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

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 3/30/14

   April 5th, 2014

clockmakerA question this week reminded me of another one of my library pet peeves - which is, when a patron asks for something very specific and slightly esoteric, and you're able to put the exact thing they asked for in their hands, and then they look at you and say, "no, that's not what I'm looking for."

A girl who was in the fifth grade, her mom, and her little brother came up to the desk. The kids then almost immediately wandered away, so the mom asked me to help her find information on Simon Aaron for her daughter's report.

I had never heard of this person, so I asked who it was as I typed in his name to the catalog. The mom said he was a colonial clockmaker, but since she was going off something her daughter had written down, she wasn't complete sure of the details.

Nothing came up for Simon Aaron, so I tried searching for clockmarker information at the same time the mom noticed that "Willard" was written on the paper too. So was that Simon Aaron Willard? Or someone named Simon and another man named Aaron Willard? Neither of us knew.

It turned out to be that Simon Willard was a colonial clockmaker, and Aaron Willard, his brother, was also a clockmaker. They both lived in Massachusetts, but since I'd never been asked by a student about this particular person (the schools do a biography project every year, so we get this type of question repeatedly), I was skeptical that we'd be able to find much about him.

However, the first search result seemed like exactly the right thing: a book titled A history of Simon Willard, inventor and clockmaker. Unfortunately it was in our Local History Room, which meant they couldn't check it out, but of course she could take notes and photocopy important information.

The mom was happy, and she called her daughter over (away from a computer she was using), and I took them to the find the book. Granted, a book from the Local History Room probably doesn't look too exciting to an eleven year old, but if felt like treasure to me. I pulled it off the shelf and handed it to the girl, showing her the title so she could see this was a book all about the person she was researching. She flipped through a few pages and said,

No, that's not what I'm looking for.

Ugh. Too many words, and what she wanted were pictures. This book actually had quite a few illustrations, so I left it with them to look at the pictures it did have while I went back to the desk to keep looking.

I tried variations on his name, colonial craftsman, and clockmakers, and did find one book that had photographs of his clocks, so I got that and came back to the desk.

It was at this time that the brother came up and said YouTube wasn't working, so I fixed that for him.

I went back over to the mom and daughter, who said they couldn't find anything useful in the first book. What the daughter wanted was photographs of his workshop - but the inside of his workshop, not the outside (which were in the book). And so, since they were looking for details of the workshop, the second book I found, which was just about the clocks themselves, was also useless.

The girl went back to the computer to search online, and I went back to the stacks - looking in 973.2 and 681.1, hoping to find a general book on making clocks or colonial life that might have more illustrations of tools. No luck.

So I tried the databases. Biography in Context had a nice article about him, but it was just text. I showed it to the girl, still thinking it might help with her report, but no, she didn't want information about him, just pictures. She had found a book at another library title The craft of the clockmaker, so I helped her request it. She handed me the book from the Local History Room since she didn't need it, and just in case they missed something, I flipped through it slowly, looking at every illustration.

Halfway through the book I found a line drawing of Simon Willard's workbench and vice. That seemed useful, so I showed it to the daughter and mom, and still the girl wasn't impressed. She needed pictures she said. However, after I explained that cameras hadn't been invented yet, she was willing to photocopy the illustration.

That made me feel a little less useless, and also steeled me for implementing My Last Resort: going to the Children's Room.

I again just used the tactic of browsing the shelves for the Dewey numbers 681.1 and 973.2, and found about five promising books about colonial craftsmen. I took them back downstairs and gave them to the girl, explaining they may have useful illustrations of tools and clockmakers. Kids books are much more visually-engaging, and when I left she was flipping through them with interest. I was only a few steps away when I heard her say, "oh, clockmaker!"

About ten minutes later she walked by carrying two of the books, saying she was going to make more photocopies.

This whole interaction took about 30 minutes (on a slow Friday afternoon), and I think they managed to find enough for her project. They came back up to the desk before they left, to bring the books back and to thank me, and they all seemed like they were in a good mood after a productive library visit. At least, I hope so.

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