One of the things I like about the public library is that many of the questions we answer are relevant to people’s lives. The information they are looking for is important to them; it matters. Ideas are also important, but these questions move past ideas and into reality; practical application of ideas, not just speculation. It’s one reason I enjoy it more than my academic work.
Mostly, these are easy questions. We are one of the last free resources in the community, so the questions can be about resource availability. Legal forms are in high demand: leases, wills and contracts are some of the bigger interest areas. Simple forms that can be photocopied out of self-help law books give peace of mind for a dime, well within our patrons’ budgets. Lawyers, in general, are not.
Car manuals are another big draw. The individual volumes from the manufacturers can cost three hundred dollars each. We have car manuals that go back to the 1940s, covered with greasy fingerprints that are decades old. I like to see them - I know that they are really fulfilling their purpose when they are decorated like that. (You can also tell which models have needed the most repairs over the years…)
Do-it-yourself people have many characteristics in common. They are usually resourceful, efficient and don't give up. Usually these traits are a good thing. Trying to do car repair at the desk, however, isn't the most effective use of those energies.
An older man in blue shop clothes like my grandpa used to wear came in, black grease in the creases of his hands. He had a shop manual from the library in his hand, opened to the page he had been using. It looked like he came straight from under the car.
"Young lady, I need a more detailed diagram of this piece," he said. "I am taking the brakes apart and I got to this piece right here," (dirty fingernail pointing to impossibly tiny graphic) "and I can't tell what the shape of that thing is."
Hmm. I try the CD-ROM diagram database - no luck. Chilton's is usually more general, but I check anyway. No help there.
"I'm sorry, sir. We don't have anything more detailed. You already have the manufacturer's manual."
"If I can't see the shape, I can't tell what tool I need to get it off. Look here, what do you think? It slaps right up against this part."
He pulled a large, rusted, dirty round thing out of his large, dirty pocket and thumped it on the desk.
I peered at it as though I were actually thinking something besides, "Man, have you asked the wrong person about THIS," and said thoughtfully, "Sir, I'm sorry. I have no idea."
He kept on, perservering do-it-yourselfer that he was. "See, it hooks on right here." Poke, poke. More dirt and rust flaked off.
"Yes, I see." He poked it again and peered at it. "So what do you think I should use?"
Me? "I'm sorry, sir. I don't know."
He finally looked at me, perhaps seeing me for the first time. Middle-aged, rounding, slacks and jacket. Something sank in.
"You don't know, do you?"
I SAID that.
He laughed. "I'll tell you what," he said. "I'll call my son-in-law. He's probably worked on more cars than you have."
I said, "If you'd like to bet money on that, sir, you'll win." He laughed, packed up his part and walked out.
Practical? Relevant? Only if you remember that I specialize in information, not experience.