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

Reference Question of the Week – 7/19/09

   July 25th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Dictionary Missing PagesHere's something you never expect. A patron calls in and asks:

I want to get a cat, but I don't know what some of the words mean that they're using to describe this breed. Can you tell me what docile, placid and amicable mean?

I knew the general sentiment of these words, but whenever someone asks me the meaning of a word, I like to look it up in a dictionary to give them the real meaning. In this case, I looked up docile and placid with no problem, reading the patron the definitions.

However, when I went for amicable, I got a surprise - our (newly purchased this year) dictionary skipped from aggressive to baby. That seemed like a bit of an omission, so I checked the page numbers - sure enough, our dictionary was missing pages 25-88. Wow.

I quickly switched to the internets to finish answering the patron's question, and since he was on the phone, he never knew the difference.

One of the criteria I use when evaluating books for the reference collection is, "can we answer patrons' questions even if our internet connection is down?" But when it comes to resource redundancy, I've never asked myself, "will I still be able to provide definitions even if 60+ pages are missing from a book?"

I sure hope Merriam-Webster gives us a new dictionary.

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