Friday, March 2, 2012

Answering the Reference Question

I get a lot of calls at the library.

Most are fairly vanilla. In a typical day, I will answer every question on the library website’s FAQs page at least once. “Can you renew my books?” “How late are you open?” “Where are you located?”

Sometimes patrons call with book questions. “When does the new James Patterson come out?” “Can you tell me the next book in this series?” These, too, are well within the normal parameters and we, as librarians, have a number of tools at our disposal to efficiently locate this information for you.

Other calls take more time. In library school, they call it “Answering the Reference Question.” In the Pre-Internet Era, librarians were the only search engines. Many elderly people, technophobes, and elderly technophobes still call the library when they need to know the capital of Montana or the phone number of the quaint delicatessen on the south end of Main street (on a good day, the patron is referring to the Main street of the city you are actually in). We expect these calls. We are used to these calls.

Still other calls shall live in infamy forever.

“Library. This is Tori. How can I help you?”

“Yes, hello,” a man said in a Rhett Butler accent. “I am calling for information on several of the buildings there in town. Specifically their history, from when they were built to present day.”

I immediately kicked into “Answering the Reference Question” mode. “Certainly, sir. I’m sure someone at the city historical museum can help you. I can give you their phone number off the city’s webpage,” I said, because when I’m giving someone information they could easily find for themselves, I like to spell out exactly where I found it.

“Much obliged,” he said, oozing southern charm.

I gave him the number. “Will that be all, sir?”

“Do you think they’d have information on who owned various buildings over the years?” he said.

I couldn’t silence the little voice in my brain ticking off all the creepy, serial-killer reasons he might have had for wanting information on who owned what. “I’m not sure, sir. Was there a specific building you wanted to know about?”

“Well, young lady,” he said, “as it happens, I am a ghost hunter, and I am investigating the haunting of a house on Central Avenue. Would you know anything about strange goings on in that vicinity?”

That. That right there is when the conversation went so-not-the-way I thought it was going to go. I stared out the front door, twirling my pen, then remembered I needed to answer the man. “No, sir,” I said. “You’re probably better off with the historical museum.”

“Thank you kindly,” he said, hanging up.

And after a minute or two of stunned contemplation, I hung up as well.

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