or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Reference Question of the Week – 11/25/07

   December 1st, 2007

Webster's New World Dictionary coverThe phone rings...

Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Patron: This is a bizarre question, but I don't have a dictionary, so you can't tell me what "utensil" means, can you?

I thought it an odd mix of optimism and pessimism for a patron to call the library for help, but phrase his question in the negative. Regardless, I reached for our ready-reference copy of Webster's New World Dictionary (updated 1994 edition), and read him the definition:

u|ten•sil n. 1 any implement or container ordinarily used as in a kitchen   2 an implement or tool, as for use in farming, etc. --SYN implement

That seemed straightforward. However, I then had a ten minute conversation with the patron about whether the phrase "a writing utensil" was proper English. He was writing something and wanted to use it, but wasn't sure if it was okay.

I generally do not interpret information for patrons, and rarely give my opinion on something, but I felt pretty safe in this case telling him that "a writing utensil" was okay. We each had heard the phrase before, and one meaning given was "an implement or tool."

I don't think I've ever dissected a definition so finely before, but we agreed (at his insistence) that the "etc." that came after the mention of "as for use in farming" meant that "farming" was just one example of how a "tool or implement" might be used, and that a pencil is therefore a legitimate "tool or implement" as for use in writing (etc.).

Perhaps I play more fast and loose with my grammar than does this patron, but I wouldn't have given this "a writing utensil" usage a second thought - even after looking it up. And not that I'm making fun of him, but it amuses me how much thought and effort people put into certain things.

But without a doubt, that is leaps and bounds better than being careless or lazy. This is why I enjoy helping patrons like this, despite some of my coworkers marveling at my patience with such questions.

*This image is coming from Amazon, but "abused" (lightly) using the great guidelines found here

grammar, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question

Tags: , , , , ,

Comments are closed.