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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/10/09

   May 16th, 2009

My goal for these weekly reference questions is to show something useful or interesting. This week's just show how exasperating reference can be.

max bill artworkA patron comes to the desk as says,

I have a painting that I think is by Max Bill. These suckers go for $300,000, so I want to compare the signature on it to his signature on the internet so I can unload it.

Okay, that seems reasonable. And after about ten minutes of searching, we had found some signed artwork [pdf]. But none of the signatures match the one on the patron's painting, and we couldn't find any record of the title of the patron's painting.

At this point I would have concluded it must not be an authentic painting, or that he'd need to contact a professional to make the determination. But the patron insisted on continuing, as he really, really wanted to find a matching signature.

After another 20 minutes with no results, I told him I had to help other patrons (a woman had just walked up behind him - no one else had come to the desk during this half hour). We looked up the number of a couple art appraisers, and I took his name and number in case I was able to find anything else.

Lincoln family treeHe walks away, and the woman steps up and says,

I want to know the genealogy of Abraham Lincoln.

Huh. Well, this seemed to rule out biographies, and nothing else in our catalog looked applicable, so I tried the internet.

Pretty quickly we found Lincon's ancestry on Genealogy.com, which traces Lincoln's ancestors back thirteen generations. We looked at a couple generations, then the patron says,

No, no, I want it to go the other way. I want to prove that I'm related to him, because my grandmother says we are, and she's never wrong.

Oh, well, that's something entirely different. I search for lincoln descendants, and found a few websites that said there are no living descendants of Lincoln.

This of course doesn't rule out that she is related to him in some way, but probably not a blood-line direct descendant. She had that look in her eye like she was going to ask me to prepare her entire family genealogy for her to connect her family to Lincoln's, but other patrons were waiting so I had to cut it short. She checked out a couple of his biographies, and was going to go talk to her grandmother.

Sigh. I never like giving people bad news, but trying to answer a question by continually searching for information that might not exist is tough. Still, I enjoyed looking at the Max Bill art, and that was good Lincoln trivia I hadn't known.

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3 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 5/10/09”

  1. Jonathan Grunert Says:

    Here’s a resource that would likely help with the artist signature: The classified directory of artists’ signatures, symbols & monograms /H.H.Caplan.

  2. Stephen Says:

    IANRL but those don’t really seem like questions, but rather like “I have a conclusion I want to support, so give me information to support it or else.” Sounds like a recipe for frustration for everyone. Is reference work often like that?

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jonathan: thank you very much – we don’t have a local copy, but a library nearby has one in reference, and the patron said he’d drive over to check it out.

    @Stephen: yeah, people often hear what they want to hear, to the exclusion of all else, and yes, it is frustrating. Luckily, the line “tell them what they want to hear” is not in the librarian’s description.