Excellent References

The next time you wake up at three in the morning, sweating and shaking and befuddled by what the appearance of Barbara Flanagan’s bustier in your dream could possibly symbolize, don’t just make yourself a glass of warm milk, roll over, and try to forget about it. Oh no—that’s what someone in Andrew Carnegie’s day would have done. We’ve come a long way in information gathering and reference services since the 1890s. Gone are the days of dusty card catalogs, dismal Dewey decimals, and pinch-lipped librarians who go home when the clock strikes five. (In fact, gone may be the days of an actual public library, to judge by recent developments in Minneapolis.) Enter “24/7,” a round-the-clock live chat room full of, well, unrestrained librarians. If you live in Hennepin County and possess a Hennepin County Library card, you are but three mouse-clicks away from a librarian’s magic touch.

24/7 is one of the most up-to-the-minute services a library can provide, explains Maureen Bell, references services manager for Hennepin County Library. People are out there researching and surfing the web at all hours of the day, and the library wants to be there with you, no matter what you’re looking for.

Over at the Minneapolis Public Library (uh, wherever that is right now), Nancy Corcoran helps run the MPL’s InfoLine, a telephone reference service available during library hours. She says it is not a 24-hour service per se, but you can leave a message on the machine anytime, and library staff get cracking on your behalf the next business day. If you can wait till morning, we still nominate InfoLine as the city’s most valuable resource.

What many Minnesotans in their stoicism fail to understand is that reference librarians relish a challenge. They love your questions, need your questions, depend for their jobs on your questions. And though (despite the rumor) there really is such a thing as a stupid question, it is often even stupider not to ask it.

The other day, I watched the standard crew of six answer the InfoLine phones, which never stopped ringing for very long. The librarians efficiently answered questions, quickly relaying the correct spelling of “seizure,” retrieving the number for the Ramsey County Medical Examiner, and researching the availability of a particular CD. They remained professional and thorough at all times. But they admitted that they do catalog some of the weird and wacky questions that come their way.

One staff member remembered the day a woman called from South Carolina. She was helping her daughter with a school report on Minnesota, and wanted to know simply “what ya’ll wear, up there.” Another woman, who said she was looking at a map of the United States, called to ask if Mexico was a state. The staff takes these calls seriously, and they work diligently to provide answers. But frankly not all of the 500-600 calls a day are answerable. It would take a virtually omniscient librarian, for example, to answer the woman who called with a technical question about her crockpot: Was the meat she had started simmering four days ago in fact horse meat? A reference librarian does not like to admit defeat, but hates even more to be wrong.—Katie Quirk