Reference: It's never a dull moment

Below are reference stories shared by our QuestionPoint community. If you have an interesting question and want to share your experience, tell us about it!

A better answer

A chat session is often much more than answering a question. It’s a teaching moment. To show the way. Even just talking with a librarian can boost someone’s confidence to dig deeper for resources (and ask more questions), which ultimately, gets to a better answer.

What are the pros and cons of animal cloning?

Answer: Actually, this chat didn’t get to an answer. The discussion focused on the research path. Paul’s goal was to fill in the gaps and broaden the patron’s research horizons. Some resources included .gov and .org websites, and Paul also introduced him to interlibrary loan. The patron was surprised that not only were print resources relevant, but he could get them from libraries well beyond his county. (Lesson about better research and the value of the library. Check!)

Source: Various sources including:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Animal Cloning website 

The Mouse Genomes Project  

Opposing viewpoint books suggested for interlibrary loan


Paul Chasen

Statewide Coordinator, Maryland AskUsNow!
Enoch Pratt Free Library/Maryland State Library Resource Center

QuestionPoint member library
“At the time, I was relatively new to reference, especially virtual reference. I cherished student questions because they were trying to find out who could help them with their research beyond the teachers, family and peers. I refer back to this chat experience often. I continue to believe students may be reluctant at first, but they truly do want to become information literate, and apply the chat experience on their own later.”

Love the question

You answer a lot of questions. And while most are interesting, there are the gems that make digging for answers especially fun. These are the questions that add to your personal knowledge base, otherwise known as your reference librarian super power. Because who else can wow dinner guests with the latest flower trends, how to grow potatoes and even the history of pillows? (We see you smiling!)

Do you have information about the evolution and production of pillows?

Answer: From carved wood in ancient Egypt to feather-stuffed cloth in Roman times, pillows have had many varieties. But while they’ve been around in some form or another forever it seems, mass production didn’t begin until the 1900s. And the evolution of pillows continues today. It’s highly likely that what you lay your head down to rest on differs from your neighbor!

Source: Various sources including:

Russian periodicals database. (Titles referenced include: Good Pillow Rules, Usage of Pillows in Old Days and Origin of the Word Pillow.*)

Russian State Library OPAC. (Titles referenced include: "Evolutionary History: Traditions and Habits of Ancient Greeks" and "Everyday life in Ancient Rome."*)

*Translated from Russian.



Evgeniya Naydina

Head of Reference & QP Administrator
Russian State Library

QuestionPoint member library

“I’ve worked for the library for 35 years. I spent 10 years in circulation and then switched to reference service, and a new world opened to me! Since then, I’ve enjoyed communicating with patrons, sharing my experience and getting questions—serious, funny, difficult or even strange ones. When looking for an answer, I feel like a skillful pilot of information oceans helping patrons to find a right way.”

When a trail runs cold

Genealogical questions can be fascinating. But verifying the facts is often difficult. And with very specific questions and limited resources, it's likely an impossible task for a short reference session. The next best thing? Provide guidance for further research!

Did my grandmother become a U.S. citizen and did she retain her German citizenship?

Answer: In many cases, the answers to these kinds of questions can be found on a person’s death certificate or other legal documents. And although the United States allows dual citizenship, that’s not the case for all countries. So, another good place to start might be the embassy of the other country to verify the laws and ask for additional resources.

Source: Various online sources including:
Pennsylvania GenWeb*
Montgomery County Recorder of Deeds*

*Specific to this answer.

Jennifer Hoey

Jennifer Hoey

Reference Librarian
Montgomery County-Norristown Public Library

QuestionPoint member library
“Sometimes reference questions provide instant answers, others need more research and then there are ones (like this one) that the only thing you can do is provide guidance about where to look for the information or better leads that might get to an answer. In this case, we found her death certificate; but unfortunately, the coroner didn’t fill out the area that indicates immigration status.”

Clarification is key

Every reference librarian has had a question that stopped them cold. You know the one … where your immediate instinct is to call the authorities, and to do anything but ask more questions. These are the moments when a calm and collected librarian becomes a superhero. A few on-point clarifying questions and a seemingly odd reference request transforms into an opportunity to advise.

What should I do if I find a dead body?

Answer: This is a complicated question as the answer differs depending on the circumstances. However, most sources advise a call to 911 to report the death, unless the person is under hospice care, in which case you could call the hospice or specific contact you’ve been given.

Source: Various online sources including:
Consumer Reports


Cynthia Dennis

Information Specialist
Baltimore County Public Library
Maryland AskUsNow!

QuestionPoint member library
“I remember thinking that I want to help, but don’t want to be an accessory to a crime! My heart was racing as I picked up the call. But very quickly, my inner librarian voice kicked in and said: ‘Wait! Ask some clarifying questions. Maybe it isn’t what you think.’ So, I asked if they found a dead body just now or was this a hypothetical question. Turns out, she had a very ill family member, and was worried about what to do when they passed away.”

Keep an open mind

Reference librarians often move fast to get every question answered. So, when things get hectic, it might be tempting to jump to conclusions about a question. But skipping the all-important reference interview could lead to some unintended misunderstandings.

Do you have the “I Have a Dream” song?

Answer: You think they’re asking about the speech, right? Well, unless you’re a fan of the Broadway hit “Mamma Mia” or you grew up in the 70s, you may not know that along with a very famous “I Have a Dream” speech, there’s also a not-so-well-known Abba song of the same name. Released as a single in 1979, the song was a hit in the United Kingdom, but didn’t make the charts in the United States.

Source: Various online sources


Katie Coon Hamilton

Reference & Instruction Librarian
Martin Luther King Jr. Library

QuestionPoint member library
"It’s important to have an open mind and willingness to listen when doing reference. You can’t assume or jump to conclusions; it takes practice to ask the right questions. Also, a positive attitude, patience and a smile go a long way!”

Gesundheit! snore!

When librarians work reference, they never know what they’re going to get. And sometimes questions come from other librarians. The only thing that’s guaranteed is that they’ll learn something new when it’s all said and done.

Do humans sneeze when they sleep?

Answer: We do not sneeze while sleeping. When we’re in REM sleep, many parts of the body slow down or in some cases shut down, and this includes motor neurons that don’t send signals to the brain. When you do sneeze, your body wakes you up first.

Source: Science Illustrated


Emilee L. Waldo

Reference Librarian
New Castle Public Library

QuestionPoint member library
"Internal customers are just as important as the external ones, and I’m pleased that my co-workers feel comfortable coming to me with their own personal reference questions.”