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Where there are no stupid questions County librarians answer record 1.7 million queries from confiding patrons


For a lesson in the zany, check out some of the record 1.7 million questions answered by the Baltimore County public library system in the past fiscal year:

What is the recipe for orange juice?

Is Euthanasia a country?

Are Julius Caesar and Sid Caesar brothers?

Does "au pair" mean naked?

Lynn Lockwood, coordinator of information and marketing for the library, smiles continually as she recounts the questions.

So does Sally Stanhope, assistant director of the Towson branch library, who recalls the story of a thin, gray-haired man who wandered its aisles before timidly approaching an aide who was shelving books.

"Do you have 'How to Satisfy a Woman Every Time'?" he whispered.

"He was like many of our patrons. They don't want to ask certain questions in front of other people," she said, laughing.

"It's a study in human nature," Ms. Lockwood said.

There are 120 librarians in the 15 county branches answering sane and less-than-sane questions every day -- an average of 14,167 questions per librarian in the fiscal year that ended June 30 -- and making a serious to effort to handle every one.

The 1.7 million questions were 34,000 more than the old record, set in the previous year, a county spokesman said.

"We don't make judgments, we just answer the questions," Ms. Lockwood said, "and we treat people very gently. The library is safe for the ego. We're going to treat you right."

The image of the librarian, spectacles on the tip of her nose, her hair in a bun and a finger to her lips, is long gone.

Librarians are walking computers in warm bodies.

"We have a huge glut of information, and we have to sift through a lot of material to find the best source for the information," Ms. Lockwood said. "It's a fascinating job."

There's a continuing problem with the human element.

"People often don't ask for what they really want," Ms. Lockwood said, "and we have to dig it out of them.

"They'll ask for a book on diseases and won't say what specific disease until you're on the way to the bookshelves," she said. "Then they'll whisper it to you because they don't want others to know.

"One patron asked for a book on France, and after a lengthy conversation, we discovered he actually wanted information on 'that machine that cuts off people's heads,' the guillotine," Ms. Lockwood said.

Library patrons are all over the lot on book titles: "Red Dodge of Courage" for "Red Badge of Courage," the Civil War classic by Stephen Crane; "Bridges Over Madison Square Garden," for the not-so-classic soap opera "Bridges of Madison County"; and "A Mile in the Night," for "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

"People don't want to appear ignorant," said Ms. Stanhope, "and they apologize and say, 'Can I ask you a really stupid question?' "

"They often say they're sorry to bother us, and I say, 'Please bother us, that's what we're here for,' " Ms. Lockwood said.

So how do you get to Hershey Park without using the interstate?

Very slowly.

Then there was the patron who came to the Towson branch seeking travel information for his vacation.

When the librarian asked if all his questions were answered, he said, "No. You want to go with me?"

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