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



Reference Question of the Week – 4/22/12

   April 28th, 2012

W.E.B. Griffin's "Under Fire" coverA friend of mine from library school, who now works in a library in Northeastern Ohio, told me about an interesting reference transaction that is worth sharing here:

On a recent Monday, a customer approached me with a stack of paperbacks from another library. We don’t carry many, preferring to stock our fiction shelves with hardcovers and replacing with paperbacks only when necessary, so I assumed he wanted to order some more. Instead, he said, “I don’t think W.E.B. Griffin really wrote these books. I would like to know who did.”

The question took me by surprise. “I’ve read all of his books,” the customer insisted, “and these aren’t like his other ones. I want you to let everyone know that he didn’t write them. Including this other library that I got them from.”

My friend knew, which I did not, that Griffin was currently writing his books with a co-author (his son, William E. Butterworth IV). The titles in question were from Griffin’s early writing career though, so she searched Fantastic Fiction and NoveList but could find no evidence that Griffin hadn't written the books himself.

Her mind went to the same place mine did: James Frey, The Last Train from Hiroshima, and the many other book hoaxes and fake memoirs that have been identified.

My friend is a writer, and she explained to the patron that the difference could be attributed to the author’s age, his style changing over time, and the influence of his son’s writing style. I thought this too, and it reminded me of an NPR story of someone applying textual analysis to Agatha Christie's books. They found that, although never acknowledged in real life, the vocabulary and writing style of her last book seems to indicate that she was suffering from Alzheimer's when she wrote it.

The patron seemed satisfied with her explanation, although he still wanted my friend to “let the other libraries know” - she felt a responsibility to the patron to do so, but just wasn't sure how.

We have had this same discussion in my library, most recently with The Last Train from Hiroshima. We discussed putting a note in the catalog record, a label on the book itself, or shelving it in fiction, but ultimately just sent it back to the publisher. In a cut-and-dry case such as that, I think it'd be okay. But in this case, with just a single patron's suspicions, I don't think there can possibly be any library responsibility here.

Finding out a non-fiction book is false is one thing - just one person suspecting an author of a fiction book didn't actually write is entirely different. My friend went on to say that if the patron had kept pushing, she would have found contact information for the author and publisher, so the patron could contact them directly. I agree - I don't think we can investigate claims like this, but we certainly can handle them once they've been proven. In this particular case, I think my friend did the right thing - made the patron happy.




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One Response to “Reference Question of the Week – 4/22/12”

  1. notalice Says:

    Next thing you know, they’ll be questioning the books of L Ron Hubbard and V C Andrews.