“We’re not the resource for ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’”




Reference librarian, Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center
Length of service:
14 years
Other stuff:
Besides folklore, he's the man to see if you have questions about British or American government publications.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

We were intrigued by a factoid that crossed our desk a few months back: the State Data Center, the clearinghouse for statistical information about Pennsylvania, had cited the University of Pennsylvania Library’s reference desk as the most-frequently-consulted resource in the state for data on the state.

We thought that was a big deal. Actually, it’s really trivial. It’s only a small part of the reference desk’s mission.

Or so reference librarian David Azzolina (C’78,G’91,Gr’96) explained. As it turns out, the reference department, like the 5 million-plus volume University Library itself, is a scholarly research tool. And while Van Pelt’s staff of 10 reference librarians do answer questions of the “Trivial Pursuit” variety, that is neither the most important nor the biggest function they perform.

Q. What does the reference staff do?
The reference department is the department of the library which serves as the intersection of research and researchers. [We are a] combination of library teachers and library social workers. We teach people how to use the library and we do it in a lot of different ways. We have an outreach program to the students in the college houses; we provide face-to-face, on-demand research information services; we help construct the Library Web and contribute to its content with a wide variety of guides and finding aids.
And we do it with a variety of academic backgrounds. Mine happens to be in folklore. Another staff member’s happens to be in religion. Another’s is in Latin American studies. So there is a variety of expertise that goes along with this teaching function.

Q. How did you get into this career?
I was an undergraduate here in the ’70s and I put myself through here and my job was to file cards in the old card catalog. And I thought to myself, not only do I like doing this, I kind of enjoy it. And I thought if I could enjoy this aspect of library work, I can enjoy any aspect of library work.
   One of the things I enjoy most about this job is getting to know students. And I’ll use graduate students just as an example, who you get to know during the first year they’re in graduate school and you watch them progress and earn a Ph.D. and write a dissertation. And through that many-year process, you’ve gotten to know some students well, and you’re able to provide them with really fine service.

Q. Even though this is an academic research library, do you ever get general information questions?
We’re not the resource for “[Who Wants to Be] A Millionaire?” We’re not some kind of trivia masters. Although when you’ve done this work as long as most of us have, you become masters in your own way. And students are going to have some odd requests. Depending on the year, some fraternity pledges [are] required to come and ask seemingly off-the-wall questions.

Q. Can you give me some examples?
Well, the ones that come to mind are the kind that are actually relatively straightforward. You’ll get questions like “Where is the 1939 Ivy Stone?” You’ll get questions about who is the creator of the sculpture at 39th and Locust Walk, and things like that, that you can’t go to your course catalog to find the answers to.
   We also get people who want or need just to know a fact to round out an argument they are making, and [some of these] would be considered off-the-wall, but in the context of their paper it might actually be somewhat important, like “Who is the first woman to wear a tuxedo?” We get a lot of historical facts, what some people would call factoids, that in their particular academic context actually have relevance.

Q. How many people do you personally assist in a typical week?
Easily 100 if not more. As we come to the end of the school year, we are getting a lot of seniors who are writing their theses who need documentation of various kinds, and sometimes it’s a pretty straightforward thing and other times it requires an awful lot of digging. For instance, if somebody needs information on the hearings that surrounded the original Gulf of Tonkin resolution, now some of that is pretty straightforward and some of it’s not, partly because the [information retrieval] technology from the mid-’60s to the present has changed so much.

Q. How much of the assistance you provide is related to your subject areas, and how much of it is general?
Probably about 40 percent of it is specific to the things I know about. The other 60 percent would be more general.

Q. Have any of the students you’ve helped with research projects kept in touch with you after they graduated?
Certainly among the folklorists, many of them have. One student gave me a bottle of champagne when he graduated. And occasionally, students that have been gone for many years will come back and thank me for what I did for them, which is to some extent only my duty. [And] some of them have said nice things about me in books they later published.


Originally published on May 4, 2000