We get asked for all sorts of things in the library: popular books, tie-ins to TV shows, tourist information, bus passes, how to print documents, and of course whether we have toilets. Many of these we can answer not just standing on our heads, but with a smile, a request for ID, and often while serving several customers at once, giving a sticker to a grumpy child, and ignoring the man drinking out of a thermos while recharging his phone.
What I do love though are the odd enquiries. The more unusual the better, especially if it means getting creative with catalogues, websites, and inside knowledge. It usually involves trying to interpret a sometimes quite vague query, and refining it as we go in a mini journey of discovery.
Sometimes I can find a direct answer, or I can at least identify an individual or organisation who does hold the answer, and a means of communicating with them that matches the capacity and preference of the person in front of me.
Recent examples, by way of illustration, include:
- How to buy Premium Bonds without using a website?
- Where do UK travelling circuses store their vehicles during the winter?
- What’s the largest prime number so far identified and what did they use to calculate it?
- Where are the stone road distance markers that still exist in Staines?
- Where was the original Saint Saviour’s Church in Sunbury?
- How can I find out what my national insurance number is?
- Where can I find a list of Grand Prix drivers from 1945-1968?
- Who holds the records of common land in the Heathrow area and any outstanding covenants on them?
- What is the speed of an unladen swallow?
- Did I see you at (venue name) last Sunday?
And if you’re more curious about that last one, then the answers to that are: yes I have stalkers, yes more than one, no it’s not unusual for library staff, and no they hadn’t.
If you’re ever looking for the most subversive people in any given room, you could do far worse than to take a look at your librarians. You could be forgiven for thinking of them as slightly fluffy guardians of silence and study. You would be wrong. All that knowledge seeps into minds trained to observe and catalogue and consider the objects around them. They also deal with the unruly public on a daily basis. To them, the word public has the same connotation as the word civilian to military personnel. You can’t expect them to quite react like everyone else after that.
The mutinous room of people in front of me all seemed to have a competition going on for who could do the best analytical scowl. I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or be concerned, which should tell you everything you need to know about my sense of humour. I’d just done the most foolhardy thing i could imagine: telling a building full of librarians that people were coming to take their books away. I didn’t mean it in a “we’re cutting your budgets again” way either.
We were on the fourteenth day of the seige. Some idiot had concocted a virulent memetic attack on the concept and value of book-learning which had leapt from sub-Reddit to Tumblr post, from message board to Facebook, Twitter to Snapchat and on in echoing rambling iterations. Whoever had crafted it had quite possibly set off a new Dark Age – and libraries were suddenly on the front line of a war.
The advantage, as the librarians put it, was that people had never read signs and notices before everything kicked off anyway, so they certainly weren’t paying attention now. It did at least make intelligence-sharing simpler, even if not actually more secure. Passwords and locations of keys for supplies could be left in plain sight with a reasonable assurance that no one would read them.
Relocating the stock and replacing it with adult colouring books turned out to be the best solution in the end. The rampaging hordes were pacified with mindfulness exercises and boxes of crayons when they broke through the doors. Business suddenly had never been better. Meanwhile, the treasures of the librarians, spirited away in the depths of the night, entered into legend.