From the Stacks
By Carol Ann Robb, PPL Reference Librarian 

Training a new employee this week has brought back memories of my early days as a reference librarian and made me think how much my job has changed. The library had one dial-up computer used only for inter-library loan transactions, so I relied on books to answer every question that came my way (though I would phone others for help. I’ve always said I don’t need to know everything, just need to know who to ask).

All the shelves in that northwest room were lined with reference tomes, most of which were opened sparingly since they were so specialized. I still remember the excitement I felt when the New York Public Library Desk Reference arrived—it contained so much information in just one volume. Between it and the World Almanac, I could answer close to 75% of the questions that came my way.

Then the Internet arrived and having a computer at my fingertips meant it didn’t take as long to find answers to those tricky questions (but contrary to what many people think, not everything is online). As more and more people got connected to online resources, fewer reference questions came our way. And when they did, it took much less time to come up with answers, as long as the library’s computers were up and running.

That’s when my job description really took a turn and one that I totally embrace—reader’s advisory. I’m happy to answer questions on just about any subject but what I truly love is helping readers find books. Whether it’s a series order list, novels set in a particular time period, or books that are similar to the latest best seller—those are the questions I eagerly anticipate. Ask me for a good book and I’m off and running. If you want a list of upcoming tax foreclosure sales in the county, well that will take me a bit longer.

But I have certainly learned about things that never would have crossed my mind over the years and have had some very interesting encounters. Here are two I can share without violating confidentiality. A woman phoned, explaining that her husband had recently undergone surgery to remove a schwannoma and they wanted to learn more about it. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement as I exclaimed, “I had one taken out two years ago—what do you want to know?” They’re not common but I had looked up plenty of information so could answer some of her questions.

The other question came from a man who called, brusquely saying, “I need to know what day Easter was in 1987.” Without skipping a beat, I replied, “I’m quite sure it was a Sunday.” Which wasn’t very professional of me but I couldn’t resist. After he spluttered that’s not what he meant, I grabbed the NYPL Desk Reference and answered correctly, “April 19th.” It’s probably better that I answer more book questions these days.