They asked the librarian what??

Reference librarians are in the business of answering questions, whether helping someone plan a major research project or pointing the way to the drinking fountain. Most questions are pretty routine, but some patrons ask funny questions. They have no idea what they really want, and occasionally appear not even to understand that they’re in a library.

Some patrons want a particular book. They just can’t remember the author or the title. They might ask by color, but often as not, they’re wrong about that, too. Here are some memorably funny reference questions, along with the eventual answers.

  • I don’t remember the name of the book. It’s something about a streetcar and it’s by Alfred Lord Tennyson. (Streetcar Named Desire / Tennessee Williams.)
  • I want a book called Oranges and Peaches. (When the librarian reported that the library had no such title, the patron indignantly responded that every library ought to have it. After all, it’s a classic by Darwin. Aha! Origin of the Species!)
  • a book about steroids. (After returning from the appropriate place for that subject, it turned out that the patron wanted books about Star Wars)
  • Around Human Women (A Round-Heeled Woman)
  • Tess of the Ooba-doobas. (Tess of the d’Urbervilles
  • Horse’s Oats (Horace’s Odes)
  • Canary Road (Cannery Row)

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Then there are the patrons who’s understanding of history is, shall we say, suspect. Can you tell why reference librarians found it funny when patrons asked for these items?

  • a photograph of Jesus
  • George Washington’s birth certificate.
  • Shakespeare in proper English.
  • a picture of people crossing the Bering land bridge.
  • a photograph of the underground railway. Speaking of the underground railway, someone else lived next door to a lot being excavated. Workers dug up some train tracks, and the patron wondered if it was part of the underground railway.

I once knew a young woman who loved to tease a particular librarian. One day she was waiting in a long line to check out books. When she finally got to the counter, she leaned on it and ordered a chicken sandwich, fries, and a large tea. Hilarious. But what about these funny questions, asked in all seriousness?

  • Do you sell birthday cakes?
  • Can I have a serving spoon?
  • What kind of hinges should I put on my shed?
  • When do you have your swimming lessons?
  • What is this place? (Asked by someone who had walked past a sign outside with the name of the library, the name of the library above the door and on the door, not to mention a large welcome sign 30 feet or so inside the door. By the time she got to the desk, book stacks were visible in nearly all directions!)

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There are plenty more  funny reference questions where these came from. Besides questions I have personally experienced, they came from a thread on Library Thing.


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