What are the toughest questions tossed at reference librarians?

Think it's easy being a librarian? Think again!

What's a manometer and where can I find one?

I spent much of my non-misspent youth in a library, and at least a couple borrowed books are usually lurking around my home. This all makes it especially hard for me to bear the cutbacks at libraries here in San Diego.

Almost all of the city's branch libraries close on Sundays and Mondays and only stay open in the evening, until just 8 p.m., twice a week. The aging central library in downtown shuts its doors on Saturdays, and that's not likely to change even when it's replaced by a grand new building next year. (That is, if donors can rustle up the $28 million needed to finish construction.)

I asked the city librarian about the system's struggles in an interview for a local news website. The story appeared earlier this month, and it didn't take long for cranky online commenters to descend.

One reader questioned the value of publicly funded libraries and asked this: "Why do librarians need to make $70k a year? To me, it's a $35k a year job that should be done by part timers without benefits. The Dewey Decimal system isn't rocket science."

Armed with righteous annoyance, I joined the online fray myself, noting that librarians aren't cheap because they need knowledge to find knowledge.

And then I got to wondering. Never mind Dewey and his decimals. What are the most difficult questions that reference librarians have ever had to answer?
I decided to ask them. Here's what librarians from across North America had to say via email:

A Spicy Query: Catherine Greene, at the La Jolla/Riford Branch Library in San Diego, was asked: What were the prices of spices in Europe in the 16th century?
Greene writes: "These spices needed to include nutmeg, cinnamon, pepper, and a few exotics. The prices also had to have conversion factors for comparison to today’s price levels. I found the answers in a National Bureau of Economics Research paper. It took me 45 minutes of sifting through other information that wasn’t definitive enough. I.e., one cow would buy a pound of pepper, and so forth. Wikipedia was useless.

Additionally, my education included a lot of economics, undergrad and grad, and without that background informing my search, I would have barely understood the parameters. Many librarians have broad liberal arts educations that help them answer questions like this.

In addition, most librarians are by nature intensely curious and either know or have learned how to develop logical searches, not simply shotgun keyword searches.

– A Manometer's Not What You Might Think: Michael White of Queen's University Library in Kingston, Ontario, was asked for help in locating an image of a manometer.
White writes: "Several years ago, a chemistry professor asked me for help locating a photo or illustration of a scientific instrument called a manometer constructed by a French scientist named Cailletet in the Eiffel Tower in 1891. (Eiffel encouraged scientists to use his tower to conduct experiments and even collaborated with them.)

Web searches were a dead end. I checked science encyclopedias and histories of the tower. None of the print or e-books in our collection had a picture. I found many scientific papers describing Cailletet's Eiffel Tower experiments, but none had illustrations.

After more fruitless searching, I turned to Gallica, the online archive of the National Library of France. In it I found an illustration in a French science periodical called L'Année scientifique et industrielle, v35, 1892, p. 88-92."

A High-Flying Question: Theresa Calcagno, of George Mason University Libraries in Fairfax County, Va., was asked for help in locating a report related to air traffic.
Calcagno writes: Back in July, a grad student asked me via email for help in locating a report related to air traffic. The citation he had was: "Carpenter, Ken, 28 June 2000, NMAC Rate, ACASA/WP1.1.7/115/W Malvern, UK."

I started with Google, Google Scholar, NTRL, NTIS and other engineering databases to see if there was any more information to help me figure out the acronyms and who the agency was… About a week later, I received an email from the author of the report with a PDF copy attached. Total time to get the paper – about 10 days. Total time spent searching – at least 4 hours.

– Sky Master: Bill Jacobs, University of Miami, was asked about astronomical phenomenon of November, 1831.
Jacobs writes: "Back when I worked at the American Museum of Natural History, I got an e-mail from an author writing a biography of an amateur astronomer who crossed the Atlantic from London to New York during November 1831, asking what notable astronomical phenomenon he might have noticed.

To answer this question, I had to create star charts for the beginning, mid and end points of the journey and then check records for eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, auroral displays, meteor showers and whatever else I could think of.

As it turns out, the Leonid meteor shower was notably strong on Nov. 13 of that year (although less impressive than the following two years) and would have been visible in the east in the mid-Atlantic in the early morning as the nearly full moon set in the west. Weather permitting, of course."

– My What a Big Shear Modulus You Have: Judy Maseles at the University of Missouri says engineering librarians are regularly asked questions that definitely cannot be answered by referring to Wikipedia.

Maseles says the questions include: "Information on the interaction between the graphite spheres in a pebble-bed reactor. (The creation of dust is a problem in these kinds of reactors.) Diffusion coefficients for gases in specific organic liquids. The h-index for a series of papers published by a specific research group. A polymer with a shear modulus between 4 and 4.5 GPa."

– Brazilian Rodeo Rules: Anne Barker, research librarian at the University of Missouri, Columbia, recalls some of the toughest questions she's ever been asked. These include:

"Identification of plays from the Elizabethan era featuring Medea. Statistics on the number and distribution of persons of African descent in England in the 18th/early 19th century, relative to a question on Jane Austen's potential treatment of race.

The origin and examples of the use of the hand gesture for A-OK. The official rules for the Brazilian rodeo association. (This also required translation from the Portuguese.) Identification of saints, other than Boniface, who cut down trees. Identification of all black elected officials in the U.S. from local to national, over a span of years."

If you have thoughts about the value of research librarians, please make a comment below!

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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