Best Reference Question Contest Submissions
Below is full list of entries for the Best Reference Question contest. Thank you to everyone who sent in a submission, and everyone who voted, and congratulations again to the winner Erin Apostolos.
There really were no criteria for "best" - just whatever people liked the most. These questions really run the gamut of what librarians face every day. I hope everyone has as much fun with this as I did - and thanks again!
- Winning Entry
I had a genealogy question from a patron who lives locally. She has an alabaster stone on her property that says "Mary E." born 1910 died (date is lost) wife of Peter E. Hadley. She wanted to know when Mary had died and what her story was. I was able to find their marriage info and find them on the census in Goffstown, NH but Mary disappeared by 1870 so I assumed she died between 1860-1870. I poured through our genealogy books at the library but did not find her or her husband. After exhausting our genealogy databases, I googled Mary and Peter. After looking around a bit I found this link: http://www.hadleyfamily.us/album/album.html If you scroll about halfway down, you will find a picture of Mary Cochran Hadley, dead in her coffin with her date of birth and death! My jaw just dropped when I found this. In all my years of doing genealogy, I have never found a subject in such a state! What a find. The patron was absolutely thrilled. I was able to connect her with the man who had created the family's Website.
- (Finalist) I'm fairly new still to the library world, but I've already learned that working at the reference desk means excellent fodder for conversation at cocktail parties. One of my favorites is from just last week. One of my colleagues, a paraprofessional who is just starting library school, answered the phone just after 9am, and I knew it was going to be a good one when he smirked as he handed me the phone, telling the patron gently, "please hold on a moment while I hand this call to a librarian." As soon as I greeted her with my usual "Good morning!" she began in nervous rapid-fire: "Everyone is always asking me if I have the internet at home and how do I know? How do I know if I have the internet at home? And if I have it and I don't know about it, how do I use it and what does it do?" I was able to determine that she did not have a computer at home, or any computer-like device that would likewise help her access the internet, which seemed like enough information for her at one time. I also invited her to please come visit us at the library where we would be happy to let her use our computers--and internet access--for free, and to help her navigate it, but we haven't yet seen her come in. I did not describe the internet as a series of tubes, but I was awfully tempted!
- (Finalist) One evening about 5 or 6 years back I was working the reference desk and got a call from a customer who wanted to know what the caliber of a buffalo gun was. I asked her if she knew the exact gun involved and she said she didn't. She went on to explain that she was watching an episode of Bonaza in which, Hoss (my all time fav) was shot with a buffalo gun from just a few yards away - 10 or so. He went down, the doc came, he was in bed for 3 days but then was up and rarein' to go after that. The customer was dubious that this could have actually happened. I took her phone number because I realized this would be a longer search. I did some googling and found that there was no specific gun called a "buffalo gun" but could be any large caliber (.40 or .50) rifle or shotgun used to shoot buffalo. I tried to find some ballistics information that would say what that large caliber weapon would do to human flesh but all of those resources were behind pay walls. I did find some resources that reported many of the buffalo hunters could peg a buffalo from great distances (300-500 yards) and take them down with this gun. I called the customer back with the information and we concluded that, while Hoss was a big man, he was no buffalo and, so, probably would have actually fared worse than he did in the show. It looked like the show's directors took some artistic license with the Hoss-shooting scenario.
- (Finalist) My favorite reference question occurred a couple of years ago and, obviously, it stuck in my mind. A lady called the library wanting to know how many minutes of daylight are added per day, or lost per day, as the amount of daylight changes during the year. This was something I had never thought about but seemed interesting. This was the age of google so I started there and discovered that the questions isn't that simple. It depends on your latitude and, because the earth's orbit is elliptical, there isn't a set amount per day. So, I went to the Navy sunrise/sunset table and discovered they also have a duration of daylight table and that, for our location, from June to December, the loss of daylight begins slowly, speeds up toward the equinox and then begins to slow down again toward the winter solstice. The gain of daylight from December to June begins very slowly, speeds up toward the equinox and than slows down again toward the summer solstice. One reason this has stuck in my mind is it explained to me, why it always seems like a long time after the winter solstice for the days to start getting longer.
- Here's a reference question for ya. For a short while, I was an academic medical reference librarian, and one day, I received a really odd telephone reference question. The caller was an author of mystery novels, and needed to know, in detail, the changes a dead body went through during the first week of ... death. Pretty gross and unusual question! And, lo and behold, we happened to have a book that described that process, in detail. Which I then got to read to her.
- Several years ago a patron called the library wanting to know if there was a clown college in the Portland area. It seemed like the kind of question that would take awhile to answer so I got her information and told her I'd call her back. I did some searching online and found that there was not a clown college in Portland; the nearest one was in Seattle. I called her back and gave her info I found and she was satisfied. I've always wondered if she moved to Seattle to attend that clown college!
- Over the past 16 years I've had the usual gamut of odd and amazing questions but the one that always sticks in my mind is about Reba McEntire. A man came in and asked how Reba spelt her surname. I happened to know she was on the cover of one of our popular women's magazines so I grabbed it for him. He looked at it and sai "That's wrong." I was pretty sure it was correct but We went and looked it up online, first on Wikipedia and then on what I think was her own site. He got more and more upset - "But they're wrong!" He finally left, totally unsatisfied. I'm still trying to work out why he came in. Clearly he thought he knew how it should be spelt.
- I need at least ten illustrations that show penguins and polar bears together in the same environment that aren't obviously from a children's book.
- I've been a librarian for about 6 years. This is my second career. I had only been a reference librarian about a year when a customer came to the desk and needed the title of a book everyone was reading. When I asked her what she could tell me about the book, she said the title of the book started with "The". Well, that wasn't much to go on, except that timing is everything. The title of the book, which I got on the first try, was "The Help."
- When I was a newly minted Reference Librarian, I was working in a public library that had very few "meaty" reference questions. Mostly directional, placing holds, that kind of thing. We also had a very large population of "resident" homeless patrons, who kept my days interesting, but weren't asking a lot of reference questions. Imagine my joy when a nicely dressed man came up to my desk with a question about the International Space Station. I don't remember exactly what the question was, but it seemed pretty scholarly to me, and I happily spent quite a while finding him exactly what he needed. He then took what I found and spent a few hours hard at work making notes, using the computers, writing in a notebook, using other reference books, etc. This happened for a number of weeks. He would come in with a specific question, I would help him and then he would continue his research on his own. Based on his questions, I kind of had a suspicion that he was writing a science fiction book/story. So one day, he asked about the flight ceiling for a small (3-4 passenger) airplane. I looked it up for him, and he said, "well I think that it could go higher." I thought that was kind of a strange thing to say, but I responded that the figure I gave him was the spec from the manufacturer. He just nodded and walked away. The next day, we were chatting and I finally asked him what what kind project he was working on and if he was making progress. I was fully expecting him to tell me that he was writing a book, instead he told me that he was planning to rent a plane - the one we had talked about before - and fly it to the International Space Station. Then he planned to dock (somehow) and join up with the crew. I tried my best to hide my shock, although I don't know how successful I was. He didn't come in too much after that, but I did see him riding his bike near the airport and wondered if I should alert someone there to his plan. I just like to think about this (extended) reference question, it illustrates so many great things about being a librarian. I gave him the best service and information I could find, I spent a lot of time learning about all kinds of things I never would have looked into myself, he seemed really grateful for the help and was always pleasant, but then the final resolution was 180 degrees from what I expected! Just like a lot of days at the desk. Also, it really brought home the fact that sometimes even "normal" looking patrons can throw you for a loop!
- We have a phone patron who has provided us hours of entertaining reference questions. He has spoken to us about everything from completely obscure mythological references (most of which didn't actually exist - it was just something he dreamed about and wanted to know about) to wanting information on becoming an audiobook narrator to being concerned that he may have gangrene. He seems to enjoy the human companionship (even if it is just on the phone), so as long as we aren't too busy in the library I am happy to oblige. For me, the best question from him came a couple of years ago. He had several bugs that he found in and around his house that he wanted us to identify. He had been bitten by one, and the others he just picked up. He described the shapes, sizes, and colors of the bugs. We thought we were doing a good job of identifying them, but he seemed to think we weren't. He said, "I am just worried that they could be terribly poisonous. The bugs you have listed off aren't poisonous. How about I bring them in so you can actually see them up close and better identify them?" Cue us tripping over ourselves to make sure he didn't bring a bag of bugs to the library. We found the number for a local entomologist for him. I don't think he ever called since he preferred talking to us, but thankfully he never brought the bugs by for a visit!
- A teenaged boy came up to me at the reference desk and asked if we had a book about Fred Ass-tire. He said he thought maybe he was an old-time comedian. When I realized that he wanted a biography about Fred Astaire, I couldn't help but laugh. Definitely a classic.
- I was new to Texas (Dallas area) and East Texas accents were quite a challenge. I finally realized the patron was asking for a PETITION to PARTITION Land. He was pronouncing both words exactly the same, somewhere in the messy middle of their particular vowels.
- Certain families I see mainly during the summer, so I was very glad to see Mrs. Smith in the library one day during the school year, picking up a Ray Bradbury book. She confessed that her oldest son had an extra credit assignment from his English teacher, and had grabbed the book, but didn't think it would work. The assignment was to find the short story version of The Illustrated Man and the first student to bring it to the teacher would get an extra credit 100. The problem? FINDING it! We spent about 20 minutes as I searched online for book titles while simultaneously searching the catalog for possible books. I FINALLY found a compilation of short stories that looked like it contained the short story (the MARC record was incomplete so I had to go online to find the table of contents!) at another library, that just happened to be near Mrs. Smith's mother's house! The funniest part? Later that night, the doorbell rings -- it's Mrs. Smith (yay, small communities!) to let me know we found the right book! Her son got the extra credit, and we still talk about it, 2 years later!
- I received a reference phone call during a busy afternoon. The caller wanted to know what did “a string of polloponnys” mean. I ask for the spelling just to make certain I had it right. Since this was back in the day before the Internet, I couldn’t start Googling for help. My mind starts to race. Is this an island atoll in the Pacific? Perhaps it’s a constellation. Having no clue, I start asking the young man for more information. He was looking at his class notes and now had no idea why he had written that or what it meant. I then asked, “What class is this for?” When he informed me it was for English class, I next asked what they were reading. The answer: The Great Gatsby. Fireworks go off, lights flash, buzzers sound --- he’s talking about A STRING OF POLO PONIES.
- Patron: "I want music by that famous country singer who died of throat cancer recently. He wears glasses and plays guitar."
Me (eventually, with a lot of help from Google): "Ah, Robin Gibb, the keyboard player for the Bee Gees, who recently died of complications of colon cancer (and does indeed wear glasses). You'll find his music in our Popular Library."
- I always thought this was funny...a student came in one day and asked for the Grapes of Raft. After I told him the correct title and gave him the call number, I asked what he was doing. He was supposed to have it read by the next day. So I advised him to go to Blockbuster (shows you how long ago this was) and rent the movie. He said "oh, they made a movie of this"? And I said, "Yes, Fonda is the main character". The student responded, "Really? I didn't know she was in a movie on this" or something to that effect. I said "No, not Jane, Henry" and he looked at me strangely. Only later did I realize he meant Bridget (again shows you how far back this story goes).
- Chalk this one up to "questions I never knew people asked at the library until I started working at the library." An elderly guy called us up and wanted to know how to make a baked potato in the microwave. I always make mine in the oven so I did a quick Google search to make sure I gave him the correct cooking time. At the end of my brief instructions I reminded him to poke holes in the potato so it didn't explode in the microwave and his exasperated response was, "Well of course. Everyone knows that!"
- My most story-worthy reference question came from a regular at the first library I was hired at. We'll call him Mr. Brown. Mr. Brown had a history of asking vaguely sexually tinged questions, having a particular interest in sexual orientation and pheromones. One day, he approached the desk and started to inquire about induced electro-magnetic fields. While the change of pace was surprising, I started to supply him with introductory articles from a few databases from Gale. In the middle of supplying him with said article, he leans over and says, "Guess what I did!" Looking up from my desk, I simply made eye contact, fearful of where this was headed. He goes on to tell me that he had inserted a little metal spring up his bottom so that he can benefit from these induced electro-magentic fields as he rides his scooter, and wasn't that something cool? I replied that this was an inappropriate conversation, gave him the rest of the articles, and left the desk. While this next question wasn't technically answered, I had another story from this same patron. My VERY FIRST DAY as a reference librarian, Mr. Brown approached me at the desk. He commented that I was new here, and being the eager new hire, I was eager for a challenge. He says to me, "Put it in the computer....'society's obsession with the papal libido'." I look up with a questioning look, and he goes on to elaborate, "You know, who has sex with the pope? The pope is a human being, and he has sexual needs too. Who helps him out? Put it in the computer!" So, I did a keyword search in a Gale database for his question. Thankfully, Mr. Brown got distracted by articles that had nothing to do with his question, and we went down a different route instead.
- My Best reference question would be the day, several years ago, that a teenage girl came up to the desk. She refused to make eye contact with me and kept mumbling something, under her breath, that sounded like a question...but I couldn't understand or hear her at all. Eventually, I decided that she might be special needs, or...? I asked a fellow (Female) library staffer who formerly worked in social work with special needs people to come assist. I had to go help another patron for a moment, and when I came back, the girl was miraculously healed! It turned out that she'd been wanting books about sex and pregnancy, for a homework assignment, and had been too embarrassed to talk to me, a male, but had been able to speak up with a female staff member, with just a little privacy from the prying ears of the men in the building (Namely, Me...)! She later came back and apologized, explaining that she hadn't wanted Me to think that she was "pregnant, or something" and just couldn't bring herself to talk to me as a result!
- A little boy, accompanied by his mother, came up to the main reference desk (not the Children's desk downstairs) with a clear plastic bag containing a feather. The boy and his mother explained to me that he had found this feather on the ground outside, and he wanted to know what kind of bird it had come from. We still have an extensive reference collection, so I went to the 598s and tried some of our reference books first, including Audubon's Birds of America and some Encyclopedias of Birds. However, while those had excellent illustrations of the birds themselves, they didn't show the feathers underneath the wing. In the end, I went to Google image search and typed in a keyword description (bird feather black with white stripes) and the results indicated that it was a feather from a wild turkey - which made sense, as those are somewhat common in our area. The boy and his mom went away happy and I was delighted to have helped with such a unique question.
- I work at a university in British Columbia, and last month I had someone from a local social support initiative come in for some help researching a system for caring for seniors, where a family 'adopts' a senior into their family. The user was doing research to take to the board of her organization, in hopes to set up a similar system. I found a few articles for her, and she was very attentive and appreciative. I hope the board supports her idea!
- One of my favourite questions was an older PhD candidate who was doing research that involved part of our microfiche collection. We just got a new microfiche scanner, so I was able to show him how to use it, then help him email the pdfs to himself - he was amazed at the technology and very thankful for my help. (Really, I can enjoy any question when the user is engaged and appreciative. I am not fond of reference, as I much prefer sticking to tech services, but the user's attitude makes all the difference.)
- My favorite patron interaction was when one of our friendliest library patrons asked me to help him with his accent. He was an international student who had problems with the TH sound so for about 15 minutes, he repeated the phrase "Thank you" to me over and over again. It just made my whole day to be able to help him. I miss him.
- One the the most interesting questions I've gotten was from a woman who did not own a computer. She called and wanted to know how the Florentine Codex had gotten from Mexico to the Medici family to the Laurentian Library in Florence, Italy. I took the information and said I would call her back once I found something. Since I'd never heard of the Florentine Codex, I started doing some background research, gathered search terms, and started searching in various configurations. The Codex was written by Aztec Indians in conjunction with a Franciscan monk. I was able to give her background on the Codex, the names of the people who probably carried the Codex from Mexico to the king of Italy who gave it as a gift to the Medici family, whose library was used as the basis for the Laurentian library (the Codex may have headed in either of two directions to get there, but it ultimately ended up in Florence). It was a really interesting search, and unusual for my public library to get such an esoteric question. I was also able to locate a translation of the Codex for the woman, although she wasn't willing to investigate it further.
- My favorite reference question occurred during the last presidential election. A woman called the desk and asked me if I could help settle a bet between her and her husband. They wanted to know which one of them had correctly remember all the presidents elected during their lifetime in the proper order. As you can imagine, it wasn't a tough one to verify! We started with Theodore Roosevelt and came all the way to the present. She beat her husband by a single name! I always remember how pleased she was and how sweet I found the moment of an older couple having fun with each other and the library!
- During my first week as a reference librarian, I fielded a telephone question from a woman with a crying baby in the background. "What does the word Elysia mean?" she asked. I was familiar with the mythical Elysian Fields, and read her a definition I found in a standard reference book on the subject. "Oh, so it's basically a cemetery for heroes?" She sounded disappointed. "Yes," I said. "Well, I guess I can't name my baby that .. but it's been two weeks; I need to find a good name." Sorry; I couldn't help her with that.
- When I was a fairly new librarian a woman approached the reference desk with her 12-year-old daughter in tow. Mom asks, "Do you have any books about identifying birth fathers?" I'm a little taken aback that this is a question she's asking in front of her daughter, but who knows why she needs to know? I start a reference interview - does she want books about DNA or adoption, are we looking for a certain reading level (in case it's daughter's homework), etc.? She looks at me a bit strangely and says DNA sounds way too complex for what they're doing. Then she says, "My daughter just found one in the backyard." I stared dumbly at her a bit and then the penny dropped. She wanted to identify "bird feathers" not "birth fathers." I apologized and told her I'd completely misheard her. She asked what I thought she'd said, and when I told her, we both cracked up. Then she said, "Well, you were very professional when you thought I was asking a really weird question!" It was a great compliment to hear when I was so new. And we found her books on identifying birds that she thought would answer her real question.