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The woman with the answers retires

July 02, 1999|By ANDREA ROWLAND

A public fact finder is closing the book on her library career, but will continue searching for answers.

After 38 years of service, reference librarian Thelma Mae Talbott will retire from the Washington County Free Library on July 1.

"I'm going to miss the people and the challenge of answering questions," the Hagerstown resident said.

Talbott has watched history being made from behind the reference desk since she began her career with the library in July 1961.

She said she was working when President Kennedy was assassinated, when astronaut John Glenn orbited the earth and when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.

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Since she began working at the old library on Summit Avenue, Talbott has fielded a broad range of questions.

"A reference librarian is a Jack-of-a-lot-of-knowledge and a master of none," Talbott said.

There were hard-to-find facts such as the names of cowboys' horses often requested by patrons engaged in bar room bets, she said.

There were obituary searches for famous folks believed to be deceased, and forays to find dates books were published.

In the pre-Internet years, these searches could be time-consuming, Talbott said. But a lot has changed since she began her full-time career in 1959.

When Talbott graduated with a master's of library science degree from Florida State University in 1956, such technological feats as computers and space travel were "science fiction," she said.

Back then, libraries were totally "book-oriented," Talbott said.

Audio visual departments stocked with 16 mm film were novel; microfilm was rare; and libraries were just starting to shelve record albums, mostly classical, she said.

Every morning, librarians updated the card catalog, Talbott said.

That old standby is now obsolete.

Today, video tapes and compact discs have replaced films and albums, which are discarded as they wear out, Talbott said. Internet networks provide quick answers to most public queries, and library stock is found with a click of the mouse.

The "technology-oriented" Talbott was "always the first one to wade in when something new came out," said Library Director Mary Baykan.

"It is amazing to think that I have seen all these things happen, particularly as they apply to libraries. It has been a wonderful time to live and work in this field," Talbott wrote in her resignation letter.

Although she will soon finish the chapter of her life filled with public queries, she will continue her quest for answers. Her passion: genealogy.

"It's a mystery. It's a puzzle. If you get into it, you get totally absorbed," Talbott said.

Reference librarians have noticed a sharp increase in the number of genealogical questions, and Talbott's personal knowledge of the subject aids her in this professional capacity, she said.

She is a member of the Washington County Genealogical Society, and has attended the annual National Genealogical Convention since 1987, she said.

In addition to her current passion, Talbott said she has long fed her hunger for knowledge by subscribing to trade magazines such as Popular Mechanics, which "fill in the gaps" of her education, she said.

Such readings help her keep abreast of changes in these fields, and help answer public queries, Talbott said.

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