Puzzles and Essays from “The Exchange”: Tricky Reference Questions

Peter Limb (Michigan State University)

Online Information Review

ISSN: 1468-4527

Article publication date: 1 October 2004




Limb, P. (2004), "Puzzles and Essays from “The Exchange”: Tricky Reference Questions", Online Information Review, Vol. 28 No. 5, pp. 379-380. https://doi.org/10.1108/14684520410564343



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

“The Exchange” was a popular column appearing from 1965 to 1999 in Reference Quarterly (RQ), the journal of the Reference and User Services Division of the American Library Association (RUSA). Charles Anderson was editor from 1984 to 1999, and he has meticulously compiled a selection of the column's most interesting (and amusing) questions and answers – and unsolved riddles.

Between the nine chapters listing these extracts, which will delight and intrigue both general and library science readers, he has spliced another eight, short chapters that relate these questions to contemporary issues in reference librarianship, such as the need for open access, dilemmas of the digital reference interview, and what he sees as the eternal need for reference librarians. The result is a delightful tour through past (and present) user‐librarian exchanges and lingering “tricky reference questions” that still defy easy answers, and which are likely to pester practitioners for years to come. When the questions and answers are read in conjunction with the theoretical chapters the book as a totality serves as a useful guide to reference practice: actual, practical questions mixed with handy advice such as a warning against quick and easy answers to some questions and the continuing need to negotiate the question. In this regard, one area in which the author might usefully have dwelt a little longer is the inadequacy of many so‐called authoritative reference sources, a lingering problem in the profession that also spills over into cataloguing practice for subject headings.

Areas covered by the questions include biographical information, customs, popular sayings and culture, fragments of poems, words and phrases, peoples and places, literature, those ubiquitous quotations, and a “miscellany” of obscure queries such as “what and where is the Black Madonna” and “why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?” The reader is also disabused of some cherished illusions of “who said what”. Finally, and most challenging to dedicated reference sleuths, is a chapter listing unanswered questions, where we learn that the jury is still out on such queries as the origin of the saying “the luck of the Irish”. Of course, the generalist reference librarian sometimes finds that subject specialists do know answers to seemingly arcane queries, so perhaps one spin‐off from the book may be the discovery of still more answers – although the demise of “The Exchange” begs the question, Where will these answers be communicated to colleagues?

This book will be most useful for librarians whether in public or higher education realms as a both a tonic for what the author delightfully terms “reference anxiety” and a ready reference guide. Yet, with its inclusion of actual questions and answers and with a good index and bibliography, it also will be of some value and interest to general readers. All reference librarians will find it an interesting read, always entertaining and worth dipping into at any point. The “definitive” answers, handy tips and commonsense advice gleaned from decades of experience at the reference desk will benefit new and veteran practitioners alike.

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