Resourceful librarians have heard it all

December 02, 1996


Staff Writer

Want to know the value of a 1982 Chevy Chevette? How about one of Adolf Hitler's favorite snack foods?

People looking for information about such subjects can turn to the reference information desk at the Washington County Free Library.

The library's reference librarians field every kind of question from the academic to the bizarre, from the trivial to the historical, and from the scientific to the silly.

Who designed the Elvis stamp? What are a group of larks called? How do you make an Advent wreath? What is Slime made out of? They have all been asked.


"They use us for everything. Everything and anything," said Mae Talbott, a reference librarian at the library for 35 years.

To get the answers, Talbott and the other librarians turn to a variety of sources. Sometimes it might be as easy as checking the card catalog or an encyclopedia. Other searches are far more involved, requiring the librarians to search for information among businesses, other libraries and the Internet.

"You can use anything. Anything is a resource," said Kathleen O'Connell, head of adult services at the library and a 17-year veteran of the reference desk.

One rule, however, is that the answer must come from a source.

"You have to verify it. It can't be off the top of your head," she said.

In many cases, the person making the request might be happy if the librarian simply produces a book title. Others want detailed answers to their questions.

"Some of them want us to do everything," Talbott said.

One of the toughest requests came from a student who wanted information on the DNA of a bovine spleen.

Another student wanted to know the layout of a concentration camp.

"That was a tough one," O'Connell said.

But academic pursuits, once the only requests the librarians got, are no longer the only reason people use the reference desk. These days the questions can range from automotive repair, health, entertainment, investment information and recipes.

"We have a much larger variety of questions than we used to have," Talbott said.

For those who wonder about such things, a 1982 Chevette sedan is now worth $875 and Hitler ate as much as two pounds of chocolate each day.

Questions about genealogy have been popular ever since "Roots" first aired. That's why the information desk is a popular destination for many residents of Hagerstown, Ind., and Ogle County, Ill., both of which have residents with ancestors who hail from Washington County.

Some questions are the result of a friendly, or not so friendly, debate, perhaps a line in a certain song or the name of an actor who played a particular character in a movie. The information desk handles those inquiries the same way they do the more serious questions.

"We don't make any judgments," O'Connell said. "Each question is a question by itself. It's not like, `Why is this person asking this question?'"

The work can be exhausting, but it has its rewards. Sometimes they are able to provide important information and people are often grateful.

"Sometimes the person is so happy with the answer that it makes you happy," Talbott said.

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