For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
August 11, 1999 - Lone Tree Limerick
It all started with a letter on February 24, 1999. It was addressed to "Reference Librarian / Oakes Mill Library" in Littleton, Colorado. (This branch is now the Lone Tree Library, in the newly incorporated city of Lone Tree.) The letter was from a man, let's call him Mr. Smith, in upstate New York.
It read, "I am writing to see if you can help me locate a poem entitled, 'Little Lem Fitch,' which begins, "At Littleton Station lived Little Lem Fitch....' I have searched through local libraries and have not located it. I thought perhaps your town of Littleton, Colorado, might know of this particular poem."
Our reference librarians pulled out the stops. But by March 20, they had to report that, "We were unable to locate the poem entitled 'Little Lem Fitch.' We looked through the Douglas Public Library District catalog; Granger's poetry indexes, the Internet; many poetry anthologies; and queried a reference librarian's Internet site to no avail. We also called several local libraries including the main branch of the Denver Public Library. No one was able to locate this particular poem.
"We didn't want to disappoint you completely so one of our creative staff members made up her own version of 'Little Lem Fitch.' We humbly offer it for your consideration.
At Littleton Station lived Little Lem Fitch
He lost control of his Bronco and slid into a ditch.
The SUV was history
But Lem phoned Frank Azar*
And now he is rich!
* a local personal injury attorney who advertises incessantly on television here."
Mr. Smith responded by March 30 with "Thanks so much for the delightful little verse, 'Little Lem Fitch...' It was splendid and it certainly made me chuckle."
We were even fortunate enough to receive a phone call from Mr. Smith. He let us know that although most of the libraries he had contacted (there are several Littletons in the country) had done a thorough and professional job of research, we were the only ones who, well, made UP an answer.
I hope it will shock no one to learn that sometimes we do in fact fail to answer a question. I have a friend, also a librarian, who once suggested to a reference book publisher that what we really need is a book of questions for which no answer exists. It would be nice to point to an authoritative resource that said, for instance, "No one knows why Napoleon stuck his hand in his blouse for his portrait."
The problem with reference services is that until you know that no definitive answer can be found, you believe that just one more book, just one more e-mail inquiry, will nail it. But our patrons usually need the answer by a particular date. So at some point we have to call off the hunt.
But I'm very proud of our staff, particularly Kathy Schnebly, for putting something more than the impersonal face of bureaucracy on our library's response. Real people ask us questions. And real people scramble to answer them.
But only at the Douglas Public Library District, by golly, do we crank out a limerick when we need one.