The Varieties of Travel Experience   /   Summer 2024   /    Notes & Comments

The Department of Everything

Dispatches from the telephone reference desk.

Stephen Akey

THR illustration; a reference desk in a Michigan library, 1980s,

How do you find the life expectancy of a California condor? Google it. Or the gross national product of Morocco? Google it. Or the final resting place of Tom Paine? Google it. There was a time, however—not all that long ago—when you couldn’t Google it or ask Siri or whatever cyber equivalent comes next. You had to do it the hard way—by consulting reference books, indexes, catalogs, almanacs, statistical abstracts, and myriad other printed sources. Or you could save yourself all that time and trouble by taking the easiest available shortcut: You could call me.

From 1984 to 1988, I worked in the Telephone Reference Division of the Brooklyn Public Library. My seven or eight colleagues and I spent the days (and nights) answering exactly such questions. Our callers were as various as New York City itself: copyeditors, fact checkers, game show aspirants, journalists, bill collectors, bet settlers, police detectives, students and teachers, the idly curious, the lonely and loquacious, the park bench crazies, the nervously apprehensive. (This last category comprised many anxious patients about to undergo surgery who called us for background checks on their doctors.) There were telephone reference divisions in libraries all over the country, but this being New York City, we were an unusually large one with an unusually heavy volume of calls. And if I may say so, we were one of the best. More than one caller told me that we were a legend in the world of New York magazine publishing.

“How do you people know all this stuff?” a caller once asked me. “What are you, some kind of scholars or wordsmiths or something?”

“No,” I replied. “Just us libarians.”

Actually, we didn’t know all that stuff; we just knew how to find it. I myself rarely remembered any of the facts I divulged to our callers, but I remembered the reference sources where I found the facts. Personal knowledge was inadmissible. I could reel off by heart the names of the four Dead Boys (Cheetah Chrome, Stiv Bators, Jimmy Zero, and Johnny Blitz—but didn’t everyone know that?), but unless I could track them down and—rule number one—cite the source (in this case, probably the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll), I had no information to impart and no answer to give to anyone who might need that information for whatever reason. But we almost always found the right source.

The progenitor and enforcer of rule number one was our department head, whose managerial style recalled that of Vince Lombardi, if Vince Lombardi had had no interest in football. I do wish Milo had been a tad less heavy-handed; he tended to reduce unsatisfactory initiates to tears before driving them from the department for keeps. Nevertheless, his grinding relentlessness, which often entailed instructions barked into one ear while one’s other ear might be dealing with a difficult and demanding caller, was in the service of professionalism and competence—necessary qualities in a small, claustrophobic office where the pressure from our backlog of callers never let up.

“Are you that nice young man who always goes out of his way to find me exactly the answers I need to the questions I ask?” a caller once asked me as a prelude to her inquiry.

“Doesn’t sound like me,” I said.

There was always psychology involved. In this case, the caller thought that by flattering me she might induce me to break or bend our rule of five minutes or three questions max, which we routinely disregarded anyway. The opposite psychological ploys—bullying, intimidating, insulting, threatening—were far more common. Contrary to the popular perception of librarianship as a serene, leisurely vocation for the bookishly inclined, the Telephone Reference Division was a high-stress environment, and most staffers, myself included, burned out within a few years. Now that reference librarianship is a shadow of its former self, psychological gamesmanship rarely takes place. You look up your information in a bland, seemingly (seemingly) trustworthy source like Wikipedia, and that’s that. Librarians have other things to do, principally programming a never-ending stream of ostentatiously unlibrary-like events, but none will ever be so interesting or so much fun as the kind of thing we did in Telephone Reference before the Internet swept it all away.

Did Charon row or pole the souls of the dead across the River Styx? Can you give me the names and addresses of manufacturers of prosthetic devices in Massachusetts? Where are the manuscripts of the composer Marc Blitzstein to be found? (The person asking that question, much to the excitement of my balletomane boss Milo, identified herself as a certain Agnes de Mille.) What was the first language ever spoken? (“Anywhere? At any time?” I asked the caller. “Yes,” she replied, before I suggested that we might try to reformulate the question.) On and on it went. Of course, what we were doing, millions of others were doing on their own without the intercession of any librarian. All of us were negotiating an informational world without algorithmic search engines. Although I hang on to some battered dictionaries and reference books, I resort to Google as readily as anyone else. Undoubtedly, much more has been gained than lost in the transformation of laborious research into something immediate, accessible, and available to everyone. Still, a world that has tossed out the scholarly, comprehensive, and authoritative print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in favor of the colorless, death-by-a-thousand-edits mediocrity of Wikipedia is not necessarily a richer one.

Even without my nostalgia for certain antiquated and specialized reference books (Kane’s Famous First Facts, the Encyclopedia of Associations, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable), I do think certain advantages accrued to analog ways of gathering information. The many hundreds of reference sources that we were trained to use in Telephone Reference had their biases, their blind spots, their inaccuracies. In the apprenticeship each of us endured under Milo’s exhausting tutelage before getting anywhere near a telephone, we learned not merely how to find information but how to think about finding information. Don’t take anything for granted; don’t trust your memory; look for the context; put two and three and four sources together, if necessary. Sometimes it was difficult to communicate such variables to our callers, who just wanted a quick answer rather than a disquisition on the mistaken assumption that the transmission of information was a straightforward matter. How many laundromats were owned and operated by women in California and Oregon in the 1930s? To answer that question, someone would have had to gather and compile that information at the time, and there was no reason to believe that anyone would have thought to do so. Maybe some obscure state agency did tabulate all those female laundromat owners and I simply fumbled an answerable inquiry, but if so, that agency would have been thinking like a gender-conscious individual from the 1980s rather than a government bureaucracy from the 1930s.

“Think like a librarian,” Milo used to urge us, which might sound less impressive than “Think like a philosopher,” “Think like a psychologist,” or even “Think like a lawyer,” but it did make the point that information wasn’t given, that it had to be actively sought. Once, a student called asking for book titles that might help her with her assigned topic on the pros and cons of marriage. The Library of Congress subject heading “marriage” was too broad to be of much use, and the subheadings in various library catalogs weren’t much better. But remembering James Thurber and E.B. White’s Is Sex Necessary?, I reasoned that there might well be a book on the pros and cons of marriage with an analogous title. Sure enough, Is Marriage Necessary? did turn up as a title in our catalog, and I was able to start the student on her way to a bibliography—nothing special, but our work was full of wonderful, nothing-special moments. Far more impressive was the ingenuity of a colleague who supplied a patron with the names of Korean massage parlors in the Gramercy Park area (yes, someone asked) by combing the Manhattan white pages for names (Oriental Health Spa, Rising Sun Health Club) of likely establishments on and around East Twenty-Third Street. Ours was not to reason why.

Although our purview was “ready reference,” we did spend a considerable amount of time suggesting avenues of research for callers in need of more than confirmation of a fact or two. New York City had a wealth of research institutions and academic libraries; it was our business to know as much about them as possible, including which ones welcomed and which discouraged outside researchers, and which ones might be willing to take a phone call. Yes, it might have been nice to work in such an institution, but I had spent the previous two years cataloging learned periodicals at the New York Public Library on Forty-Second Street, and my colleagues at the reference desk in the august reading room on the third floor told me that at least half of their questions had to do with the location of the nearest bathroom. In Tel Ref, we too had a surfeit of humdrum directional questions (What time do you close tonight? How much do I owe for my overdue books? Does Tom work there?), which, in theory, we answered with the same care and diligence as the more challenging questions. In either case, we were to speak clearly, carefully, and—ideally—in complete sentences. The answer wasn’t “eight o’clock”—that might leave some confusion. The answer was “The main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza is open tonight until eight o’clock.” Just because callers spoke with imprecision, that didn’t mean we could. I still speak in complete sentences whenever I can.

A certain esprit de corps facilitated the work and even diffused tensions in that pressure cooker of an office. I knew a lot about rock-and-roll and spoke Spanish. Aaron had a law degree and took all the questions about legal research that stumped us. (He also dispensed free legal advice on occasion, until Milo put a stop to it.) Milo knew theater; Paul was francophone; Kathleen knew movies and pop culture. (Our preferences skewed arty left-of-center, which was inevitable in our milieu.) Sometimes we worked backward, pooling what we already knew to find the reference sources that would confirm (and occasionally contradict) the foregone conclusion. Another rule: Don’t hide your ignorance. There was no Google to cover up the gaps in our knowledge. Sally Jessy Raphael might have been the prime minister of New Zealand or she might have been an exceedingly unctuous talk show host. Unless I asked who she was (the latter, not the former), I wouldn't know the best sources to check to find her place of birth. As expected, the caller who asked about Ms. Raphael spent a certain amount of time insulting me for my ignorance, but she got her answer.

Many of our callers were historical novelists. Some of them identified themselves as such, but it was usually obvious even when they didn’t. They tended to ask questions like “What time was low tide in Boston Harbor on May 14, 1932?”

If today I were writing a historical novel set in the 1980s, I might ask, “How did people find information in those days?” There would no longer be any telephone reference librarians to help me, so I’d have to trust to luck—and a search engine—and answer that question myself: They used logic, inference, imagination, and a tall pile of reference books.