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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/23/10

   May 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

odd sea creatureThis entire interaction was strange. A man gets off the elevator, walks the ten feet over to the reference desk, and says to me in a not-quiet voice,


Just to verify that we're on the same page, I ask him if he's looking for information on herpes, and he nods.

My strategy with general medical questions is to take the patron to the 610's and get them browsing general books like The Merck manual of medical information and The Harvard Medical School family health guide, while I go back and search the catalog for more specific material.

This time however, when the patron saw that I had brought him to the medical section, he said,

I don't mean that kind, I mean the kind that live in the ocean.

I was taken aback, because I couldn't think of a kind that lives in the ocean. But I'm not perfect, so I thought either I was just missing it, or the patron might have been confusing the word herpes with a similar-sounding sea creature.

So I took him to the 590's, again thinking I'd employ my strategy of letting the patron browse the shelf while I searched the catalog.

Although this time, the first thing I did was search the internet to see if there was a kind of herpes creature that lives in the sea (not that I could find), or a sea creature that had a name that could be confused with herpes. The only thing I really came up with was sea urchin, but even that didn't seem that plausible.

I went back over to the stacks to try to get more information from the patron, but he was nowhere to be found. I looked around the floor, but I think he had left the library. I feel bad that I didn't get him an answer, but hopefully he found what he was looking for - I just can't imagine what it was.

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