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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/9/12

   December 15th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Insufficient Address StampThis is actually a "personal experience" reference question - I liked it because it was a fun challenge, but also it made me laugh because it shows you what I get up to in my free time.

Earlier this week I received an envelope in the mail at my house, and it was obviously a Christmas card. However, it wasn't addressed to me - it had my address, but not my name, and I didn't recognize the return address.

Being a reference librarian (and very neighborly), I thought I could just find the right person and deliver it myself, instead of sending it back to the post office to be returned all the way to Texas (based on the return address) - which means it wouldn't have arrived in time for Christmas.

So, looked up the name in the phone book to get the correct address, but it wasn't listed. I also tried searching online, but couldn't find it there, either.

At the library, we have a "List of Residents" which lists people both by name and by street address - however, I don't work in the same town in which I live, so I called my own town's library to see if they had a similar list.

I explained my situation to my colleague there, and of course she was happy to help. She looked up the name I gave her, but it wasn't listed. Then, she went to the "by address" section and, starting with my address, looked at my neighbors' names to see if any matched. I live and #36, and she got all the way to #3 before she found something - but not an exact match.

The first name matched, but the last name, compared to what was written on the envelope, contained a couple extra letters. Phonetically the names probably sounded the same, and I figured that if the sender got the address wrong, she might have misspelled the last name too.

This all took place on a Wednesday, and when I drove by the house after my night shift at the library, all the lights were off in the house so I didn't stop.

However, the next morning on my way in to work I did. I rang the doorbell twice, but no one answered. Just as I was getting back into my Jeep, an older man stepped out of the doorway. I think he regarded me with a little suspicion, but when I walked up and said I lived down the street, he relaxed a little. I gave him the envelope and asked him if it was his name, and it was (although misspelled). We had a little laugh over it, he thanked me, and I continued on to work.

The funny thing is, not a single Christmas goes by that there isn't someone who comes in to look up a neighbor's last name, or a friend's street address, so they can send them a card. Our List of Residents is one of my favorite resources - hyper-local, authoritative, and there is nothing else like it that is as exhaustive.

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