It was late in the evening and the caller was desperate. Could someone find out if an American president had ever had a pet raccoon named Rebecca?
Of course someone could. This was the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Telephone Reference Service. In a minute, a staffer picked out Ruthven Tremain's "The Animals' Who's Who," one of approximately 1,000 reference volumes the TRS keeps on hand for just such occasions, and found this entry on page 215:
"REBECCA, a raccoon, was sent to President Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) by some constituents in Mississippi, supposedly to be served for Thanksgiving dinner. Coolidge, one of the great pet lovers among American Presidents, named her and had a pen built for her near his office. In the evenings, he would take Rebecca for a walk on a leash. . . ."
"We got that question just last night," says Cynthia Bender, 38, assistant head of the Pratt's General Information Department. She gave a slight smile. "And you know, it's not really all that unusual a question for us."
Over in the Pratt's Maryland Department, administrative zTC assistant Jeffrey Korman tells of a recent caller from Santa Clara, Calif., who wanted help in a genealogy project that was intended as a Christmas present.
The man was putting together a family history and knew that the old Baltimore News had run a photo of a set of twins in 1905: They were the 13th set of twins born in the city that year, and were dubbed "the lucky 13."
The man was sure that those twins were family members, but he needed a look at the photograph. Could the Pratt help?
No problem, Mr. Korman assured him. He found the article, made a photocopy and sent it on.
For many patrons of the Pratt, the rows of books that fill its shelves are not the only lure. It's also a place where inquiring minds can find out about the obscure, the arcane, even the bizarre.
Established in 1967 as part of the General Information Desk, the Telephone Reference Service fields about 150,000 questions a year, Ms. Bender says.
Three staffers are on call beginning at 10 in the morning. Four answer in the afternoon. Two work the phones for the popular Night Owl Service, which is in operation until 11:45 p.m. weeknights and often is the last resort for the curious before they turn in for the night. Ms. Bender said that only two other library systems in the country -- in Berkeley, Calif., and Arlington, Ill. -- offer a similar service.
"Right now," she says, "we're getting a lot of seasonal calls -- people writing Christmas cards who need ZIP Codes, or addresses in Baltimore and other cities."
It's not unusual, she says, for a staffer to take a call from a youngster needing help with homework, then to settle a barroom bet, then to answer a question on grammar from a secretary typing a business letter.
TRS staffers get a three-week training course before tackling the phones.
"It can be a pretty scary feeling," Ms. Bender concedes. "Most of us are nervous for the first six months -- you get questions on just about everything."
A walk through the service's reference library is an humbling experience.
Every imaginable kind of reference book seems to be on hand -- several hundred of the most commonly used are placed on a tall, revolving bookshelf called "the wheel." There are rows of out-of-town telephone books, bound government documents, several kinds of dictionaries, sets of encyclopedias. Sheaves of recent newspaper stories are tacked onto a bulletin board.
There are few questions that TRS staffers won't attempt to answer. "We're asked to give medical and legal opinions all the time, which we can't do," Ms. Bender says. "But we don't discriminate -- a question is a question."
These include such inquiries as "Are Ed Sullivan and Humphrey Bogart brothers?" "Does a giraffe have two brains?" "Do you know the words to 'Silent Night' in Hawaiian?" "Do you have a book that tells you how to switch a tattoo from one arm to the other?"
All these and more are included in the TRS' unofficial hall of fame -- a small, diary-like book in which staffers record the creme de la creme of questions from the public.
Occasionally, there's a stumper.
Last month, someone called to ask, "Can you tell me how the British pronounced the word 'victory' in 1775?"
The answer is no. There is the way it is presently said, which is something like "vikteri," as given by the Oxford English Dictionary. "There's no record of another pronunciation," said Faye Houston, assistant head of the humanities department. Some questions have no answers.
More than books
Of the 736,014 residents of Baltimore, 375,000 are card-carrying members of the Pratt Library. Its services range from books and readings and rooms for children, to an Afro-American Collection, a Jobs and Career Center and a program to teach adults to read.
For help, call one of three numbers:
* 342-1539, for the literacy program, Broadway branch.
* 396-5494, public relations department, for policy and administrative questions.
* 396-5430, information services, for any other question about anything.