Question: What’s the best way to neuter your pet cat?
Answer: Don’t ask. Especially don’t ask Judy Nelson and the other dozen or so Spokane Public Library telereference-desk workers.
Nelson, who works several hours a week as the library’s phone-in question person, gulped after she got that query a few years ago.
Her instincts told her to start looking. “I figured we had to have something that explained the procedure.”
She halted the search after a supervisor told her that was one piece of information the library wasn’t ready to provide.
“Even so, I was worried for a week the caller would find out and try it on his own,” Nelson said.
For Nelson and her colleagues, the reference-by-phone job is a steady stream of questions, each one taking their full attention for a few minutes or a few hours.
Last week, The Spokesman-Review decided to ask a few questions of its own.
So what is the library’s telereference desk? How special is it?
It’s a one-room office at the main library downtown, open Mondays through Fridays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. During those hours, a staff person is there to answer phoned-in questions. Questions that can’t be answered there are forwarded to the second-floor reference desk.
What kinds of questions do Nelson and the others field?
Nearly anything - from the average exchange rate for the Canadian dollar last year to the names of the Thai royal family. The telereference room handles 100 to 200 calls per day.
OK, I’m on the phone and asking a question. How long will it take?
It depends, said Dennis Frederickson, the library’s manager of reference services. “If it’s a question we’ve never seen before, we’ll take longer.”
Some queries take a day or two. But some questions never are answered. “A real stumper we never answered was: ‘What was Einstein’s IQ?”’ said Frederickson.
Why does the library provide this service?
Just about every public tax-supported library has staffers to answer general questions. Most do it the way Spokane does: offering a walk-up reference desk - in this case, on the main library’s second floor - or a free telephone service.
What won’t the library answer for me?
Specific questions about health and medical care. “And no legal advice,” said Frederickson, “though we tell them to come to the library and look at law or medical books here.”
Do you have to be some kind of information junkie to work in that department?
Not at all, Frederickson said.
“We don’t even trust our memory because that always creates a risk of error. If someone asks who’s the president of the United States, we go to the almanac and tell them what our source is,” he said.
That means every answer provided by the telereference staff involves turning to some book, catalog or directory, finding the answer, then telling the caller what it is and where it was found.
Dennis, you’ve done this seven years or so. You must be pretty good at “Trivial Pursuit”?
“I’m not very good. But I am good at telling people where to find answers.”
Are most phone questions interesting?
Most are garden-variety queries like: What’s the address for a certain business in Nova Scotia? How many people ran in Bloomsday last year?
A few get the brain pumping, said Nelson. She recently got a call from Matt Johnson, a Lewis and Clark High School drum major.
Getting ready for the Lilac Festival Armed Forces Torchlight Parade, Johnson wanted a niftier, more eye-grabbing salute for when the band passed the parade judges.
Nelson didn’t find anything quickly. But the library reference desk then called Johnson and suggested he look at materials at the main branch that might help.
Johnson did so on Thursday and found what he wanted.
Speaking of trivia, do you get many questions in that vein?
“Sure,” Frederickson said. During the recent McDonald’s Disney trivia contest, the library received a lot of calls from scratch-card holders looking for correct answers.
Who are the most frequent callers?
It runs the gamut, Frederickson said, from business people looking for research tools to crossword-puzzle players searching for a seven-letter word for necktie.
Are there any limits on how many questions I can ask?
“We’ll do three questions in a session. Three stock quotes or three addresses from the phone book,” he said.
How about calls from people making bar bets?
“I don’t think I’ve gotten any of those,” Frederickson said.
Are some questions almost too bizarre to deal with?
“Not really,” said Frederickson. “You assume the person calling has to have some kind of purpose for asking. So you put it out of your mind and just treat it like any other question.”
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MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: QUESTIONS? The Spokane Public Library telephone reference room answers questions from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday-Friday. It’s been a separate part of the city’s Main Library reference desk since the mid-1980s. All city and county branch libraries also handle questions during business hours. Other facts: Number to call: 626-5336. Peak hours: 10 a.m. to noon. Success rate: Ninety-five percent of questions are answered in one day. Specialties: business and government information sources, Northwest history.
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