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Why Librarians Are Natural Born Detectives


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Many a mystery novel featuring an amateur sleuth places a librarian in that role. With good reason—outside of law enforcement, no profession lends itself to the role of detective more readily. Librarianship requires a combination of temperament and education that produces a professional with a powerful curiosity and the skill set to satisfy it, no matter how obscure the fact we seek. Though often written off as unassuming, cardigan-wearing bookworms, our jobs require traits more often associated with our hard-boiled colleagues in the investigation business.

We do good research. Go ahead—try us. But be warned: strolling up to the reference desk and prefacing your question with “You probably can’t find this, but…” is going directly to the Triple Dog Dare. You will not get off lightly. You might get lucky and encounter a librarian who prefers readers’ advisory, a group who can name any title with one keyword and the color of the cover. These librarians will locate the required fact, recommend some related reading, and send you on your way. Or you may end up with someone who lives to ferret out obscure bits of information. Team Ferret will not be content with the simple response above. They will instead do a deep dive into whatever informational rabbit hole seems most promising, emerge with a comprehensive response to your question, provide a list of verified, citable sources, and offer to procure the original material for you from a small library in northwestern Montana through the miracle of interlibrary loan. Perhaps your question is something you feel should be simple, yet the internet has produced nothing you can use. We have the patience and skill to navigate those clunky database search interfaces and provide you with peer-reviewed information. Possibly your question is of a more personal nature—you’d like to have a look at the last will and testament of your late Great-Uncle Moneybags. We can tell you where to go to find it, because we know that not everything is on the web, and that sometimes you have to snoop the old-fashioned way—in person.

We are good at extracting information. The reference interview is a study in the art of indirect interrogation. Not asking “Why?” or “What for?” are cardinal rules. So when the regular patron known to have issues with his noisy neighbors asks for information on extracting cyanide from peach pits, we do not ask. We presume that last week’s experiment with the homemade potato cannon was not satisfactory, and begin our research. Asking if the patron has a peach tree in the yard, or if he needs to know how much fruit to buy is an acceptable question, as is “Will you need a list of necessary equipment?” in case he doesn’t have a chemistry lab set up at home. Whether to volunteer the information that using apricot pits might be more efficient is up to the individual librarian. This roundabout questioning and attentive listening can elicit a great deal of information, often more than we’d like to hear. For the librarian/detective, hearing that the patron’s in –laws believe them responsible for the death of their spouse and why, or how the local doctor is under investigation for malpractice can be useful. The rest of us don’t want to see your rash or hear your latest conspiracy theory, but will be glad to direct you to a source of information on either.

We are discreet. Patron privacy is paramount. What you read or research is nobody’s business but your own as long you’re not breaking the law or library policy while you’re on the premises. What is discussed at the reference desk stays at the reference desk. This emphasis on privacy extends to all library staff, regardless of the type of library or the nature of the work. Archivists are often required to determine subject headings for materials that, per their creators, cannot be publicly accessed until a specific period of time has passed. They examine the content and keep quiet about it. Whether we are scanning books for check out, answering questions, or organizing memoirs for future generations, patron secrets are safe with us. Attempting to bribe us with fresh baked goods or free drinks will get you nowhere, though we encourage you to try.

We are not easily fazed. Perhaps during our first year out of library school the sight of a toddler vomiting on our only functioning self-checkout machine will distress us, but by year two we won’t even blink. That light fixture that periodically shoots blue flames and smoke no matter how often we call Facilities? No problem. We can rattle off book recommendations while sprinting to throw the breaker. The Bookmobile decides it can’t go on and creates an enormous oil slick in the parking lot? Not to worry—we’ve got a form for that. And then there’s That Patron, who spends Saturdays washing down their diazepam with a fifth of vodka and then comes in for new library books. At least they don’t keel over every week, and when they do, we know which of the other Saturday regulars work in the ER down the street and can lend a hand while we call 911.

Put in this context, figuring out who the village murderer is can be managed while brewing our next cup of tea. Should a corpse turn up in the library, we are happy to leave it to the police, but are prepared to step in and solve the crime if necessary.

So while it may be true that we librarians prefer to spend our work days selecting and recommending books, and our time off knitting, planning our next tattoo, going to beer yoga or roller derby practice, or sitting at home reading with only our pets and a martini for company, be assured that our inner detectives are at the ready. There are many in our ranks who will admit that the most useful things we know come from working in a library, and the rest come from reading crime fiction.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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