Librarians: ‘minds like detectives’

In this article from the Sheffield Telegraph and Daily Independent of 12 April 1939, an anonymous reporter challenges Sheffield’s professional librarians to answer some obscure questions – and loses comprehensively.  There is no proof but experience suggests that the idea came from the City Librarian, J P Lamb, who had an eye for publicity for his library service.

Of course, today Google will yield answers in a minute, although there seems to be uncertainty about Rock Day and its information on matildite is hard for the non-specialist to understand.  But consider what information professional Ned Potter suggests here – that Google and librarians don’t do the same things and there’s a place for both.

NOTHING TOO MUCH FOR SHEFFIELD’S LIBRARY SLEUTHS

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours trying to catch out a body of Sheffield people with minds like detectives – people who can trace anything, writes a “Telegraph and Independent” reporter.

You may find them in the reference departments of Sheffield Central Library.

Go and ask them anything, and they’ll tell you the answer.  I think they’d even find out the numbers of the proverbial sands of the seashore, if anyone really wanted to know.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

I had heard all about the efficiency of Sheffield librarians in answering the most out-of-the-way queries, and I decided – rather heartlessly, you may think – to give them an unofficial test.

Cunning Questions

So I armed myself with a list of varied and abstruse questions, cunningly designed to foil each one of the 75,000 reference books at the disposal of the detectives.

“If they answer two they’ll be lucky,” I thought, “and they won’t answer two so very quickly.”

So I went into the Reference Library with a sly smile and approached the desk set aside for enquiries.

“Can you tell me,” I said, the sly smile broadening, “who swayed about upon a horse and thought it was Pegasus?”

The gentleman to whom the question was addressed did not look at me as if I were a madman.  He was interested.  Here was an opportunity for a spot of really good Sherlock Holmes stuff.

This is how he tracked the quotation down.

Pegasus was mentioned in a Greek legend.  Right.  Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary.  He gets the dictionary, turns up Pegasus.  No luck.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Hot on the Scent

It might refer to some incident in a book.  So Brewer’s “Reader’s Handbook,” Baker’s “Guide to the Best Fiction” and other books of reference are consulted.  Still no clue.

Then various concordances are tried.  In Keats’s concordance are found the words: “And thought it was Pegasus.” Hot on the scent now.

Keats’ “Sleep and Poetry” is turned up.   In it is the passage:

with a puling infant’s force

They swayed about upon a horse

And thought it was Pegasus.

From the context the reference was obviously to eighteenth century poets, and one of my most deadly questions had gone down the drain – all in a quarter of an hour.

“Rock Day” and Why

Badly shaken, I returned to the attack with “When is Rock Day, and how did it get its name?”

My hopes rose.  I began to think I had won this time.  An examination of encyclopaedias, dictionaries, indexes to names, calendars, and even Chambers’s “Book of Days” revealed nothing.

Then they tried a dictionary of archaic words.  A long shot, but it came off.  It was found that “rock,” besides its usual meaning, was formerly a synonym for spinning wheel.

Spinning wheel?  Distaff.  Distaff Day?

And under Distaff Day in Smith’s Encyclopaedia of names was the following entry:-

Distaff Day.  7th of January, so called because on that day the women who have the Christmas festival till Twelfth Day (the 6th) return to their distaffs or ordinary work.  As a distaff is also called a rock it is likewise called “Rock Day.”

“Very good,” I admitted.  “But I haven’t nearly finished with you yet.  What is the correct word to describe a government of old men?”

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Gerontocracy

My heart secretly rejoiced when Roget’s Thesaurus afforded no help, but I was foiled again by the best bit of detective work of the whole day.

Democracy, aristocracy, theocracy are all derived from Greek roots, the officials argued.  Therefore it was likely that the word required, being of kindred meaning, would be formed in the same way.

So a Greek dictionary was consulted for the word “old man.”  This was “geron.”  Then a reference to the Oxford Dictionary brought to light the word “gerontocracy,” which had the required meaning.

I went into the Science and Technology Library to recover….

It was just the same in appearance – neat rows of books, spaciously designed, a counter for inquiries, assistants ready to go to any trouble to help you.

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Carving from the Central Library entrance

Trump Card

Here I wanted to know what matildite was.

Reference to chemical dictionaries, technical encyclopaedias and general chemical texts supplied no information, but the construction of the word – ending in “ite” – suggested the possibility of its being a mineral, and reference to Dana’s “System of Mineralogy” substantiated this, giving analysis, occurrence and other details.

So I returned to the Reference Library (where they must hate the sight of me, by the way) to play my trump card.

“What place in Wales has the longest name?” I asked leering hideously.

But it was no use.  True, guide books of Wales failed to give any information on that point, but Walsh’s “Handy Book of Curious Information” did.

The answer is Llanfairpwllgynggyllgogerpwllllandypilwgogo. (All right, there’s no need to laugh.)

“And how do you pronounce it?” I said.

They told me.

I went away a beaten man.

Experience Counts

But in all seriousness, Sheffield reference libraries are as efficient as it is possible for reference libraries to be.  The fact that the officials found answers to questions as unusual as I set them proves that.

A wealth of record books is there, but it is only through the skill of an expert staff that they are able to give up their information; in the same way as the most magnificent of motor-cars cannot give the best results unless it is driven by a man who knows it inside out.

The libraries’ staff do not rely on catalogues to any great extent.  Their experience has equipped them to go to the right reference books without any trouble.

“The best catalogue is an intelligent staff and a gradual building up of a unique knowledge of books,” Mr. J. P. Lamb, Sheffield’s Chief Librarian, told me.

It is to his credit that he has gathered around him such a staff, and sources of information which could supply the greatest scholar in the land with the answer to any question he cared to put.

 

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