Information Update - Spring 1998

You Want What???

The librarians in Desk Set and Party Girl may have had their comic problems trying to decipher the muddled and befuddled reference questions of their patrons, but the misinterpretations, malapropisms, and other assorted mix-ups in these two movies can easily be matched by real life. Granted, ninety-nine per cent of our patrons know exactly what they are looking for and how to ask for it in a clear and concise way. But, occasionally reference librarians will encounter real "gems" which require not only an oracular power of interpretation but also the ability to keep a poker face.
Sometimes the problem is simply a case of comical mispronunciation. An example of this is the student who once had me confused when he asked where the "antho-logeys" (anthologies) were shelved. Other times, though, these mispronunciations are elevated into bona fide malapropisms. For example, we were once asked if the library carried Dysentery Abstracts; perhaps medical libraries carry this title, but we referred our patron to Dissertation Abstracts. Another one asked what local library was the regional government suppository library (depository library, he meant to say).
Other problems arise when patrons do not understand cataloging records. A student once complained that we had no books more recent than 1944 on the 1970s African American activist, Angela Davis. Knowing Ms. Davis was hardly newsworthy in the 1940s, I checked the catalog. The student had seen the birth date for Angela Davis listed after her name on the subject heading and naturally assumed all our books had been published that year.
A unique category of impossible reference questions is the one for questions that cannot by their very nature have answers. These are particularly prevalent in grade school assignments. My wife, who works at a small local community library, often encounters children who must research Christmas customs in faraway lands and long-ago times. But she was unable to help a desperate child who was seeking information on Christmas customs in ancient Greece.
Other questions really make you wonder what the requestor is doing with his or her life. A phone request one afternoon was for a listing of girls' names spelled backwards. The caller wanted to find names besides Marie (her own name) which ended in "ie."
My favorite question, though, was from two girls, not U of S students
I hasten to add (I won't say which local institute of higher education they came from). They informed me that they needed to read "Gothic Faucet." After some cross-examination, I realized that what they really wanted was a copy of Goethe's Faust. I wonder how their assignment ever turned out?
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