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


Reference Question of the Week – 9/23/12

   September 29th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Wednesday is my night to close the library, so I work until 9pm. Usually the 8-9pm hour can be slow, allowing me to get off-desk-type work done. However, one particular patron made the last hour of this past Wednesday more interesting than usual.

The phone rings, and when I answer it, she opens with this question:

Do you have that very famous book about Lincoln and World War Two?

I had no idea how to take that. She had a very gravelly voice, and at first I wasn't even sure if was a real call or a prank of some kind.

But to be on the safe side, I said I didn't know the book, and asked if she knew the author. She replied that he was a famous poet, and after a minute or so, came up with Carl Sandburg.

Ambraham Lincon book, by Carl SandburgSearching for keyword:Abraham Lincoln author:Carl Sandburg brought up Abraham Lincoln: the prairie years and the war years, and when I read the title to the patron, she said it was the right book. I put it on hold for her and we hung up.

I didn't immediately see the WWII connection, so I did a web search for "Abraham Lincoln" "carl sandburg" +wwii and found an article from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association stating:

Maybe enough time has passed for us to see The Prairie Years and The War Years in historical perspective, to historicize it against the background of American history between the world wars. Sand-burg began writing The Prairie Years in 1922, less than five years after the World War I Armistice, and he completed The War Years in 1939 as the world was sliding inexorably into the holocaust of World War II; the ambiguity of his title did not escape him. Read as a timeless masterpiece, Sandburg's Lincoln does not hold up; read as a timely response to a series of national crises that recalled the Civil War, the book still carries much of its original power.

Okay, I can see why the patron conflated Lincoln and WWII. About two minutes after I found this, the same patron called back and asked:

Can you tell me who designed the Greek army uniforms?

Are you kidding me?

She went on to say she didn't mean the regular uniforms - what she was interested in where the clown uniforms, the ones with balloon pants that they blow air into. Oh, well, then in that case, no problem.

I told her I'd have to research this and I would call her back.

Evzone soldier at the Greek Tomb of the Unknown SoldierA quickie search for Greek army uniforms actually lead to a Wikipedia article devoted to them, which was handy. It didn't talk about balloon pants, but one of the images was of some Evzones, whose uniforms, while not including balloon pants, were nonetheless remarkable.

But while I was searching for that, it occurred to me that she might actually mean the Swiss Guard at the Vatican. I looked up their uniform too (and the designer), and their pants are more balloonish than the Greek's leggings.

I called the patron back with what I found, and she was very interested. She agreed that she must have been thinking of the Swiss Guard, but that only slowed her down for a second. She immediately followed-up with,

So then who designed the Beafeaters' uniforms?

A quick web search found two websites talking about uniform origin, which basically date, unchanged, to Tudor times in 1552.

These were all quick and superficial answers. I then searched our catalog to see if we had a book about military uniforms, but none of ours included these types of historical dress uniforms. Other libraries in our consortium appeared to have more historical books, but then the patron changed her mind - she was just curious, so the websites were good enough and she didn't need to read more about it.

So we hung up, and for the rest of the night I kept waiting for her to call back asking for the number of fry cooks on Venus or something - but she never did.



Tags: , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 5/10/09

   May 16th, 2009 Brian Herzog

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.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,