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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/17/16

   January 23rd, 2016 Brian Herzog

LANGUIGE CROSSWORDAfter I published the post on Wednesday about the likelihood of this blog changing due to my new position, I forgot to mention that until we hire a new Head of Reference (which will probably take a few weeks), I'm keeping my normal desk schedule - and so should be able to keep up with Reference Questions of the Week.

Wednesday is my 1-9pm shift, and I published that post from home that morning. I decided that when I got to work that day, the very first reference question I got would be this week's post. Usually I just take notes whenever something comes up that is interesting or funny, but I thought a random "slice of reference life" might be appropriate this week.

So, here it is: I sat down at the desk and the phone rings...

Me: Chelmsford Library, can I help you?
Patron: Can you tell me how to spell "language?"
Me: Oh sure, it's-
Patron: Does it have an "i" in it?
Me: No, it's spelled l-a-n-g-u-a-
Patron: Is it u-i-g-e?
Me: ... [waiting to make sure the patron has finished talking] It's l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e.
Patron: Oh, so an "a" and not an "i?"
Me: Yes, l-a-n-g-u-a-g-e.
Patron: Okay, thank you.
Me: You're welcome, good-bye.

This is one of our regular phone patrons, and most of her calls are like this. We suspect she works crossword puzzles.

Not every reference interaction is funny or interesting, but it's true that any of them can be.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/8/09

   February 14th, 2009 Brian Herzog

locavoresAt my library, one of the phones on the Reference Desk is a cordless phone, so that we can still answer the phone while we're away from the desk.

I answered it while in the stacks one morning, and an older woman asks:

Patron: Can I ask you the definition of a word?
Me: Sure [as I scurry back to the desk and the safety of our ready-reference and access to an online spell checker]
Patron: Good, thank you, it's spelled l-o-c-as-in-cat-a-v-as-
Me: [just arriving at the desk and trying to write the word out] I'm sorry, did you say B as in boy?
Patron: -in-victory-o-r-e-as-in-easter. No, an E not a P

This actually went on for some time, and by the time I was sure I had the right spelling, I had so many scribbles and crossings-out on my scrap paper that I didn't recognize the word. I said I'd check the dictionary, and the patron said she'd already checked two dictionaries and couldn't find it.

So while I was looking it up, I asked her where she'd seen the word. She said it was in the caption to a photograph in the newspaper. I didn't see it in my dictionary either, so typed it into Google.

Even as I was typing l-o-c-a-v-o-r-e, it didn't dawn on me what it was until I saw the search results.

When I explained to her that, just as a herbivore eats only plants, a locavore is a person that eats only local food, she was delighted - both to learn a new word, and also that a made-up word would appear in the newspaper.

Having a cordless phone is nice, but maybe I should try to talk the library into getting iPhones so that we can answer questions like this in the stacks without having to rush back to the desk - sort of roving reference in a holster.

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