No such thing as a dumb question but…

The following gems are courtesy of the collective mind of the PubLib Listserve 2008


Patron:  What’s the correct spelling,  “Steven” or “Stephen?”

Me: Both are correct.  It depends on the person.

Patron: It’s the guy who mows my lawn.  


I have told this one before but I really liked the kid who asked me for information on the “Webdee Boys”  I thought it was a musical group or something given his age. I should have kept in mind that it was February. He needed information on “W.E.B. DuBois.” 


When we first received our color copier, we had a call from a lady to ask us if it was true.  We assured her that it was, & told her the price.

She told us she had some B&W photos from the ’40’s that she wanted in color. We had to explain about the limits of color copy technology! 


I once had someone ask me for a biography of an African military leader – she couldn’t remember the person’s name, but she was sure we’d own a biography.  I spent quite a while trying to find it.  Turned out she was thinking of Che Guevara!  I would never have guessed that myself, but luckily a colleague suggested it as a joke. 


From 1997:  “Why was Pavarotti chasing Princess Di?”


A young woman, very well dressed, comes into the library and, acting very cool, sort of drawls, “I’m looking for a play called “Tight As a Drum.”  I look it up and can’t find it on our database and probe a little deeper.  “Do you know the author?”  She replies, “I think it’s maybe Shakespeare.”  Aha, I think.   “Could it be Titus Andronicus?”   Sheepishly she looks at me and says yeah.  I liked her better after she lost her cool. 


Older gentleman. “Just where is the Internet? My grandkids keep going there.” 

Child “Where’s Frank’s dairy?” Anne Frank’s Diary  

Middle-aged guy. “How can I find a copy of the poster I had on my wall = when I was a teenager? I don’t remember what it looked like.” After a deep breath I asked many questions and amazed myself by figuring out it was = psychedelic  poster of Jimi Hendrix that he was so nostalgic about. 

Pre-Internet: A man pouring over stacks of newspapers for over an hour (and  turning aside my offer of help) finally told me that not ONE of them had a list of the correctional facilities in Wisconsin.  I was able to hand him a WI business directory that had just what he wanted. Then he asked me why I hadn’t told him earlier! 

An athletic looking young man carrying a very frilly purse asked me for a book on why sisters don’t get along. I did find something and restrained myself from asking about the purse. 

An older woman asked “When did George Washington visit the United States”? I never did get at a more clear understanding of what she meant. 


During my first month working the Reference Desk in a Public Library after receiving my MLS, a gentleman called asking if we had a list of upcoming book burnings in the area as he had a number of books at home that he felt that no one should read and he wanted to add them to the fire.  I explained that libraries do not approve of book burning and so people generally did not inform us before holding them. 


Someone asked for a certain title.  I asked if the book was fiction or non-fiction.  After a pause I explained the difference.

She said it couldn’t be non-fiction because it was a real book. 


I had a patron who called with the most bizarre questions, always prefacing her request with “my company is looking for this information”. My favorite was when she called looking for the 3 most significant events in history. The conversation went as follows: 

Patron:  We are looking for the 3 most significant events in history after 1861. 

Me:  Are you looking for in the world or the United States? I should mention that this will be subjective depending on what the focus is. 

P:  Oh, in the world, you know, like 9-11 was a significant event in the world (I am now thinking to myself – perhaps not so much in

Africa) or, you know, the Statue of Liberty was a significant event. 

M: Again, that would be subjective to your focus, for example, communication was not what it is today so some parts of the world did not hear about events as soon as they happened so the significance would depend on a lot of things. For example, there was a war going on in the United States between 1861 and 1865. 

P:  Yes, I know, the War of 1812. 

Needless to say, silence – what can you say? 


Several years ago, when I was working at the reference desk, a teen told me that he needed information on a king.  When I asked which king, he responded “Malcolm the Tenth”.  It took me a few minutes to compose myself but it turned out that he needed information on Malcolm X. 


I was working reference many years ago and got a call from a woman who announced, “Can you help me?  My nipples are burning!”  I’m afraid that my reference interview consisted of some sputtering.  That elicited clarification from the customer: “I was sterilizing them and the pan boiled dry.” 


Where do you keep the miss-shelved books? 

Is the beef stroganoff in my refrigerator safe to eat? 

I can’t believe you don’t have any books by David Copperfield. 

Is Martha’s Vineyard named after Martha Stewart? 


“Can you give me a map that tells where I can find caves that haven’t been discovered yet?” 


This reminds me of a question I got a few years ago by phone: “What’s the street price for marijuana in Baltimore?” Just for the heck of it, I typed into Google’s search box: street price marijuana baltimore. You could have knocked me over with a feather when the first result was a website where people could record the going rate for marijuana in their town!

Other favorites:

“I need some books on the Industrial Revolution; you know, during the Renaissance?”

An elderly woman on the phone: “Do you have a directory of nudist colonies?”

A teenage boy picking up the next book in a trilogy for his sister: “I think it’s called Pebbles on the Beach.” (It was Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews.)

“I need a book on the acrylic alphabet.” (Cyrillic alphabet)


Woman towing four little kids behind her, ages about 6 mos to 5 years old “Do you have any books on childbirth systems?”

Dumb me who has never done that: “You mean like Lamaze?”

Woman, with deep sigh: “No, that doesn’t work, do you have something better?”


From the deputy fire chief: “what’s the combustion point for paper?”  He was so impressed that I knew the answer right off the top of my head.


There are many stories, but one I like to tell is from a few years ago and began with “where are your books on dogs?” I showed them, smiled, and went on to other patrons. In a few minutes, the family returned and said that they particular breed of dog the daughter had to do a report on wasn’t in any of our books. I asked what it was and they replied, “It’s called a Darwin’s beagle.” So I looked … and looked… and I found nothing, either, until it dawned on me: she must have only half listened to the assignment. What she really had to do was read and report on The Voyage of the Beagle, written by Charles Darwin. Thank God, we had a copy of the book on the shelf, so I could show them and get them to believe me.


I work in the Literature/Media division of our library, which includes religion and the occult.  I had a call from a young lady asking me for a spell that would make a young man she likes fall in love with her.  She said she wanted to control his mind because so far, he hadn’t shown much interest.

Previous to this assignment, I also worked in local history/genealogy.  I had an older patron call and ask me how the cave men  (and women) learned to have sex since there wasn’t anyone before them to teach them. 


The first – Do you have the book with all the answers?  After resisting the impulse to answer “the Bible”, I discovered that she wanted the answer guide that her professor had left on reserve for the class. 
Second – What is the exact date that the UFO landed in Roswell, New Mexico?  He wanted to confirm that he was the progeny of the alien.  The dates matched.


oo!  That reminds me of the mother who came in wanting books about President Bush.  I said, “certainly!  Which one?”  Her response …

“There is more than one?”  This was made even more strange when it turned out she wanted daddy Bush, not CURRENT PRESIDENT Bush. 


My favorite reference question ever was when I was asked, “How long did they burn Joan of Arc at the stake?”  

I answered, “Medium rare.” 


A lady asked me to find the photo of a missing woman who had been featured the previous night on America’s Most Wanted, or some such show.

She wanted a copy of the photo to take to her beautician so that she could have her hair styled the same as the missing woman.


My favorite has always been the child who wanted to write a report on “pirates in New Mexico”. 


“Did the pilgrims have a horn of plenty on their table at the first Thanksgiving?” But this did get me thinking about the wonderful, burgeoning world of cornucopia….


A teenager told me he what to do a report on the “importance of inventions in the American Revolution.”  I told him that I was unsure that there were any technological innovations that played any significant role in the Revolution besides musket rifling. 

He paused and then asked, “What about trains?” 

I said, “Well, we’re about sixty years off for that.” 

He mentally groped for a moment and then said, “well, they had to have new inventions to put all those girls to work in those factories.” 

I said, “Would you be talking about the *Industrial* Revolution by any chance?”  

His face lit up: “Yeah! That’s it!” 


1.  I was recently asked where we keep our copies of the “jell-o pages”.

I had to think a moment before I realized the patron’s native language was one which interprets the letter “y” with the sound for “j” as in “juice”. 

2.  None of the public computers in our new library came equipped with built-in floppy disc drives, so we have had to keep a couple portables at the Reference Desk.  Patrons can borrow one in exchange for some security (library card, driver’s license, etc.).  I had to try really hard to keep a straight face when a male patron asked for a “floppy adaptor”.  For some reason visions of Viagra commercials popped into my head. 


Most self-explanatory reference question: “Is this a book?” 

Best question (from a nine-year-old, natch): “Are mummies real?”


I had just started to work here, right out of library school and was eager to do the best job ever.  I was really stumped by the request for information on the “Sultana Indians”  I finally had the sense to ask the question I’ve never neglected since:  Where did you find this term?”  The answer – “I dreamed it


I think that my favorite reference question was Muammar al-Gaddafi’s phone number.  I knew that we wouldn’t have the phone number, so I told the person that they should try Tripoli information.  I found out later that the patron did call. 

I thought that this would be al-Gaddafi’s message on his answering machine.

“Hi, this is Muammar.  I’m not in at the moment, but if you leave your name and target at the sound of the explosion, I will get back to you”.


I think my favorite question, asked recently, was for a video on dinosaurs. But not Jurassic Park or cartoons–a documentary with real footage.


It was at the end of one of those long days in February when a student asked if he could Xerox Lincoln?  I said, “He’s been dead for quite a few years, Would a picture of him do?”


I once had a teen ask me for a photo of the “Big Bang”   I looked at her and said, “Think about what you just asked me!”  Her reply, “oh”.


I just had a patron ask me for a list of all our informational books.  I giggled.


We once had someone ask our reference librarian for a list of all the places on the internet! 


My second day on the job brought this: “What would you do if you thought your husband was having an affair?”

More recently :” Could you get me the phone number of a prophet?”


1.  Is it true that you can get rid of hemorrhoids with a lit cigar?


2.  Do you have a map of the underground cannibal network?  My husband is a butcher and he says there is one.  (One what?  A network or a map?)


3.  Patron rolling up a shirtsleeve and showing me her arm, “is this herpes?”


4.  Can you give me a list of restaurants in Detroit and Dallas?  And, can you tell me if they’re serving turkey this Thanksgiving?


Over the years I have been asked for photographs of the Pilgrim arrival, Jesus, Catherine the Great, when the letter “J” was invented ( seems straight forward but the patron argued with my response, taken from the OED because “the people who originally wrote the Bible could not have spelled Jerusalem” if “J” had not been invented then”)”where is the yellow book I was reading last week?” “Do you have any books by the famous American author, Hemingstein?”


A patron asked if we could show her how to use her computer.  I explained that we can provide help, depending on how busy we are, and that we have free computer classes.  As we talked, surrounded by computers in use, she stated that she would need help bringing in her computer as “it’s kind of large”.   


the librarian told me that a patron had come up and asked for a book that explained  the masturbation of a minor. She finally figured out that he wanted a legal book about the emancipation of a minor.


When I was a GovDoc librarian at St. Louis Public Library, I had a young man come in and ask for a photo or drawing of the USDA choice stamp. Something about the way he blushed made me ask, “Is this for a tattoo?” To which he replied “yes, I want it on my butt.”

Being the good librarian I am, I found him several representations of both USDA Choice & Prime stamps, with explanations of the grading system.

Still makes me smile.


A man who called me at the reference desk wanting the number to the local Petsmart because he was in the woods and he lost his gerbil. (He also warned me never to get married because it ruined the other reference librarian)

A man who wanted the phone numbers to escort services in Amsterdam, Miami and San Antonio. (I got them, although I feared for days afterwards that I’d have a hell of a lot of explaining to do if IT looked at the website visited logs)

A woman looking for the “Masturbator’s Singing Club” (Master Butcher’s Singing Club) – she didn’t want it when I corrected her on the title!


And, in a final “kooky title” entry, a patron looking for “Killing Babies at the Piggly Wiggly” (Kissing Babies at the Piggly Wiggly) – who also decided she didn’t want the book after being corrected on the title.


I still like this one from 20 years ago –   

“I need “How to satisfy a woman everytime” and I need it by tonight.”


I had one last night with a guy asking if he could buy a cigarette from the people at the reference desk. I told him no and he said “gee, I’m sure I’ve bought cigarettes here before…” 

My old favorite is the ADULT who asked for photographs of Jesus. 


“I know you have this book.  The name of the girl in the book is Julie.”  

“I know you’ve read it.  You’ve read all of these books, haven’t you?”  

And nothing beats the ill, dripping sweaty guy leaning over the desk asking “Can you get me information on Hepatitis C?”


A young man approached me at the reference desk several years ago and asked if I could help identify a gun and locate ammunition for it. It was already loaded


A patron approached me to announce that she was doing her daughter’s report.  I was new enough at this that it startled me, although it no longer does. I smiled supportively. 

She said it was a history report on Kent State.  This startled me again, since to me, Kent State was a current event.  I asked how I could help. 

“I have looked in 4 atlases,” this clearly locally born woman, of approximately my age, grumped.  “There is no state called Kent.” 


I very much enjoyed reading through the “no such thing as a dumb question” posts on the list.  And they reminded me of a few times when I’ve been on the other end of that, but as the librarian….when I learned more from the customer (client, user, patron).

My first example:  I was working in a very small library while in college.  After 5:00, all the full-time staff were gone and people just got the best help the college students and other part-timers could provide.  I answered the phone (we had to say, with great animation, tested by the director “this is YOUR library; how may I help you?” which lead to endless jokes) and the caller asked for the blue book value of a car.  That was a new one to me.  Very patiently, the customer explained that the N.A.D.A. was not blue, which drawer to look in to find it, and exactly how to use the book–in every detail.  For many years, I thought of that caller every time I answered a blue book question (which was many thousands of times).

Another time, after library school, a college student came and asked me for books about Sam Cooke.  He was writing a paper about that great singer, focusing on his death.  While my knowledge of popular music has broadened considerably since then, I grew up unaware of almost any popular music.  I’d learned a lot in grad school from going to live music venues (LSU was not only a wonderful library school, but had an incredible music scene surrounding it).  But I’d never heard of Sam Cooke.  So, as with any question about a person, I started off by asking what the person was famous for.  The customer very graciously sang a few bars of some of Mr. Cooke’s greatest songs (which I finally recognized by “Touch the Hem of His Garment”) and told me the whole story of the singer’s life. He just needed some sources to verify what he knew.

in Oklahoma for the first story; Humble, Texas, for the second one, and now in New York City

One Response

  1. May I have permission to re-post some of these on a bulletin board in my school library? I want to teach critical thinking skills with laughter. :))))

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