Stumpers: The Reference Librarian’s Worst Nightmare

Carnac the Magnificent
“Carnac the Magnificent” via Wikipedia

When I was a child I was my father’s accomplice in crime. (That’s a lie.)  When I was young, I was my father’s assistant in a magic act.  (That’s an overstatement.  Here’s the truth.)  Years ago, I was my father’s foil in a math trick he perpetrated on the neighborhood children. In this trick he made the kids select a three digit number (say 723), inverse it (327), then subtract it from the original.  The trick is that the remainder would be a three digit number whose middle number is nine, and the first and third numbers when added together always equal nine.  (Try it!) Why am I telling you this?  You’ll see.

The set-up for this trick was that I was represented as a precocious mathematical genius (so not true!) with special omniscient powers. I was isolated from the other children while they worked the problem, and then they would approach.  My father would intone “Knower of numbers, knower of all.  The first number is three.  Please tell us, insightful one, what is your answer? I would chirp “3-9-6”.  When I said the correct answer, my father would pronounce “The knower of numbers knows all”, and the crowd would be amazed.

I do not know all, and I am a reference librarian.  My early experience as a pretend soothsayer influenced my belief that it is good to inhabit the space somewhere between know-it-all and smarty-pants.  I still want the crowd to be amazed.  How do I reconcile this idealized version of myself with the truth that I am not infallible?  Someone, somehow, will ask a question I am unable to answer.  I will be stumped.  Despite racking my brain, and scouring sundry databases, sometimes I come up empty.  I haven’t found the key, that magic word, which unlocks a hidden wealth of information. I hate feeling helpless and perplexed.   I am disturbed when I cannot find an answer to a question, and I know other reference librarians who take their roles seriously feel the same.   Professionally speaking, librarians have a way to handle impossible questions.

Reference librarians have a long tradition of reaching out to others in the field by posing difficult questions on a discussion list dedicated to such, in hopes that the universe will provide answers to the “stumper”.  Coincidentally enough, the listserv was called Stumpers.  It has since been retired, but has now been succeeded by another called Project Wombat .  (Are wombats smart?  I am not certain, but they comport to the alternate definition of stumper, insofar as they have tiny little legs.)  Anyone can subscribe, or read questions and answers from their archive.  Regular reading may give an unfair advantage in Trivial Pursuit, a board game enjoyed by reference librarians generally, and smarty-pants in particular.

I recently entertained a question that proved to be a head-scratcher.  A student who was taking a college writing class had an interest in pursuing a career in physical therapy. He sought articles that profiled patients whose conditions improved after therapeutic intervention.   Not so easy!  There are plenty of articles profiling successful physical therapists, and articles about sports figures recovering from an injury that mention the word “physical therapy” or “rehabilitation” once.  The words “memoir” and “profile” didn’t return the kinds of results we were looking for. We tried a list of synonyms.  We tried various databases.  Nothing seemed to uncover articles from scholarly sources.

Luckily, I work in a setting where we have many talented librarians with diverse interests and specialties.  It is always possible for me to reach out to other reference librarians on the Touro Library team for a consultation, and I generally do.  (A shout out to the Health Science librarians at Bay Shore!)  You can do the same.

If you want to pose your reference question to another librarian at a different Touro location, by all means, do so.  Linked here is a list of library staff for your calling enjoyment.  You can also reach us on Chat or by email from the Ask-A-Librarian® feature on the Touro Library homepage.



Contributed by: Carol Schapiro, Librarian, Midtown Library

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