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“I Was Just Wondering…”

by on April 15, 2016

If anyone ever thought they’d become a librarian because they liked books or reading, they would be sorely disappointed if they did not also like people too.” —The Guardian[1]

“Libraries are still a place, whether it is physical or virtual. Both aspects of this hybrid home are managed by people, real live actual people with whom you will have a personal experience. You can ask the Internet a question, but how will it respond?” —Debra Lucas-Alfieri[2]

Every decade or so, I complete a career check. I don’t know if you do the same, but I find it’s a way for me to measure who I am against what I do. Now, since I’m in the fourth quarter of my life’s game, I really shouldn’t bother, but if I don’t stop measuring and evaluating, I’ll stop learning and growing, and that just doesn’t appeal to me. So, I trotted out the old question, “Am I happy with what I’m doing?” and set up my check list.

  • #1: I like people of all ages and from all over the world. Each one is a story, and each one has different levels of needs when they come seeking a librarian. I like finding out how I can help.
  • #2: I like puzzles, riddles, word games, treasure hunts, mysteries, conundrums, codes, challenges. like searching for that book with the red cover that the patron wants to check out—oh, yeah, it had a funny design on the cover and it was over in that section on the wall when she first found it and it has to do with skydiving but it’s not there now—it’s not just that I like finding and solving things, I sure do want that patron to experience the thrill of a special adventure.
  • #3: I like learning. Data is just squiggles and bits unless it provides an answer or fills a gap in my knowledge base, and then it becomes information. And it’s fun! There is still room in the old gray matter to put in something new and see how my brain’s synapses communicate with what is already stored.
  • #4: I like organizing information. Classification and cataloging become exciting when I keep Check #1 in mind: the people—patrons, users, customers, clients—whoever needs this information. I try to make it easy, simple, and logical for them to find (Dewey not withstanding!).
  • And what I like the most is putting #1, #2, #3, and #4 together.

Sounds like I like being a librarian. Yup, I do.

Above all, it is the people who keep me enjoying the art and science of librarianship,

People who have no idea what they need until I gently guide them through the “reference interview” (still a handy-dandy tool, folks!), people who charm and wheedle, who smile and show enthusiastic appreciation, who love to read, who demand and expect, who are terrified of computers but who need the Internet—I am here to serve and supply them all with information to the best of my training and ability.

But, frankly, the people who keep me motivated are those who ask the craziest, most off-the-wall, and most unexpected questions. I relish a satisfying dialogue, the give-and-take and sharing of information that benefits both of us. Okay, granted, it is a luxury to indulge in and perhaps not the role of a librarian to establish, best left to the classroom, but every once in a while someone gives me that Socrates-inspired fix I had to leave behind when I left teaching. And one particular patron comes to mind.

He always begins, “I was just wondering…” He calls the Reference Desk daily. I am scheduled out of Technical Services to work the Reference Desk on Wednesday evenings and every fourth weekend. I often find that Saturday mornings have quieter hours and fewer requests for immediate help, so when he calls then, for that moment, he has my complete attention. He is truly sincere, albeit sometimes naïve, in his queries. He has no “agenda.” He just wants to know. He sees something and ponders its significance. He hears about something and wants it verified.

I remember when I took his first question. He wondered about an old cast iron cook stove he had seen illustrated in a magazine article. As he described it to me, he told me that his grandmother used something “different-looking” to cook on.

“She made the best corn bread!” he said, “but her range didn’t look like this one. What are those boxes above the burners for?”

I knew immediately about what he was describing and I felt compelled to share my early childhood experience as I watched my mother prepare meals on such a wood burning stove. And those compartments? Warming shelves for plates or food, but my mom used them sometimes to dry newly-born baby chicks or kittens in the cold northern weather!

He chuckled, “Imagine that! Well, I was just wondering…”

He went on to muse about present day gas and electric stoves and I added my observations about Mom banking the fire so that the wood, now turned to almost charcoal, would ignite when fed paper and kindling at dawn. We discussed kerosene and propane gas stoves, and traced their evolution to the modern ceramic cook top. Imagine that!

On another day his question was prompted by a television travel show. “I was just wondering,” he said, hesitating, “How can someone live and work in Europe?” He told me that he had lived and worked all his life in this area and couldn’t imagine working in a foreign country. I confided that I had lived three years in Germany, working and travelling from the toe of Italy to Copenhagen’s harbor. “Well, I don’t know about that…I don’t speak anything but English…might be pretty tough…” I explained how to get along fairly well without knowing the languages, and about passports, work visas, resident permits, about becoming an “ex-pat,” and currency exchange.

“I wondered about all of that. Well, I really don’t want to go anyplace else, though…It would be nice to see, but…it’s perfect right here.” He hopped to another thought. He is a master of linking a chain of questions that hook me into one search after another. “How do you get from Switzerland to Italy? Those are some pretty big mountains, those Alps.”

“Yes, sir, they are.” I quickly Googled a list of all the Alpine passes and provided him some of the lengths and linked cities. I told him that I had driven through both the St. Bernard and St. Gotthard passes several times in the early winter, before they were closed because of the snowfall, and knew what marvels of engineering they were. “Just imagine that! They tell me the Blue Ridge has tunnels something like them, but I’ve never been through one…might be something to see, at that.” I Googled the Blue Ridge and found out about the twenty-five tunnels in North Carolina. “It definitely might, indeed,” I agreed. “I’d like to travel through them, too.”

I stepped gingerly through some recent questions: “When did dinosaurs die? How old is the earth? Does the Bible mention them?” I avoided the sensitive topics of evolution versus creationism, but focused on the several theories derived from fossil analyses and what scientists do agree upon. We discussed possible small, feathered descendants and a reptilian cousin, the Komodo dragon. “Imagine that! I wonder if the preacher knows,” came his hushed reply. His next call: “I was just wondering…those Siamese boys…those twins…they traveled with the circus…someone told me they’re buried around here.” During my quick search I suggested that we have a book or two he might like to read about circus performers, and then I provided a few details about Chang and Eng Bunker’s life after Barnum & Bailey. “They’re buried in White Plains, NC. About a four-hour drive away.” “Well, no, I wasn’t thinking of going there. I was just curious. They must have had quite a time of it…and I didn’t know that they were tobacco farmers. Just imagine that!”

And, sometimes, we laugh together. “I was just wondering if…well, you don’t know, really, do you? Well, maybe you do…Does a wild duck taste the same as a farm duck?” I chuckled loudly. I couldn’t resist. “Well, it depends on where the buckshot hit.” I told him that back in the Midwest our home was under the fly-way for migrating ducks and geese from Canada to Florida. Sometimes the wild ducks—mallards—would land in among our few Long Island whites to eat the corn we fed ours. Wild duck are not as fatty as farm-raised ducks, and what ducks eat in the wild affects how the meat tastes. “That’s real interesting. I never thought of that.” “Yes. Just imagine the taste of the ducks that live along a riverbank and eat crayfish and clams!” “Imagine that! They got duck on sale at the store…might go buy some and try it.”

He continues to call regularly, wanting clarification about a confusing new concept he gathered from his friends or family or seeking song lyric he can’t remember in its entirety. He slowly digests answers, still apologizing for asking. Yet, through his queries, he gives me glimpses of what it was like growing up here…valuable information for me, a transplant.

He has never offered his name. I don’t want to know it. I want him to stay a disembodied voice. I am never annoyed by his calls. I am well-aware that he wants to keep asking more and more questions, and I allow him the time I have whenever possible. I suspect that the human interaction he receives is just as gratifying to him as the answers he gets. However, he demurs when I invite him to come to the library to learn our OPAC and online library databases so he could do his own searches. Is all that beyond his comfort level? Is it even possible for him?

Regardless, isn’t it wonderful that he turns to his public librarians? He validates why I chose librarianship. Check!

I, like him, am a “wonderer.” We wonderers hope that our questions lead to a satisfying give-and-take dialogue. I happily travel on his thought-strings because we both learn so much more about the world we live in along the way.


[1] Emma Crag and Katie Birkwood, “Beyond books: what it takes to be a 21st century librarian,” Guardian (Manchester), January 31, 2011.

[2] Debra Lucas-Alfieri, “Tips on marketing the 21st-century library: How to show the world why libraries are still relevant,” Elsevier, June 23, 2015.

Further Reading:

Karen Pundsack, “Customers or Patrons? How You Look at Your Library’s Users Affects Customer Service,” Public Libraries Online, March 2, 2015.

Meredith Schwartz, “How to become a 21st century librarian,” Library Journal, March 20, 2013.

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