things people ask a total stranger for.

And that’s what I’ve found so intriguing and invigorating about my public library jobs thus far into my short career. Aside from the regulars whose desires you can pretty well anticipate as they approach, when a person walks up to the desk I have no idea what they’re gonna ask. So when people ask how my job is going, I can legitimately say that every day is different, and I like that. I appreciate the trust people put in me as the guy behind the desk to get them what they need. And I don’t want to jeopardize that trust by blowing them off, judging their requests (openly anyway), or getting them bad information.

Because it’s their lives we’re dealing with. I’ve written before about how I’ve come to view libraries as sanctuaries and the librarian as a kind of secular pastor. Indeed, the info desk can sometimes feel like a confession booth, which patrons approach with every conceivable attitude: frustrated by their inability to find something, ashamed in the asking of it, happy to be getting help at all, and so on. Whatever they throw at me, I have to be ready to respond accurately, with patience and grace when applicable. Librarians have to do a lot of different things, but good public service is and should be number one.

Refer Madness: Librarians Advisory

rmRefer Madness spotlights strange, intriguing, or otherwise noteworthy questions I encounter at the library reference desk.

If you’re a librarian, it’s likely you’re expected to provide readers advisory. (Or is it reader’s?) Every librarian has his or her own area of expertise and blind spots, but whether through direct knowledge or other resources, you’re supposed to be able to give patrons who ask some reliable recommendations on what to read, watch, listen to, or do. This happens fairly regularly at a public library and is, as the NFL puts it, a “major point of emphasis.”

Less common, but just as valuable, is when patrons advise librarians. Last week a man came to the desk looking for the album Trio by Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris. He said the catalog said it was in, but he couldn’t understand the CD labeling. I tracked it down and explained the labeling system (MC for country, MJ for jazz, etc.—I can see his point…). He thanked me for finding it and said, “Have you ever heard this?” I hadn’t. “Their voices blend so well. Check it out sometime.”

So I did, and he was right: it’s a beautiful record (with hilarious hair) that got nominated for Album of the Year in 1987. I’m not a pop-culture elitist, but it’s important to be reminded that just because librarians get paid to make recommendations doesn’t mean we’re right, or that other people who didn’t get a library degree can’t do it well either.