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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/23/10

   May 29th, 2010

odd sea creatureThis entire interaction was strange. A man gets off the elevator, walks the ten feet over to the reference desk, and says to me in a not-quiet voice,


Just to verify that we're on the same page, I ask him if he's looking for information on herpes, and he nods.

My strategy with general medical questions is to take the patron to the 610's and get them browsing general books like The Merck manual of medical information and The Harvard Medical School family health guide, while I go back and search the catalog for more specific material.

This time however, when the patron saw that I had brought him to the medical section, he said,

I don't mean that kind, I mean the kind that live in the ocean.

I was taken aback, because I couldn't think of a kind that lives in the ocean. But I'm not perfect, so I thought either I was just missing it, or the patron might have been confusing the word herpes with a similar-sounding sea creature.

So I took him to the 590's, again thinking I'd employ my strategy of letting the patron browse the shelf while I searched the catalog.

Although this time, the first thing I did was search the internet to see if there was a kind of herpes creature that lives in the sea (not that I could find), or a sea creature that had a name that could be confused with herpes. The only thing I really came up with was sea urchin, but even that didn't seem that plausible.

I went back over to the stacks to try to get more information from the patron, but he was nowhere to be found. I looked around the floor, but I think he had left the library. I feel bad that I didn't get him an answer, but hopefully he found what he was looking for - I just can't imagine what it was.

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9 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 5/23/10”

  1. somcak Says:

    Interesting. For future “herpes” reference, there are various strains for different critters. My cats have FHV (Feline Herpes Virus), and I know there is also an equine and canine strain, so it’s possible he was looking to see if there was a strain in aquatic animals.

    My go to source for vet medicine is http://www.peteducation.com/ from Drs. Foster and Smith. All of the article are written by veterinarians, so it is a reputable source.

  2. Krista Says:

    Don’t you just love words with multiple meanings?

  3. willpie Says:

    Folks who study amphibians are called herpetologists. I’ve never heard ‘herpes’ used to mean amphibians, but I have to wonder if that’s what he meant.

  4. judy Says:

    There was a piece on NPR’s “On the Media” this weekend which described a researcher looking into privacy problems with Facebook by searching the word “herpes”.

  5. Sarah Says:

    Hm, could he have meant “anemone” perhaps?

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @somcak: I wondered if he meant sea creatures getting the disease, but from the context of the question and his comments, I didn’t think so.

    @willpie: that was the word I was looking for – it might have been it. But then again, it might just as well have been @Sarah’s anemone.

  7. ellie Says:

    How about harpies but he meant sirens? (Greek mythology)

  8. Mikelibrarian Says:

    One of the factors endangering corals are herpes virus caught from human divers.

    May be verified in The Week Magazine. July 13, 2007

  9. Brian Herzog Says:

    @ellie: that’s a good idea, but I got the feeling he was looking for a real animal.

    @Mike: When I searched online for herpes in the sea, I saw lots of references to sea creatures dying from the human disease. I do think he was looking for an animal and just had the name wrong, but the pictures I saw of the coral and turtles and other infected animals were very sad.