DCPLive is a blog by library staff at the DeKalb County Public Library!
Sep 26 2011

Toughest Reference Questions

by Jesse M

One of the most interesting parts of working in a library is the questions you field from patrons. In addition to being known as a place to get books, music, DVDs, and internet access, the library also has a reputation for being a place where you can get an answer to your question. Any question is fair game, no matter how convoluted, random, or off the wall.

Recently, the Christian Science Monitor featured an article wherein the author asked librarians to send him their toughest reference questions. Here’s a sample to give you an idea. A librarian was asked about astronomical phenomenon of November, 1831:

“Back when I worked at the American Museum of Natural History, I got an e-mail from an author writing a biography of an amateur astronomer who crossed the Atlantic from London to New York during November 1831, asking what notable astronomical phenomenon he might have noticed.

To answer this question, I had to create star charts for the beginning, mid and end points of the journey and then check records for eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, auroral displays, meteor showers and whatever else I could think of.

As it turns out, the Leonid meteor shower was notably strong on Nov. 13 of that year (although less impressive than the following two years) and would have been visible in the east in the mid-Atlantic in the early morning as the nearly full moon set in the west. Weather permitting, of course.”

As you can tell, librarians often go to great lengths to provide answers to the queries posed to them. The search for an solution can be a lengthy and often frustrating process but eventually finding the answer your patron is seeking highly rewarding experience.

If you’re interested in reading more about interesting reference questions librarians get asked, I recommend checking out blog of the Swiss Army Librarian, specifically his reference question of the week. There are archives going back several years.

For readers who are library workers, what are some of the toughest references questions you’ve fielded? For readers who are library patrons, what are some of the difficult questions you’ve asked?

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