By The Brodart Librarians
Given that librarians are service-oriented professionals, we encounter our fair share of strange behavior and offbeat requests. For your enjoyment and to start the year off on a lighter note, we have compiled some of our favorite memories of odd people and odder situations that we have encountered over the years in the libraries we have served.
Some of the anecdotes are slightly off-color, so proceed at your own risk… And please share your own stories in the comments section! (Login not required)
Melissa Perkins: “A guy walks into a bar…”
This happened when I was completing my internship at a public library. One night while I was manning the reference desk during the evening shift, a man who seemed drunk wandered in. Apparently mistaking the library for a pub, he approached the “bar” and ordered a Bacardi on the rocks. I started smiling and said, “Well sir, we don’t have that, but we do have some books on rocks.” He looked dazed and confused for a few moments until he suddenly realized that he wasn’t at a bar after all. He began laughing. He and I chatted and laughed together in a neighborly fashion, as I quickly but politely escorted him to the nearest exit.
Lauren Lee: “Dangerous Material & Reading Aloud”
The weirdest request I ever received for reconsideration of materials: Ruth Krauss’ “The Carrot Seed.” A concerned parent was up in arms because she thought the book in question encouraged toddlers to eat raw carrots, and as we all know, “That’s dangerous!” (It should be noted that “The Carrot Seed” is a classic—and harmless—children’s book.)
The oddest printable public service request I ever received from a patron took place by phone: “Go get Volume 4 of The Oxford English Dictionary. Go to page 216 and read me the thirteenth entry on that page.” This happened more than once with the same patron, who always claimed that he had forgotten some detail that he needed to confirm. The entries were invariably words you wouldn’t want to read aloud—I’m sure you can hazard a few guesses. Volumes, pages and entry numbers have been changed to protect the innocent.
Stephanie Campbell: “The Expanding Role of Librarians”
In my first job at a public library, I was approached at the reference desk by an elderly woman who asked if I could remove a scratchy tag from the back collar of her dress. Somewhat taken aback but eager to please, I followed her into the stacks for some privacy and cut out the tag with a pair of scissors. She was then able peruse the large print section in comfort.
A few years later, I fielded a similar request while at the desk of an academic library. Still surprised, but rather unfazed since this was the second such occurrence, I went right for the scissors. This time around, the younger female patron simply grabbed the back of her elastic waist pants and stretched, granting me access to the rear seam and we took care of the offending bit right there on the spot. She then happily returned to her seat at the computer, itch-free.
So what’s weirder, that I was asked this not only once, but twice… or that I complied? Clearly, I take the role of “removing obstacles to library usage” VERY seriously!
Laura Young: “Ghostly Movements & Pranks Gone Wrong”
I worked as a student assistant at the reference desk in the main library of a large university. The floor containing the reference area was closed and locked every night at midnight, leaving only the 2nd floor open to students. One year during finals week, we came in to find that someone had defecated on the floor in front of the reference desk. This happened every night during finals week. We never figured out how the person got into the locked floor overnight, and never found out who did it.
In a separate incident, as part of hell week, one of the university fraternities required its pledges to perform a prank in the library. The pledges had to dress up in three-piece suits, cram themselves into a single elevator, and ride from the first floor to the sixth floor and back again. As luck would have it, the elevator malfunctioned and the pledges were stuck in the elevator between floors for four hours—dressed to the nines—before anyone could get them out.
Ann Wilson: “Evil Books”
Back in the Dark Ages (i.e., the 1980s) I was the librarian of a combined high school/public library in a very small, very conservative community. Obviously, both school students and the public (children and adults) used the collection, which sometimes created interesting issues with respect to the collection. One day I received a call from a member of the library board who had just gotten a phone call from an older lady after she returned home from her weekly library visit. The elderly patron had expressed concern to the board member that the library was promoting “devil poetry.” The patron said this topic was not acceptable to the public and certainly should not be promoted to students. The board member was quite amused but asked me to please try to figure out what had upset this lady. I explained that I was quite certain we had no such books but I would of course look around. I could not imagine what the library patron had seen to prompt this outraged phone call, but I soon found it in the New Book section, where we kept the “hot” best-sellers of interest to adult readers. As it turns out, we had just put out Salman Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses.”
Fern Hallman: “Can you help me make…?”
When I was a new librarian, a man approached me at the reference desk with a crumpled up piece of paper. This was long before Google. He told me someone had given him a chemical formula and he needed to know what he could make with it. The note on the crumpled paper read “C21H23NO5.” Since chemistry isn’t my specialty, I told him that if he thought he knew what the substance was, it would be easier to work backwards. After he hesitated a bit, I assured him I wouldn’t tell anyone. He finally told me he thought it was the chemical formula for heroin. Turns out he was right. I did tell him that he probably wasn’t going to be able to smash together a bunch of hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen atoms and go into business.
Suzanne Hawley: “Scary Monsters & a Scarier Mother”
A fourth grader in one of my schools fell in love with a book about movie monsters. The pictures in the book were horrific and full of gore—in other words, the kind of things young boys love to read and look at. The kid had checked it out about seven times and at that point it was overdue. His mother, presumably when going through his book bag, found the overdue notice and asked him to show her the book. When he did she immediately grabbed it and started ripping out pages. She stormed into my office the next day with the torn pages and told me the book was disgusting and she couldn’t believe I had such material on the shelf. She further informed me that it was her duty to examine all of the books in the media center. She said she’d be there early the next morning. She actually arrived at about 2 p.m., went through the books on one shelf and I never saw her again! Her son came in regularly after that and searched for the scariest possible books to check out. Not a word from Mama after that.
Gwen Vanderhage: “Hazardous Activities & a First-time Chef”
I’d say one of the weirdest incidents that ever happened during one of my librarian shifts was when someone, for some unknown reason, decided to disassemble a large battery in the library. Not surprisingly, the acid from the battery dripped onto the floor and started eating through the carpet. The whole building had to be evacuated as a HAZMAT team moved in to clean up the mess.
One of my favorite questions came from a young woman who desperately needed advice about how to bake delicious cookies to impress a new boyfriend. “Can I use a blender?” she asked. “I have a blender.” Oh, dear… After looking over the recipe she had selected, I gave her my tips and offered advice on suitable appliances to use. The next week, she returned to report on her success and express her heartfelt appreciation. Librarians do change lives! Ha, ha!
Kat Kan: “An Unconventional Library Visitor”
I was still an “emergency hire” librarian (month-to-month temporary hire) in Hawaii, my first library job after graduating from library school. I worked as a technician (paraprofessional) in the Arts, Music & Audiovisual Department of a public library. One afternoon while I was on duty at the reference desk, an older gentleman came out from behind the book stacks and proclaimed, “Young lady, there’s a cat in the stacks.” I started to giggle—it sounded so much like a Dr. Seuss rhyme—but he was very serious and took my hand. “Young lady, I’m not joking. There’s a cat in the stacks. Come and see.” So I walked over to the book shelves with him, and he pointed down; this was a double-sided shelf in the middle of the room. And there, on floor level, between the books, there was a little gray and black tabby kitten. I thanked the man, picked up the kitten, and called for one of my co-workers to bring a box for the kitten. After my shift, I called around to all the staff in the library that I thought might take a cat, but they all refused (most already had a cat, or multiple cats). We also had a cat at home, and a toddler; but I called my husband and asked if we could take the cat home. And that’s how we adopted Persephone, who lived with us for 20 years and traveled with us from Hawaii to Indiana to Michigan and then to Florida. She crossed the Rainbow Bridge 14 years ago, and I still miss her.
Paul Duckworth: “Analog Wikipedia”
Many years ago, before the Internet, I was staffing the reference desk at the main library where I had been employed for a few years. A colleague told me I had a “call on line 1.” I dutifully answered it and identified myself. Before I heard any voice on the other end, I detected the background noise of laughter, a song playing faintly, and muffled conversations. Then a man came on and asked me if I could settle a bet he had placed with his friend. They were at a bar and his request was important. He maintained that hummingbirds migrated from the southern United States across the Caribbean each year by hitching a ride on the backs of other (presumably larger and stronger) birds. Was he right, he asked me? I took down the number of the drinking establishment and assured him I would call him back shortly. Between chuckles, I wondered where in the world I could find a printed source that addressed whether or not this type of migratory behavior was utilized by hummingbirds. All the while, I restrained myself from phoning back and saying, “You idiot, of course they don’t hitch rides to migrate such a long distance. That’s absurd!” I quickly came to the conclusion that I was not going to find a printed source to refute his claim and so I needed to contact an expert. I called the local office of the state conservation department and found my answer. Then I called the patron back at the bar and broke the bad news to him. All in a day’s work—and never provide an answer without a reliable source to back it up!
Happy New Year from Brodart!
2 thoughts on “What is the weirdest thing you’ve encountered or had to do as a librarian?”
My most unusual questions (before the Internet, in the 1970s) were
1. How to lace up a football (I asked a football player for that)
2. How to make your own dog food–now lots of people do, but it wasn’t common back then.
Ah, the good old days. I haven’t gotten a bar bet in years.
Thanks for your comment! We are both pre-internet librarians. It was quite a different world in the 1970’s, eh? I am grateful to have had the opportunity to do reference work back then. I sometimes describe my early career to people as “I was the internet before there was an internet!”