Friday, December 4, 2009

Susan Gibberman Knows How To Research

I’ve been asked to muse on the term “research” – the diligent and systematic inquiry into a subject in order to discover or revise facts, theories, etc. Why am I giving you the dictionary definition? Because that’s what I do. I’m a research librarian and I take my research very seriously, no matter what the question.

The best part of research, to me, is that it’s one giant, living version of Trivia Pursuit. Every day, I research topics – some interesting, many not. But I love it when I can find out some bit of trivia about a topic I never knew before, or even an area in which I think I’m pretty well informed, e.g., movies. Are you aware that Marni Nixon (who was the dubbed singing voice for Deborah Kerr in The King and I and An Affair to Remember, for Natalie Wood in West Side Story, and for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady) had only one on-screen singing part in which she sang as herself? (I’m going to make you wait for the answer.) Granted, such details don’t come up in everyday conversation, but some day it may come in handy.

Working in a large public library and we’re trained to say there aren’t any stupid questions. But, yes, there are (we’re just too polite to say it to the patron’s face, but we do talk about them in our staff areas).

I love regaling my family with stories of the kinds of questions we get at our Reference Desk and their response is always, “You are kidding, right? People don’t call the library for that, do they?” Yes, they do. Constantly. When telephone companies began charging for ‘411’ information, patrons decided they could call the library and have us look up the numbers for them for free. Patrons have called us to look up word spellings, settle grammar questions, help their kids with math homework – the list goes on and on.

Our “regulars” and their research requests always amaze me. One patron calls daily with a list of telephone numbers that came up on her caller ID and she wants us to look up the numbers to find out who called her. A resident hypochondriac wants us (not her we-assume-licensed-physician) to diagnose her current maladies and other health concerns – “Why are my lips chapped?” (asked in the middle of winter) or “Why doesn’t caffeine affect me?” One of my personal favorites was the patron who wanted to know exactly how far over the bed her bedspread should hang.

Do these questions constitute “research”? Yes – there is the need to know and they ask us to provide the answer. Answering these mundane questions is not my favorite part of the job, but it is definitely a part of everyday life in a library.

Because of my work as a librarian, I’m often drawn to books that involve research – historical novels, or just books on a topic about which I am unfamiliar. Imagine my frustration when a piece of information is so blatantly wrong that I’m pulled out of the story. One book had the characters meeting at the corner of State and Dearborn in my hometown of Chicago. That might prove a little difficult because those streets run parallel to each other. All I want to do is yell at the author – “Look at a map!” Call your local library and ask!

I will freely admit that I’m not an expert in all areas (after all, as a librarian, I’m trained to research, not know a topic – although people expect us to spout off information on command. I blame Katharine Hepburn’s character in Desk Set). Therefore, there are many instances where I completely skip over some major faux pas if I’m involved in the story. If I’m dying to find out what happens on the next page, I’m sometimes willing to forgive the zipper on the Regency heroine’s dress.

Oh, and Marni Nixon? She’s one of the nuns – Sister Sophia – in The Sound of Music. Amaze your friends next time at the water cooler.

Susan Gibberman is the Head of Reader Services at the Schaumburg Township District Library – a job she believes she got as cosmic karma for never having read her high school English assignments. Despite coming late to the world of fiction, she is honored to be a two-time recipient of the Windy City RWA Northern Illinois Librarian of the Year award, and was named RWA’s 2008 Librarian of the Year. A television aficionado, she’s published a bibliography on Star Trek and is a contributing author to the Museum of Broadcast Communication’s four-volume Encyclopedia of Television. Her first fiction short story was published in the anthology Missing earlier this year by Echelon Press.


Denise Swanson said...

Great post, Susan! I remember researching my first books at the library and loving the raised eyebrows when I asked for a way of killing of 98% of the US's population.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Oh Susan, what a wonderful post! You and your colleagues must have the patience of a whole cadre of saints. I LOVE bedspread lady :) - but I fear I wouldn't have been able to be gracious, as I'm sure you were.

If (WHEN!) I get really famous and rich, I'm going to leave my wealth to library science. The storing and retrieving of information fascinates me and it's so key to keeping a culture going.

Bravo! (is it "Brava" for a woman, and what if it's a whole bunch of women??? - there, a research question!!)

Unknown said...

Gee--next time my kids are stuck on homework I'll have them call the library instead of ask me--thanks Susan! *vbg*

Great post!

Ann Macela said...

Ooooooh! Research! The fun part of writing, especially for a historian like me who used to spend hours and hours in libraries. I still prefer them to the Internet. And research librarians and archivists are absolutely wonderful! Talk about knowing "where the bodies are buried!"
I am truly amazed at the writers who don't understand that research is essential, even in and sometimes especially in contemporary works. For example, parallel streets. And a wrong factoid can pull me right out of the book also.
So, let's hear it for research and the librarians who help us! Yeaaaaa!

Gigi Pandian said...

I don't know what I'd do without research librarians! I spent most of yesterday morning on the 6th floor of the San Francisco library with the wonderful research librarians of the San Francisco History center. Without them, there's no way my next book would be remotely believable.

Anonymous said...

Susan, you truly are amazing. And supremely diplomatic, too. I'm afraid to learn the answer about "bedspread overhang". I might fall short. Enjoyed the blog - especially your unique voice. No wonder you're a published author. :-)

Pat Casiello aka "one" K.M. Daughter

Dyanne Davis said...


What a great article. I loved reading that you're willing to forgive a misplaced zipper. With all of your knowledge you're a great access.


KelleZRiley said...


Your post is delightful. Now I know how to drive my local librian crazy! (Just kidding.)


Juliet Blackwell said...

Like most authors, I LOVE librarians! Who amongst us hasn't spent time haranguing research librarians for information, suggestions, even just for the company of fellow booklovers. Great post, and thank you for what you do!

Melody Thomas said...

Susan, research is one of my favorite aspects about writing historical. I love all things reasearch from the type of glass used to drink champagne in the 18th century to discovering whether or not what we know as champagne and or sparkling wine even existed back then lol. I love libraries. Great blog!!

Amy said...

Great blog post! I'm pleading the fifth about discussing the questions in the staff areas, though...

Dana Fredsti said...

I have to admit I was jumping up and down, raising my hand and yelling 'I know the answer! I know the answer!' when you mentioned Marni Nixon in the first paragraph. :-) At least I was doing this in my head.

You have officially taught me that there are definitely stupid questions. :-)

Anonymous said...

Someone eѕѕentially helρ tο maκe ѕeriouѕly posts I might
stаte. That is the ѵeгy first tіme I frequеntеd уour
ωebѕіte pagе anԁ thus fаr?
I ѕuгρrisеd with the гeseaгch
yοu made to make thіs ρаrticulaг put up amazing.
Wonԁеrful job!

Look at mу web-site - Edgardo

Anonymous said...

I gοt this website frοm my friend
who shaгed ωith me аbоut this website and now thіѕ time I am
visiting this websіte anԁ reading verу informative posts at this timе.

mу homepаge - Carin

Jeorge Mackay said...

To finalise, Sunday payday loans are a best suggested financial aid which shows lender’s consciousness for their borrowers. Such kind of loans shows lender’s positive attitude towards borrowers and their needs in every situation and know more about our services please visit us sunday cash loans.