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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/24/16

   January 31st, 2016 Brian Herzog

Unfortunately, there's been numerous times I could have easily done the same thing at the library.This was posted on Boing Boing a couple weeks ago, but I thought people might find this funny:
Actual conversations with rude or odd customers at a used book store.

Some are rude to the point of being mean, which of course is not something that would happen in a library - at least, not something library staff would say out load. Here's a couple of my favorites:

(phone call)

I found a book "---" on your web site. It was written by my Uncle. I was wondering why it is so expensive? ($50)

It was inscribed and signed by him.

Why should I have to pay for his autograph? He's my Uncle, not yours!

(sigh... and no, she didn't buy it)



(Older gentleman calls)

I see you have a book titled "---" listed on your web site for $200


I am the author.


That book originally sold for under $20


How can you justify that?

Justify what?

Charging so much!

That's what it's worth. Look it up on Bookfinder

You will make more on the book than I did

I guess I should feel bad about that! If it makes you feel better, you could adjust for inflation (30 years)

I just doesn't seem right

It's the free market at work. You shouldn't have written such a good book

I will take that as a compliment

It was

(I should add, I paid a lot more for the book than it sold for... originally. The customer I sold it to will probably donate it to his favorite charity and the cycle will continue. Makes me wonder how many profits there are in these things...)



(Customer fills out search card: 16 Chapels)

(me) Oh, you're after books on European Churches?

No, just books about the 16 Chapels.

16 Chapels?

Yea, you know the one with the big painting on the ceiling.
We will let you know what we find (once we stop convulsing).


Any time I see something like this in book stores, I can't help but hear them in the voice of Bernard Black - and then end up watching that entire series again.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/8/09

   November 14th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Yahoo! Answers logoThis entertained me, so I thought I'd share - Huffington Post collected some funny responses to questions asked on Yahoo Answers.

I wouldn't call them the "funniest of all time" - most of them were snarky answers or just really bad questions. But the one about the sandwich did make me laugh out loud.

Occasionally I use Yahoo Answers to help with a patron's question, but like with any traditional or crowd-sourced resource, it needs to be evaluated critically (and enjoyed).

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Reference Question of the Week – 4/29

   May 5th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Ten minutes before I'm due to go home, the phone rings. The caller identifies himself as a reporter for the local newspaper and asks if I can help him find the correct spelling of the name of a bar that was in Chelmsford 10-15 years ago. He says it was called "Beer Bellies," gives me the address, and I tell him I'll see what I can find and call him back.

I've only lived here for about two years, so this bar was before my time. But since all librarians are big drinkers, I asked around the staff on duty that day to see if anyone recalled this bar. No one did, which surprised them all, since most of them have lived here all their lives.

Even when I mentioned the address I was given, all anyone could remember in that area was a gym, or a racquetball club, or something like that - which has since been torn down to build an office park. And because I had asked around, suddenly the entire library was working on the same reference question.

Since he wanted the correct spelling, I thought I'd have to find a reference in writing, but was at least hoping the staff here could give me some leads. We didn't have any phone books that old, Chelmsford doesn’t have a city directory, and the time span was far too great to skim through old newspaper microfilm hoping to get lucky.

But since this was a bar, there must be a record of ownership, and a liquor license. So I went to the Town's website and into the Tax Assessor's database. This database has helped me more than once, but rarely completely answers the question.

And it was the same in this case. I searched for the address, and found that that property was owned by the same person from 1979 to 1996, which would certainly coincide with the patron's "10-15 years ago" range. But, unfortunately, the name listed was a person's name, not "Beer Bellys" or something.

So, I got out the local phone book to look up the name. It was listed and I gave them a call, hoping to explain who I was and ask them if they used to own a bar at that address. But, the phone number was disconnected. Drat. Not wanting to give up on this particular lead, I also tried this person's name on Switchboard. There was a listing for the same number as in the phone book, but also a second phone number.

However, by now it was time for me to go home, so I had to pass this question off to the next shift. They called the other number and got a hold of the right person. After explained the situation, the man said that yes, he did own a bar at that address. But it was never called "Beer Bellies" - it was called the "Brass Racquet." They then called the reporter back, who was happy with the result; he only thought the name might have been "Beer Bellies," which is why he wasn't sure of the spelling in the first place.

brass racquet, chelmsford, chelmsford ma, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question, reference questions, switchboard, tax assessor

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/14

   January 20th, 2007 Brian Herzog

I guess it's just that time of year: with the cold weather finally setting in, there's been a noticeable drop in the number of people coming to the reference desk. As a result, there really weren't any unusual questions this week.

However, I was visited by the sales rep from Thomson-Gale. He dropped by unannounced, but he did not come empty-handed. In addition to sales brochures for their research databases, he brought me a book.

Published by Gale, it is a collection of funny questions that have been asked at reference desks across the country. All of the questions are sent in by librarians (and I think if they use your submission, they'll even pay you). It's called Funny You Should Ask, (in fact, what he gave me was actually the second volume, Return of the Grin) - here are a few examples:

What is the attention span of a fish?

Shauna Good
London Elementary
London, OH

What can I do to stop ghosts coming through the walls and scaring me?

Name withheld

Who invented the bed?

Vernell Craig
Houston Elementary School District
Houston, TX

Do you have a book on coffee tables by Cosmo Kramer?

Delene DelaRosa
Quitman Library
Quitman, TX

Was Pearl Harbor a famous black American? I need to do a report on one.

Gail Faughn
Astoria Park School Media Center
Tallahassee, FL

I don't think this book is available for purchase anywhere. Even according to WorldCat, it is only available in two libraries (one of which is the Supreme Court Library in Little Rock, AR).

But don't despair - if you're interested, you can sign up to receive funny questions in a weekly email. These are new submissions from librarians, and when Gale compiles enough of them, they'll publish volume 3.

gale, humor, libraries, library, reference question, reference questions, thomson-gale

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The Ubiquitous Reference Model

   November 14th, 2006 Brian Herzog

I know the idea of "Ubiquitous Reference" has already been covered elsewhere, but I thought it was interesting. I first learned about it during Linda Braun’s session at NELA 2006, and have since done some reading about it on the internet. Here's what I've found:

Ubiquitous Reference actually refers to two ideas. The first of which is that libraries should be everywhere our patrons are. Usually this refers to creating our own profiles on popular (and useful) websites like MySpace and flickr, as well as having our own blog with rss feed. Also, this idea can be taken into the physical world, by setting up a library presence in coffee shops, bars, bookstores, etc - you know, where our patrons hang out when they're not in the library.

The great thing about this idea falls under the "if you build it, they will come" notion. If we're active on the internet (outside of our own websites), and talking about interesting things, people will find us. I've only been doing this blog for about a month, and I've already gotten hits (and questions) from people searching Google for bookprospector, as well as questions from people reading my comments on other peoples' blogs. Plus, just by being visible, we can get questions without even trying.

The second meaning of Ubiquitous Reference is even more proactive than that. Brian Mathews of Georgia Tech University developed a new model for doing reference, in which he not only set up shop in the virtual world, but actually monitored online conversations of Georgia Tech students. Then, any time one of them mentioned a specific keyword (article, assignment, book, help, journal, research, etc.), he would read their post, prepare an answer for them, and then contact that student with the answer.

Personally, I would have thought that such an approach would have freaked out the student, in a very Big Brother kind of way. But, Mathews found that students were receptive, and viewed him as an online equal. What's more, these initial encounters would often lead to the student saying something like "Thanks. You know, I'm also working on this other project…"

Now that's great. Granted, this would be a lot easier to implement in an academic library (targeting a student body) than it would in a public library, but I do still like the idea.

library 2.0, patrons, reference questions, service, Ubiquitous Reference

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