Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Telephone Trivia Time

Just about every night that I work at the library and sometimes on Saturdays, I get a phone call from a lady who is in her sixties. She always asks reference questions that are more like trivia questions:

"Do you know if there was ever a song called 'Violets for Your Furs'? Isn't that a weird name for a song? What does it mean anyway?"

"Where would I have seen Ellen Barkin, is she TV or movies?"

"What's that song that the guy from American Idol sang, the guy with the gray hair?"

When I first started working at the library and I was nervous about being rusty with reference skills, her questions would annoy me. She doesn't like to wait for you to look up the answer in a book somewhere. She doesn't care if you verify your source or not. She just wants to know the answer. Once or twice I think she even hung up on me while I made her wait on hold. I found it very unsettling in the beginning.

I was trained in telephone work, you see. I worked at New York Public Library's (somewhat) famous Telephone Reference department, where we answered basic (and not so basic) questions over the phone, with a time limit of 5 minutes per call. In a tiny, freezing room filled with books and a card catalog, we would search for answers to questions ranging from finding cross streets in Manhattan to getting the dates a play ran on Broadway in 1948. We used the internet, but not exclusively; actually some of our best sources were the ones we had made ourselves, editing and updating existing encyclopedias and almanacs by hand. (I was assigned for a while to "do the dead people," meaning I had to read the obits in the Times every day and update, by hand, the entries of the Almanac of Famous People.) Now hardly anyone calls in on the phone; they use the online chat or email features and get their answers electronically. But all the same, you can bet that no one is answering off the top of their head, even if they know the answer.

So now, here in the suburbs, my frequent caller is a reminder of those days. The other day she told me, "You know, my memory isn't so good anymore. Sometimes I think of things and I can't place them." It turns out she's bedridden after a stroke a few years ago. I guess she sees the library as a reassuring place to go to find out that she hasn't totally lost it yet. "I like talking to you," she said. "I guess some of my questions sound crazy, but sometimes stuff bothers me when I can't remember it." I told her that it was not crazy at all and to call away if she had to. I don't mind being someone's touchstone with reality.

I don't know where that goes in my job description, but I'm pretty sure it qualifies as "other duties as assigned." How do I put that on my resume?