Countywide : These Folks Have All the Answers

Looking for the name of Dudley Doright's horse, trying to figure out how owls mate, or remember the number of African-American soldiers who fought in the Civil War?

Faced with those and thousands of other questions, inquisitive researchers and trivia-hunters are increasingly turning to their local librarians.

At the Newport Beach library, where the number of circulating titles has grown by nearly 300,000 in the past two years, informational questions are a growing part of the librarian's job. The most recent annual report issued by the library tallied 181,640 reference questions during fiscal 1989.

At UC Irvine, a typical school day can bring as many as 800 reference questions to the information desk at the library. According to reference librarian Mike Martinez, the queries range from questions about how to calculate a nautical mile to how to put together an investment portfolio.

In Fullerton, the questions are so frequent and diverse that librarians publish a weekly newspaper column on what they have been asked and the answers they have provided.

"People feel empowered when they have the information they need," explained Florence Fitzgerald, the reference coordinator for the Fullerton Library. "Our column helps remind people of the broad latitude of questions that we answer, and people feel like, 'If they can answer that one, then they can answer mine.' "

Moreover, the questions can sometimes serve as a gauge of local residents' interests and concerns. In Anaheim, librarian Karen Gerloff said business and medical questions dominate the inquiries fielded by the reference desk.

"The world seems to be more and more complex, and people need to go to a friendly, local agency sometimes to have their questions answered," Gerloff said.

Other common areas of interest, according to Buena Park reference librarian Ted Stecheson, are self-help topics and questions about the law. From residents anxious to avoid dealing with the local governmental bureaucracies, the library also handles questions about how to register to vote and how to file for bankruptcy, librarians said.

The answers to the questions are often easily found, either in the books on the shelves or through one of the many computer networks that the libraries use. "If we don't know the answer, we can certainly find it out," Fitzgerald said.

One thing that librarians try to maintain, no matter what question they are answering, is confidentiality for the client. The need is obvious when it comes to medical or legal questions, but not so clear in seemingly random questions like one that Stecheson heard while working in the Los Angeles Public Library.

It was a number of years ago, he said, when the patron came into the library asking about the thickness of a dollar bill. Librarians found the answer and thought nothing more about it until a few weeks later when they came upon the man's name in the newspaper.

The patron, Stecheson said, had been convicted of counterfeiting.

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