Every Reference Librarian Has at Least One

A montage of question marks in colored bubblesEvery reference librarian has at least one—the question that makes you scratch your head in bewilderment or even literally laugh out loud. Public libraries are magnets for the odd and unusual questions, but the National Library of Medicine gets them, too.

Mixed in with the questions you might expect—the cost of developing new medications, the longest surviving renal transplant patient, how to better search PubMed—lie the notable and unexpected.

First, there’s the classic library tale of someone asking for help finding a book based on vaguely recalled details:

When I was in nursing school years ago, we used a wonderful book with a red cover that had everything in it I needed. What’s the name of that book?

You won’t be surprised to learn the librarian couldn’t definitively answer that one but had likely suggestions: the Lippincott Manual of Nursing Practice or the Illustrated Manual of Nursing Practice were comprehensive nursing texts, and some editions had red covers.

Then there are the questions that come with “samples” to help focus the librarian’s work:

I’m enclosing a dead bug we found in our home. Please identify it for us. No need to return the envelope. Unfortunately, we have others.

Aside from being a bit too “real” for the phobic on staff, this question—and work aid—fall outside the scope of the National Library of Medicine.

But that doesn’t slow down reference librarians. In fact, referring people to the correct place for their question is a lot of what they do.

In this case, that meant sharing links to a couple of bug guides from university entomology departments and suggesting the patron contact his local agricultural extension office.

More common and definitely more challenging are those questions that skirt the fringes of health and medicine. They’re in scope, but they ask a question the librarian might initially think won’t have an answer, such as this one:

Where can I find information on the lunar phases’ effects on sleep?

Scientists are, by nature, a curious lot, and reference librarians have mad search skills, so often the seemingly unanswerable ends up being answered, this time by articles in PubMed. Searching PubMed for lunar phase* [tiab] OR moon [tiab] AND sleep [ti] AND humans AND eng[la] results in 11 citations and three free full-text links.

The power of science and reference librarians has its limits, however, as this question from a newlywed proves:

I never snored before I got married, but now I do, and I’m about to lose my husband over it. I’ve tried everything, including surgery. Could I be allergic to my husband? Could this be a psychological issue because I married for convenience?

If you’ve ever thought a reference librarian’s job was easy, this question shows otherwise, because sometimes the best answers include facts plus care, concern, and a whole lot of tact.

3 thoughts on “Every Reference Librarian Has at Least One

  1. The weirdest question I got in my academic Health Library so far was from a lawyer, who wanted to know how long it takes to asphyxiate a person with a pillow… We do have texts on forensic medicine, but I happily sent the patron to the Law Library down the hill 🙂

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