So I asked the man what was the longest river in the world, and he said what do you mean? I said it’s obvious, just the longest river, and he said it’s the River X, unless you count a river plus its tributary with a different name, in which case it’s the Rivers Y and Z together. Confusingly, a woman on my other side said that was wrong, because new satellite images had confirmed that River A was longer, and that River B was possibly longer again in the rainy season when its source was further up the hill. I was a bit dazed by all this, so I bought a round of drinks, leaned on the bar, and changed the subject.
Actually, it’s bit like that in a Westminster library, with some important differences. If you pop into your local reference library and ask a question, you won’t have to shell out for drinks all round, and all the different possible answers won’t be blasted at you from all directions.
What the nice person will do is ask you a few questions back. Don’t get tetchy at this point, they’re doing you a favour. However sure you are that you know exactly what the question is, it’s worthwhile poking it a bit, you and the library person, to make sure that’s what you really need to know. So sit back, answer the questions, and then the (free) magic will start.
If your question is straightforward, maybe a query about local services, you might get the answer on the spot – from printed sources, online information or out of the library person’s head (backed up, we sincerely hope, from the print and the online, just to be sure!).
But if your question is a bit specialised, then perhaps it’s AA time. You know what’s coming – “I can’t fix it but I know a man who can”. There’s been an obvious change since that ad first ran in the 80s – women have been invented. But the principle holds. We have a small army of men and women who can help you find the answers to the most testing questions, using a range of weapons. All free to you.
Physically (hold-in-your-hand stuff) we’ve got some amazing specialist collections – art and design, music, business, performing arts, education and careers… and so on. Online we have (as I’ve mentioned before) information sources which Westminster Libraries pay for, but are free for library members. Beyond that we’ve got reinforcements, thousands of other information sources which we either know about or can track down.
Has the awful truth hit you yet? You won’t necessarily get your answer in 30 seconds, or on the premises. If you are serious about your question, we’ll be serious about the answer, and we’ll take the trouble. Remember – not a penny will change hands.
And if we happen to be asleep, what then?
That’s when Enquire comes into its own. As library people in one time zone have their suppers and get their heads down, colleagues in other longitudes take up the strain, answering queries using email and chat. So if your local library is dark but your reading lamp still blazes, a nice Australian or American person will be pleased to tackle your query. Neat, eh?