Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Crazy Patrons Need Answers, Too

It’s not too often there’s a news article glorifying librarians that doesn’t involve tattoos, but the Wall Street Journal of all places published one about reference librarians being useful even with Google around.

If you are or know a good reference librarian, you might be able to get around the paywall, which is a skill that goes unmentioned in the article.

It’s a solid article that gives a good idea of the wide variety of general reference questions librarians get from the public, and also a good idea of how crazy the public is.

For example, one librarian “recalled a library patron who once asked her whether bar codes on store merchandise contained the Mark of the Beast, a symbol discussed in the Book of Revelation. ‘Um, no,’ she said.”

That’s a tricky one. Obviously the caller was crazy, but crazy people need answers, too. That’s why we have public libraries.

I do have to quibble with the librarian’s response, however. Is there a way to prove that barcodes don’t contain the Mark of the Beast? Can a reference librarian really give a definitive answer to that one?

Is it even possible to give an appropriate answer to that one? We can say that the inventor of the barcode wasn’t motivated to put the Mark of the Beast inside them.

Or can we? He says he drew some lines in the sand and was trying to solve the problem of a “distraught supermarket manager,” but that’s just the kind of thing the Beast would say to disguise its Mark.

My response would have been to hang up quickly, perform the sign of the cross over the telephone, and then sprinkle it in holy water and hope the caller didn’t call back until someone else had taken over.

Some librarians proactively respond to crazy, like the one who met a woman who “told him her teenage son had been seeing ghosts in their house…. He offered to research her neighborhood’s history to see if any past events might shed light on the apparitions.”

Reference librarian ghost hunters. I thought I’d seen everything.

Another librarian claims that “There’s no really stupid question,” which seems implausible. She then reports that a woman “recently called to ask whether the hurricanes she had been hearing about were fake news.”

That seems like a really stupid question to me. Where do you “hear about” hurricanes that such a question might occur to you? The local news? The Weather Channel?

How do people like that even get through the day alive? There’s a reference question I wish someone could answer.

That one may or may not be as stupid as another question from a woman who “woke up with a red blotch on her skin and wanted to know if it was in the shape of any meaningful symbol.”

The librarian gave her a book on symbology, which is as good a response as any besides backing away slowly, but the question is crazy. Even if her blotch was in the shape of a symbol, would it really be meaningful?

On the other hand,  maybe it was the Mark of the Beast. I tried to do a Google Image Search for that one and one of the first results was a barcode. If her blotch was the shape of a barcode, I take it all back.

But dealing with the crazy just shows that public libraries really are for everybody. When librarians get asked crazy questions, they respond equitably and professionally. Then they remember the questions for years and bring them up whenever they need a laugh. That way everyone benefits.

And Happy Thanksgiving!


Please note that new comments for all posts on this blog have been closed.


  1. anonymous coward says:

    It’s almost as if we have a mission to treat everyone equally as individuals regardless of their views, needs, or social status. Some might call that a form of professional neutrality.

  2. Just a quick nearly-end-of-the-year note to say how much I enjoy your blog. Maybe you don’t get enough notes that just say thanks for being there. <3

  3. *Slow clap of approval*

  4. bibliomancer says:

    I can’t tell you how many patrons have brought in the “my house is haunted; who has died there?” question. It is a staple of public libraries.

  5. Libertarian Librarian says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for those words of wisdom anonymous coward.

  6. As a Librarian, I’m cringing more by your use of the word “crazy”. If you care anything about mental illness, you would refrain from using such a word in articles like this. There are far better words to use to get your point across about these sort of patrons.

  7. I definitely understand your point of view re: vocabulary choices. That being said, as a librarian on the front lines of a public library branch in the inner city, we get our fair share of [untreated] mentally ill, homeless, emotionally disturbed, etc individuals, and to deal with all of it we tend to use some fairly harsh language privately among ourselves. It helps us in this branch to blow off steam – our frustration with their behaviors and with our broken mental healthcare system – in order to publicly show these people the respect and dignity they deserve as human beings.

    Of course we would never speak this way publicly, and maybe that’s the difference.

  8. Feels like everyone has had some question of bar codes being the sign of the beast. Ours was a student whose preacher told her she would be dammed if she carried an ID card that gad one. Easily fixed by issuing a card with just her name then just look up her name. But then there were all those books with barcodes that she could not touch. Still in all, I probably have learned some of my best life lessons from people who are a little different.

  9. We don’t get too many truly “crazy” patrons, but we do get those who are one step away from losing it that particular day and something as “small” as a malfunctioning printer or the inability to see that something needs to be downloaded before printing will put them over the edge. That’s when you go the extra few miles. I’ve held a lot of hands like this.

  10. AL makes a salient point in that librarians can wiggle around the paywall.

    our patrons find this assistance extremely valuable.

  11. The Mark of the Beast connection with barcodes likely doesn’t denote a crazy person, just a gullible one. Back in the 1970s a number of wildly improbably books about the Second Coming pointed to barcodes as the means by which everyone would be stamped with the Mark of the Beast (666), except, of course, for the faithful who would refuse the mark and suffer persecution. This is an example of charlatans influencing the gullible, not of craziness.

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