Friday, February 24, 2006

Best reference question ever...

...shortly followed by one of the worst.

People often ask me what I do at the library. When presented with this question, I usually draw a blank, and say "Get books for people and stuff." Last summer, I tried tracking the reference questions I was asked- it lasted about 3 days. Looking back, the questions ranged from "There's a book about fitness, and it has a girl in a tanktop on the cover, and red writing" to "What was the price of an ounce of gold in 1987?"

My typical day at the library lasts from 8:30-5, with shifts on the reference desk from 10-1 and 3-5, or 1-5. When I'm off desk, most of my time is spent doing collection maintenance. I'm responsible for 900-939 in the Dewey range (geography, circulating atlases, travel, biographies, genealogy, ancient history), and will take over the 000-099 range very soon (mainly computer-related books, but also UFOs, libraries, circulating encyclopedias, the publishing industry- basically a hodge-podge). I'm also in charge of the computer lab, but that doesn't really occupy my time on a day-to-day basis.

For better or worse, the interesting part of the day is spent on the reference desk, answering patron (I mean
customer) questions. (The big boss says we're supposed to be using the word "customer.") I'm a people person- I wouldn't last very long as a cataloger. I need that face-to-face (as well as phone and Web chat) interaction with the public on a daily basis. The crazies and a-holes can sap your energy, but for every one of them, there are 10 friendly folks who are genuinely grateful to be helped, and walk away with a big smile on their face.

My favorite all-time reference question, which won't likely be topped any time soon, took place in Colorado. A guy wearing dark sunglasses came in, and claimed to have an "original copy" of the United States Constitution, and wanted to know how much it was worth (he didn't have it with him, of course). I won't go into more detail, but when I found out it had "Phillip Morris Companies" and the word "bicentennial"
printed on it, I assured him that this must be some sort of souvenir replication, but told him only an antiques appraiser could value the item.

And now, we move on to the point of this post (my first recovery of a half-eaten cookie!). The other day, I answered the ref desk phone, and it went like this:

Jon: R____ Library Information Desk. May I help you?

Guy: Yeah. I was hoping you could help me with a date.

Jon: OK...

Guy: It's the date of a sporting event.

Jon: Sure. What event?

Guy: I think it was in 2003, but it might have been 2002 or 2004. The Seahawks and Packers were going into overtime. Seattle won the toss, and Matt Hasselbeck said "We want the ball, and we're going to score." And Green Bay won the game.

Jon: [Shocked silence. Am I really getting paid to answer this question? Holy shit! How friggin awesome is that?] OK, I remember that game. You're just looking for the date of the game?

Guy: That's correct, sir.

Jon: [Is this one of my friends messing with me? Like when Tschida called the Chicago Deli and asked me if we had chicken breasts, then asked if they had big nipples...] I should be able to get that date for you in just a moment [searching "hasselbeck we want the ball" in Google...] OK, it looks like the date of the game was January 4, 2004.

Being the good librarian that I am, I double checked a couple of other sources, and the date was consistent (not that I didn't trust, but better safe than sorry). If I could somehow start up a full-time sports reference library...maybe Mark Cuban has money to burn?

2 days later I had an experience which left me with not quite as sweet a taste in my mouth. A woman came up to the desk, and asked if I could come listen to a PowerPoint file that a friend sent her, and identify who was singing the "incredible" song playing in the background. I said, "I can certainly give it a shot, but I may not know." She responded with "Oh, you'll know it. I'm sure. It might be Celine Dion." Of course I came back with "I wouldn't know Celine Dion if she was standing right there. I don't really listen to pop music. But I can try to jot down some lyrics, and use the Web to find out who's singing." She assured me that I would know who it is.

When I put the headphones on, I immediately cringed. It was loud, the sound was fairly muffled (probably because the volume was cranked, coming through cheap headphones), and I immediately despised the song. I had some trouble understanding the lyrics, but then caught
"Blah blah blah...I'm glad that I'm alive...You set my heart on fire...blah blah blah." Using our old pal Google, I typed in "I'm glad that I'm alive," and lo and behold, it's Celine Dion! Unfortunately, our copy of the CD was checked out, so she was going to check Borders.

Ah, the joys of being a public librarian!


At 2/24/2006 4:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your new blog. I enjoyed learning a little more about what you do. I expect to see many "crazy questions I was asked at work today" entries in the future.

Also, I believe your name is Jonathon Flanagan. You should have a nickname section that includes both Moop and Floop.



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