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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/23/12

   September 29th, 2012

Wednesday is my night to close the library, so I work until 9pm. Usually the 8-9pm hour can be slow, allowing me to get off-desk-type work done. However, one particular patron made the last hour of this past Wednesday more interesting than usual.

The phone rings, and when I answer it, she opens with this question:

Do you have that very famous book about Lincoln and World War Two?

I had no idea how to take that. She had a very gravelly voice, and at first I wasn't even sure if was a real call or a prank of some kind.

But to be on the safe side, I said I didn't know the book, and asked if she knew the author. She replied that he was a famous poet, and after a minute or so, came up with Carl Sandburg.

Ambraham Lincon book, by Carl SandburgSearching for keyword:Abraham Lincoln author:Carl Sandburg brought up Abraham Lincoln: the prairie years and the war years, and when I read the title to the patron, she said it was the right book. I put it on hold for her and we hung up.

I didn't immediately see the WWII connection, so I did a web search for "Abraham Lincoln" "carl sandburg" +wwii and found an article from the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association stating:

Maybe enough time has passed for us to see The Prairie Years and The War Years in historical perspective, to historicize it against the background of American history between the world wars. Sand-burg began writing The Prairie Years in 1922, less than five years after the World War I Armistice, and he completed The War Years in 1939 as the world was sliding inexorably into the holocaust of World War II; the ambiguity of his title did not escape him. Read as a timeless masterpiece, Sandburg's Lincoln does not hold up; read as a timely response to a series of national crises that recalled the Civil War, the book still carries much of its original power.

Okay, I can see why the patron conflated Lincoln and WWII. About two minutes after I found this, the same patron called back and asked:

Can you tell me who designed the Greek army uniforms?

Are you kidding me?

She went on to say she didn't mean the regular uniforms - what she was interested in where the clown uniforms, the ones with balloon pants that they blow air into. Oh, well, then in that case, no problem.

I told her I'd have to research this and I would call her back.

Evzone soldier at the Greek Tomb of the Unknown SoldierA quickie search for Greek army uniforms actually lead to a Wikipedia article devoted to them, which was handy. It didn't talk about balloon pants, but one of the images was of some Evzones, whose uniforms, while not including balloon pants, were nonetheless remarkable.

But while I was searching for that, it occurred to me that she might actually mean the Swiss Guard at the Vatican. I looked up their uniform too (and the designer), and their pants are more balloonish than the Greek's leggings.

I called the patron back with what I found, and she was very interested. She agreed that she must have been thinking of the Swiss Guard, but that only slowed her down for a second. She immediately followed-up with,

So then who designed the Beafeaters' uniforms?

A quick web search found two websites talking about uniform origin, which basically date, unchanged, to Tudor times in 1552.

These were all quick and superficial answers. I then searched our catalog to see if we had a book about military uniforms, but none of ours included these types of historical dress uniforms. Other libraries in our consortium appeared to have more historical books, but then the patron changed her mind - she was just curious, so the websites were good enough and she didn't need to read more about it.

So we hung up, and for the rest of the night I kept waiting for her to call back asking for the number of fry cooks on Venus or something - but she never did.

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7 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 9/23/12”

  1. Kaylin Says:

    Love it, and now we know for next time someone asks that common question.
    I look forward to these posts every week, thank you!

  2. The Librarian With No Name Says:

    We’ve got a regular telephone customer whose main points of contact with the outside world are the reference desk and Coast to Coast AM. He’s also generally interested in the histories of the classic rock bands he hears on the radio.

    It’s not unusual for a reference interview to start out with us trying to find out what happened to the individual members of a one-hit-wonder group from 1975 and finish with a discussion of theoretical transuranium elements and whether or not they could exhibit antigravitational properties.

    Some of my colleagues find him exasperating, but I think he’s a great way to stretch your brain during a slow shift at the desk.

  3. DianneLibrarian Says:

    Don’t you just love an interesting reference question? Whenever I get a good one it just makes my day!

  4. threegoodrats Says:

    I always want to know WHY they are asking these things. Sometimes it sounds like they’re working on a crossword puzzle, but sometimes that doesn’t seem to be it. We have a lady who will call and ask things like “What are some famous lagoons?” or “Is there a place called Missoula? And where is that?” A couple of times I’ve asked where she heard about it (when the context was unclear) and she said on tv. It’s kind of nice to know some people are curious enough to follow up on interesting things they hear about.

  5. Brian Herzog Says:

    The random questions always make me laugh, and I am exactly like @threegoodrats in that I try to figure out what may have gotten them to that question. @acornsandnuts is also right in that sadly, people with smartphones can answer these themselves, so the bizarre trivia question might soon be a thing of the past.

    @The Librarian With No Name – we’ve got plenty of other patrons that fall into the “exasperating” category. Not bad questions usually, just the relentlessness of the asking.

  6. Kathryn Says:

    Just a tiny note, but I think those Beefeater uniforms date from Tudor times as opposed to Tutor times….

  7. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Kathryn: sigh – thank you; sometimes I embarass myself so much I don’t know why I leave the house. Of course, most of my days are spent scheduling tutors in our study rooms, so I probably types it automatically. Anyway, I correct it – thanks again.