At work today, a patron asked me how to spell a couple of words. I always think it’s funny when someone asks me to do that because for someone with a master’s degree in English, I’m a pretty terrible speller. I managed both of today’s words without having to look anything up, which is a nice ego boost, but I’m still surprised when I’m called upon to do it. A few months back, there was a man who used to fairly regularly approach me and ask how to spell different things. One afternoon, he asked how to spell ‘lettuce’ and later ‘cabbage,’ but then things took a darker turn as he asked how to spell ‘alcohol,’ ‘marijuana,’ ‘intoxicated,’ ‘assault,’ and ‘angrify.’ We spelled that last one E-N-R-A-G-E-D. On the one hand, I found this fascinating, like a reverse sort of Mad Lib. I spent most of the afternoon trying to come up with a story that contained all of those words. On the other hand, it would never occur to me to ask a librarian how to spell something. I would ask how to get online so I could look it up, or I would ask where I could find a dictionary, but I wouldn’t take the direct route and just ask the thing I really wanted to know.
Working in a library is interesting because I discovered people call us to find out all kinds of things. When I first got the job, someone called to ask what sort of Easter activities were happening around town, which threw me because I’d just moved and wasn’t familiar with local traditions, but also because if I wanted to know that, I’d probably call any of the local churches, the most relevant city government office I could find in the phone book, or the local newspaper and poll my neighbors before I called the library. Someone recently wanted to know what time a local skating rink opened, which was a much trickier question than it should have been since the rink didn’t feel they should have either an answering machine or a website that gave their hours. A patron who overheard me on the phone actually gave me the answer, for which I’m truly grateful.
When I emailed some friends and mentioned the variety of questions I’d been researching, two of them anonymously called up to ask me: “What does it mean if it burns when I pee?” I stammered a bit, and basically told them what I wanted to tell the lady who brought in her art for us to appraise: Perhaps you should consult a professional. I don’t want to underestimate what I can do with a liberal arts education and the power of the internet, but…
I know my limitations. When people ask me anything about tax forms, I read key phrases off the form, and if they ask a follow up question, I will be sure to enunciate carefully as I read the exact same words. I will supply you with as much information as I can, but I don’t do my own taxes, so I will not speak to the validity of your deductions. Nor will I offer you legal advice. I did help a very nice guy look up some statutes that related to a minor snafu he’d had with the police, but, again, I just read words from the screen, interpreting nothing. I’m not an authority on much outside of MLA citation, and frankly, if you ask me whether you should use ‘affect’ or ‘effect,’ I’m going to look it up. I don’t want anyone telling a museum curator, attorney, auditor, or judge that, “The lady at the library said it was fine.”
Several of our patrons seem to have programmed our number into their cell phones, and so we get calls from people on the road wanting us to get them directions to some place (something I dread more than the spelling question. If you think I’m lousy with letters, you should see the tragedy that is me trying to read a map) or to look up a phone number. My favorite was a lady who called wanting the number for the Wendy’s corporate office in Little Rock.
I started looking, but I hadn’t gotten far when I heard her angrily yell, “Yeah? Well, don’t worry about it because I’m on the phone with the library, and as soon as they give me the phone number for corporate, I’m calling to report this!” Calling the library became menacing, like saying you’ve called the cops or just told the teacher. You’re in trouble now, mister, because knowledge is power.
I heard a guy explaining patiently that he was sorry and they’d been shorthanded. One guy hadn’t showed up for work that day, and…
She interrupted to explain that she was not interested in his problems, and I felt bad for the manager because I’d worked in shorthanded food joints and it’s easy to get in the weeds. I was thinking about my past career as a waitress in a perpetually understaffed TexMex restaurant, when I heard, “And by the way, I never even got my Frosty!”
Continuing to remember my waitressing career, I started to mention that if they brought it to her now—when things were clearly getting tempestuous—she might not want to eat it.
“Do you have that number yet?” she asked me.
I have to admit that I’d gotten distracted by all the drama on the other end of the line and stopped looking for the number entirely. I started thumbing through the phone book lest she turn her anger on me and report me to the library board when she got off the phone with corporate.
I don’t mind researching people’s questions, and sometimes they’re the most interesting part of my day. For someone like me who is naturally curious, it’s a chance to research something I might not have considered otherwise, and that’s usually fun on some level. Sometimes I get carried away, continuing to dig into a matter even as the person who asked says, “Don’t go to too much trouble. It’s really no big deal.” When I’m on a roll, I barely register that idea because I’m trying to think of other places to find information, and they end up sneaking away while I’m scanning article abstracts.
But I wouldn’t have thought to have the library on speed dial or to call them up to find out when Mother’s Day is. But, then I found myself in the Main library picking up a few things, and I realized I’d forgotten to grab the address of a store I wanted to check out. I walked right up to the information desk, smiled at the woman sitting there, and asked for directions.