These Are a Few of My Favorite Reference Questions

The best thing about being a reference librarian, hands down, is the opportunity to learn something new every day. It is, in fact, why I became a librarian. I knew I wanted to work in an academic environment and devote myself to lifelong learning, and I thought that helping others research their passions was the best way to do it.

I’ve been in my first professional position for about 4 years, but so far, I’m not wrong. I’ve learned some amazing things while helping my students. While the typical community college student at my reference desk isn’t doing cutting-edge research or exhaustive literature reviews, she still has interesting questions that demand answers from reliable sources.

Here, then, are some of the most memorable questions that have come across my desk, favorites for one reason or another:

“I need a book with a picture of a flamingo skeleton.”

I got this question when I was a library school student, working as a reference intern at the central branch of the Austin Public Library. The patron was a young guy in his 20s, covered in piercings and body art. It was such an off-the-wall question: who needs to see a flamingo skeleton so badly? Why do you prefer a book to a picture online?

This was my first inkling of the type of questions public librarians are asked on a regular basis, and I was (and continue to be) enthralled with the idea that there are things people want to know so badly that they put their trust in librarians to help them find out.

I had trouble with this one, so I had to send the patron down to “real librarians” at the main desk. I’m sure they were able to get him sorted out, and I like to think that satisfying that information need led to the creation of these awesome lawn ornaments:

“I need help finding books to get my fussy children to eat.”

This was another question I received at the reference intern desk of the third floor of the Austin Public Library, but I was able to help with this one. The patron was a young woman in her late teens or early twenties, and she was already a pretty savvy library user. She knew the ins and outs of the interlibrary loan system, and pointed to some materials she already had on hold. I was able to find a few more titles for her, and we had a pleasant conversation about picky eaters, our own experiences as kids, and the difficulties of trying to feed a family organic products when you’re on a budget.

At the end of our conversation, I wished her luck with getting her kids to eat broccoli, and she said, “Thanks, I’m hoping all this research will help me get my kids back.”

She left on that note, so I didn’t get many more details, but my sense was that she had lost custody of her children, and she was doing this research to show the judge that she was making positive changes in her parenting.

That’s when I realized that librarians can play a much more important role in patrons’ lives than showing them how to use a database, or recommending their next read. We help patrons find information for innumerable reasons, and sometimes those reasons are the most precious things in their lives.

“I need to find primary sources about Bill Pickett.”

This was a question I got a couple of years ago at my community college in Houston. Every semester we have students researching aspects of Texas history and folklore. As a Texas transplant, there is a lot I don’t know about Texas, so I’m always happy to learn more about my adopted state. For non-Texans like myself, Bill Pickett was the first black cowboy in Texas, and the inventor of a rodeo technique called bulldogging.

I directed the student to The Portal to Texas History, a fantastic resource from the University of North Texas Libraries, with hundreds of thousands of digitized newspaper articles, maps, and photographs. While helping the student sort through results for William (Bill) Pickett, I came across this gem, published in the Fort Worth Gazette on September 29, 1891.

The article is titled “Went Fishing with Dynamite,” and for the squeamish among you, be warned that it gets a little gruesome towards the end:

Articles like this are one of the reasons I enjoy reference so much. Serendipity leads you to some extraordinary sources. Dynamite? Finger bones?? This wasn’t the William Pickett I was looking for, but it did provide a fascinating glimpse into the misadventures of a couple of young boys over 100 years ago.

“I read on Wikipedia that Mary Shelley kept her husband’s heart in a necklace after he died. Can you help me figure out if it’s true?”

This is probably my favorite question I’ve ever been asked. Not only did a student come to the reference desk to help verify something she read on Wikipedia, but she put me on to an incredible story that turned out to be mostly accurate.

 The poet Percy Shelley died at sea when his ship sank in a storm, though there’s some speculation as to whether it was the storm, or a deliberate attack on his boat, that caused the ship to sink. When Shelley’s body washed up on shore a few days later, quarantine restrictions required that his remains be cremated on the beach.

Shelley’s friend Edward J. Trelawny presided over the cremation and describes it in his published memoirs, Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author, which we have in our library collection.

While Shelley’s body was cremated, his heart survived the burning. Trelawny writes, “…what surprised us all was that the heart remained entire. In snatching this relic from the fiery furnace, my hand was severely burnt” (145).

Why did Shelley’s heart alone remain unburnt? Trelawny observes, “In all cases of death from suffocation the heart is gorged with blood; consequently it is the more difficult to consume, especially in the open air” (146).

In an appendix he wrote for a new edition of his Records, Trelawny writes, “Ultimately I gave the heart to his wife…and it is now at Boscombe, and, for anything I know to the contrary, in an ornamental urn on the mantel-shelf” (306).

So Wikipedia was mostly right (the page has been corrected since I researched this question). Mary Shelley did not wear Percy’s heart on a necklace, but according to Trelawny’s account, the heart did survive cremation and was ultimately returned to Mary Shelley’s possession.

Questions like these keep me interested and engaged during spells when reference questions run toward the mundane; when it seems as though you’ve spent all day clearing printer jams, or helping the hundredth giggling student find sources on legalizing marijuana.

Don’t worry, kid, I want to say. I’ve gotten this marijuana one before; you’re not asking anything out of the ordinary or transgressive. You want a real story? Ask me about Percy Shelley’s heart.

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