An anecdote, and thinking about people as reference sources

I was listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young‘s “Ohio” the other morning, and it reminded me of one of my favorite anecdotes. My apologies if you know me and I’ve regaled you with this one before:

When I was in my senior year in high school, I was working on a paper and needed to know whether the Kent State shootings had happened in 1969 or 1970. I knew I could have looked it up somewhere – an encyclopedia, probably, though I was unsure whether the event would have been included in an encyclopedia1 – but I was a lazy 17-year-old. I was sitting in my school library at the time, and looking at the librarian, I figured she was probably about the right age to have been alive and paying attention at the time, so I walked over and asked her.

“Excuse me, I was wondering if you happened to know whether the Kent State shootings happened in 1969 or 1970. If you don’t know, that’s fine, I’ll just look it up, but I thought it’d be faster just to ask.”

“It was in 1970,” she replied.

The anecdote doesn’t end there, but I’ll pause it here to talk about what I did, and how I was thinking about it this afternoon.

So what I realized this afternoon, was that even at 17, I was a pretty savvy information-seeker. I knew where I could find the information I needed, but I also knew that it might be a lengthier and somewhat frustrating search, especially with the resources available to me at my high school library, than I would ideally prefer. I also knew that all I needed was the year (this is important), so precise recall wasn’t necessary; if the librarian I was talking to could just remember roughly when it happened, that was good enough. So that’s pretty interesting.

But it also got me thinking about how often we do (or don’t) use other people as reference sources. Oh, sure, we refer students to other offices on campus when appropriate, or we call up other offices to find out, for example, whether the dorm beds are regular-twin-sized or XL-twin-sized. But how often do we call someone up or stick our head into someone’s office and say, “hey, do you happen to remember what the capital of Zimbabwe is?”

My husband teaches English literature at Saint Mary’s, and he taught a course last semester on Literature of the Environment. As an early assignment, he gave the students a take-home quiz where they had to answer questions like, “what species of trees line the main avenue into campus?” and “what, if anything, is done to manage the migratory population of Canada geese on campus?” and “where is there a stand of walnut trees on campus, and does anyone harvest the nuts?”

Since he’s married to me, and he knows that questions like this give reference librarians fits, he was careful to give us a copy of the assignment in advance, and to emphasize that while some of the questions could potentially be answered with traditional reference sources, many were better answered (and some could only be answered) by talking with members of the campus community, and that we should absolutely not hesitate to make appropriate referrals.2 Part of the point of the assignment was to get students thinking about who knows what about the local environment on campus, and how little of that information is preserved in traditional sources.

So all that’s interesting and got me thinking a bit today. But here’s the end of the anecdote:

The librarian looked me in the eye and said, “It was May 4, 1970. I was there.”


So I sat and talked with her for a long time that day, hearing what it had been like from her perspective. I wish I could remember, now, more of what she told me. She talked in detail about the geography of the campus, where she’d been standing, where the National Guard troops had been, and I don’t remember any of that, just that she said it had been chaotic and terrifying, and that the troops had been the same age as the students, some even younger.

What are the odds that I’d’ve walked into any library in the country and found someone with that knowledge? Now granted, I went to a fairly unusual high school, but I still realized that I’d encountered a unique slice of oral history that day.

And that’s the other thing I think is really valuable about using people as reference sources: you sometimes get way more information than you expected, and that can be a really meaningful exchange for both parties.


  1. I was in high school before the internet. No, really. Okay, it existed, but it hadn’t progressed further than NSFNET by the time I graduated. There, now you know pretty much how old I am.
  2. To his credit, he also warned the appropriate members of the campus community, like the Grounds Department and the bird specialist in the Biology Department, that they might be temporarily besieged by questions from his class.


  1. Posted February 3, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    It’s amazing how easy it is to forget that the people around us are all information experts; all we have to do is ask them the right questions. Still, it’s amazing that you asked the exact right person the exact right question.

    We’re just beginning to create virtual networks based on expertise; it will be interesting to see how these develop – for instance, if the local environment/grounds experts on a campus get included as subject specialists. They should be.

    Good post!

  2. Posted February 3, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Permalink

    I’m with ahniwa, it’s easy to forget human sources.

    Before I became a public librarian, I was a reporter and accordingly I used human sources constantly.

    When people come to us for information on say organic gardening, I try to remember to give them the phone for our local extension agent as well as taking them to the 635s.

  3. Posted February 5, 2009 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    That’s _exactly_ the strength of something like Twitter as an informational tool. And the reason its the first place I got these days for non-googleable info.

  4. Catherine
    Posted February 5, 2009 at 8:19 pm | Permalink

    Hey, thanks for the comments, folks. You’ve brought up some good points, which have caused me to think of two other points relating to people as reference sources:

    First of all, institutional memory. A huge part of “people as reference sources” is knowing who to ask about a particular question. I’ve worked in two libraries, one of which has an incredible institutional memory, and the other of which didn’t. How do you build institutional memory at a place that doesn’t have it?

    And the second point goes to Jason’s comment about querying the hive-mind on Twitter: I agree, and I’ve seen it work fabulously well for Jason and others who are widely followed. But it really depends on your being a much-followed person. I was about to write that I doubted that any query that I’d pose to Twitter was likely to get any kind of wide response, but just this afternoon I tossed out an off-the-cuff tweet that got a remarkable variety of replies. So maybe I’m more of a rockstar than I give myself credit for. 😉 (Or, maybe I just have to come up with more provocative tweets!)

  5. Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    I have a public library staff member who is so good at this sort of thing, I’ve encouraged her to start a database of people in our community who have specialized knowledge about particular subjects.