The know-it-all Pratt Library Answers: The venerable institution's Telephone Reference Service has fielded nearly 5 million questions from the sublime to the absurd.

October 27, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The voice on the phone asks: "Who is Joe Avara?"

The "wheel" at the Enoch Pratt Free Library's Telephone Reference Service begins to turn. About 800 reference works on this 8-foot-tall lazy Susan of information come into play.

L "I think he had something to do with Cuba?" the caller adds.

Aha, a clue!

"You really kind of replay it in your head," says Cynthia Bender, the young woman who heads the phone service.

"Joe Avara," she explains, "turned out to be Che Guevara."

It's inquiries like these that require each of the Pratt's 15 phone reference librarians to deploy the skills of a diligent and ingenious researcher, a private detective, a mother or father confessor, a psychological counselor, a homework tutor, a cryptologist and a crossword puzzle champ -- not to mention having boundless intuition and infinite good humor.

This month the phone service celebrates its 30th year of answering questions for anybody with the price of a phone call. The Pratt's phone reference service was first in the nation, a model for the host that followed.

The ready reference staff, a SWAT team of information delivery, now answers questions at a rate of about 2,300 answers a week. The exact total as of last Thursday was 4,862,354. They figure they'll crack 5 million in about a year.

In fact, there are an infinite number of questions; the answers are limited only by staffing cuts. They answered nearly a quarter-million questions in 1981-82, when the staff was about 29 percent bigger. They've held steady at 133,000 or so annually the last few years.

Most questions are more mundane than "Who's Joe Avara?" More common are contest questions, recipe requests, names of the Supreme Court justices and Cabinet members, stuff like that. But Cynthia Bender has filled two notebooks with more or less batty requests for information.

"A caller asked me for a copy of a poem called 'The Desperadoes,' " Bender recalls. She pondered that a moment and suggested perhaps the caller wanted "The Desiderata," the popular inspirational verse.

They've been asked for income tax "reforms."

Another info-seeker said: "I was calling to find out if you had a book called 'A Severed Head,' but I was cut off."

"What was the name of Don Coyote's horse?" was easy. Don Quixote rode Rosinante.

"We have a lot of confusion about chambers of commerce," Bender says. Patrons ask for the 'Chamber of Communists' in New York, or the 'Library of Commerce' in Washington.

"We try not to laugh," says Bender.

They try not to get angry, either, when they get the occasional nasty call. Shirley Viviano, who's manager of the Pratt's general information department, says you can always put the caller on hold and do whatever you want to do. She worked with the phone service for 17 years.

You might hit the hold button, she says, if you're asked, "How do you spell Gitchee Gumee?" like in the Marine Corps Hymn: " from the halls of Gitchee Gumee to the shores of Tripoli."

"We straightened that out," says Bender.

When Maryland put the blue heron on commemorative license tags a few years ago, questioners wanted to know if it was a mosquito.

"There's a need behind every question," says Bender, tolerantly.

For the kids of the Baltimore area, the need is to get their homework done, and the service gets a surge of homework questions every school day between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Baltimore kids are lucky. The New York Public Library doesn't answer homework questions.

"We treat students the same as anyone else," Viviano says. "Everyone who calls gets the same type of service."

New York doesn't answer "crisscross questions" either, which vTC the Pratt crew does a lot. That's checking phone numbers from names or addresses, or vice versa.

Crisscross directories are expensive, Viviano says. "Companies don't want to buy them, so they call us."

The staff tries to limit calls to five minutes and three questions. That doesn't always work.

"You know how people are on the phone," Viviano says. "People like to talk. They also like us to give our opinions. We don't give opinions. We're not here for that. We're here for facts."

Their facts come from a collection of reference books that probably totals 1,500 now, on shelves and on the wheel inside the phone stations. They clip newspapers and magazines for schedules, the latest sports scores and other current events. (El Nino is hot right now.) They use computers and plumb the Internet.

"We're learning to answer questions from the Web," Bender says. "But for most questions, it's faster to get most information from books than from computers."

Still, Bill Littman and Ruth Anne Champion used the Internet for ++ an inquiry made a week ago: the location of the nudist beach closest to Baltimore (it's on Assateague Island).

"After the caller hung up, we were kind of concerned they might be going this time of the year," Bender says.

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