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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/5/07

   August 11th, 2007

Usually, when someone walks up to the desk with something in their hand and asks "can you help me find this," it'll be an easy question. 99 patrons out of 100 will have a piece of paper with a book's title, call number or ISBN written on it.

(In librarianese, this is called a "known-item search" - you know ahead of time exactly which item you're looking for.)

But, lucky me, I met #100.

A woman walked up to the desk and asked "can you help me find this," but she wasn't carrying a piece of paper. She had a little Tupperware container. I knew then that this was definitely an "unknown-item" search.

She took the lid off, and then repeatedly shook it, as if trying to get something inside to turn over. Eventually she righted what was inside, and held it out to me saying, "I found this in my basement and want to know what it is."

House Centipede photoWhat it was was an insect/centipedey thing. About an inch long, light brown, with a lot of very wispy legs, and two long antennae. I was surprised that it had survived the trip and all the shaking, but it was crawling around in there, along with a couple bits of dirt and brick. And she wanted me to help her identify it.

I took her over to the 595's [?], and she started flipping through a few insect encyclopedias. However, not knowing the name of the bug, it became clear that identifying it was going to be tough. I showed her how to use the index to look up centipedes, told her to keep looking, and I went to do some internet searching.

Not knowing what to call this thing, I searched for "bug identification." I was hoping for a website that would guide me through the identification process by asking questions, such as "does it have more than six legs?," "does it have wings?," etc.

I went through the first page of search results without much success (despite promising domain names: whatsthatbug.com, insectidentification.org, bugguide.net, etc.).

But the final website on the first page paid off - Dave's Garden Bug & Insect Identification database. Instead of asking questions, it just had a long list of photographs. These were easy to scan through, and halfway down the page I spotted our quarry: of the family scutigeromorpha, commonly known as house centipedes.

The website didn't offer much additional information (here's more), but at least we learned what it was called (and read some humorous member comments, saying why they do or do not like this bug).

From that, we went back to the book shelf and quickly found a book with a section on them. Granted, the entire search process took more time than it took to read the section, but the patron was happy to know what it was - and that it's pretty harmless.

Unfortunately for this bug, I don't think riding around in a Tupperware container is at all harmless.

bug, centipede, centipedes, house centipede, identification, insect, libraries, library, public public libraries, reference, reference question

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7 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 8/5/07”

  1. Jessica Says:

    Unfortunately for me, that would have been a “known-item” search. Old New England houses are usually rampant with house centipedes! When I was little, we called them “thousand-leggers.” They run FAST and are creepy as all get-out. If you put one in a jar of rubbing alcohol, it will turn a bright, electric blue (ask me how I know that). They are harmless, but they do bite – and they are one of the few insects that I will kill on sight (which as a Buddhist I am loathe to do, but, um, they creep me out).

  2. Noreen Fish Says:

    Well, at least she brought the bug for you to see. I’ve had a few questions like this over the phone. Just try identifying this: “Well, it’s brown and black and it’s got six legs.” :^)

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    It’s always nice to hear that I’m not alone – and not the worst off.

    And I’m also the kind of person that will move bugs and spiders outside instead of killing them (not that that is really doing them any favors, I know), but the electric blue trick deserves some consideration. Hmm…

  4. Kate Says:

    Yeah, you should have “phoned a friend”. I could’ve told you what that nasty little bug is. They like damp areas (thus the basement) so I used to see them in the dorm bathrooms. It wasn’t until I moved to my present location that I actually had them in my home and looked them up to find out what they are called. YUCK. I can get used to most bugs, but after 2 years these things still creep me out (those and spiders – yech!).

    Thank heavens I have a cat who enjoys “playing” with bugs until they, um, expire. I encounter far fewer live ones these days.

  5. Buzzy Says:

    I had a question like that once. I came into work (as a school librarian) one day to find a plastic container on my desk. Inside was the largest insect I’ve ever seen in person. A science class found it and wanted me to help them identify it. Turns out it was this:

    I searched through our local fauna books and many of the sites you checked. Turns out, however, the easiest solution was calling the state university extension service (Oregon, in this case). I told the woman where I was and describing the beetle, and she knew right away what it was. Damn, those people know their stuff.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    Wow, my bug was nothing compared to that.

    But you know, the sheer size of that thing actually got me thinking about library policy… I wonder if the library has any rules against bringing found critters into the building. A curious patron could just as easily bring in a Brown Recluse spider or even a Copperhead snake.

    No one believes me when I tell them librarians have dangerous jobs.

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    Boy, where was this little gizmo when I needed it? Along with my bookcart and pay-for-print override key, this should be standard issue for the reference desk.