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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/14/11

   August 20th, 2011

That book : of perfectly usless information, by Mitchell SymonsA boy of about 10 comes to the desk with That Book of Perfectly Useless Information, holds it up to me, and says,

Do you have any other books of useless trivia, because I really like useless trivia and want to learn more useless trivia.

So naturally, knowing we have lots of books like this, I spin my computer monitor towards him and type in a keyword search, limited to our library, for "useless trivia." I click the search button, and am instantly embarrassed by the result.

Oops. But his response was classic - absolutely dead-pan, he just says "no, I'm not interested in that."

Trying quickly to recover, I searched for the book he has in hand, explaining that each book is assigned subjects, which will link to more books on that same subject. It does, and a bunch come up - all at the same call number of course, so I walk him over to that shelf and help him find a few good ones. He is pleased and goes off to the Circulation Desk to check them out.

Now, I go back to the catalog record for the book he had, because something caught my eye. The subject heading for that book was "Handbooks, vade-mecums, etc."

I don't think I've ever seen this particular subject heading before, and I didn't know what "vade-mecums" meant. I was half expecting it to be Latin for "useless trivia," but according to Merriam-Webster, it means "a book for ready reference." Amazing that in all my time as library student and reference librarian, I hadn't come across that term before. I guess you really do learn something new every day.

(Incidentally, the Latin for "useless trivia" is frustra turpis, according to Google Translator.)

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6 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 8/14/11”

  1. Louise Says:

    Oh dear, that first search result was hilarious, though I’m sure it didn’t seem like it at the time. But hey, learned something new about subject headings today! There are some odd ones out there.

  2. Lesli M Says:

    Psssst, your cataloger needs to fix the title. “Usless”

    Did you search “useless trivia” because that’s what the boy was asking? I think I would have searched “useless information” because that’s what he had in his hand.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Lesli: I’ll get it fixed on Monday – thanks. And yes, I searched for “useless trivia” because that was the phrase he kept repeating that he wanted. When I searched for the actually book he had in his had, I just scanned the barcode.

  4. James Says:

    Odd. I also just learned the term “vade mecum” this year. In my case, I came across it in a Harlan Ellison short story. Almost immediately, that became the name of my laptop.

  5. Shannon Says:

    Latin for “trivia” would probably be “nugae”, which are sort of trifles or frivolities. “Frustra turpis” doesn’t make any sense and means something like “in vain, something shameful.”

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Shannon: I had a feeling translating to Latin wouldn’t be that simple. Google translate nugae to “gossip” – ha. Here are some other alternatives:

    Useless information = Lorem vacuus

    Useless facts = inutiles facti

    Useless knowledge = scientiam inutilem

    Also, I didn’t notice this before, but Google lets you click on a translated word to see alternate translations – of course, not knowing Latin at all, any of them are as good as the others to me.