There are certain types of questions all librarians are familiar with. Where do I find the bathroom. Where can I find this book? Can you help me with the computers? These are normal, run of the mill, yes we’re happy to help questions. Something else that librarians are generally familiar with are questions that start something like this:
“So, I know this is a stupid question, but . . .”
“This is probably the weirdest question, but . . .”
“You’re gonna laugh when I ask you this question, but . . .”
I hear these opening sentences at least once a day. I tend to smile and assure patrons have definitely heard worse. And usually I have. Or that there are no stupid questions–because really, there aren’t. We have to learn somehow. So, normally I’m not too thrown off by questions that start out this way . . . except for the day that someone asked me if it was okay to “light up” in the library. That one surprised me.
I was sitting at my desk, reading a book and avoiding my homework (graduate student life) when I noticed a patron heading over. He wasn’t anything particularly stand-out-ish as far as patrons go. T shirt, jeans, a vaguely harassed expression, too many papers falling out of his bag. Normal. And he started with a similar line to those above.
“Hey, so, I have a kinda weird question.”
Normal, like I said. It was the next part that confused me. He proceeded to ask, and I quote,
“Is it chill if I light up in here?”
It was good that I had already finished my coffee, because had I been drinking it, I might have choked. My first reaction was to blink in astonishment, after which I asked if he was asking whether or not he could smoke in a library. Just for clarification–always clarify if you aren’t sure about the question. And honestly, I was really thinking that I had misheard or was, as usual, late to learn about some hip new term the college kids are using these days. Much to my dismay, yes, ma’am, that was his question. He wanted to know if he could smoke in a public library. With giant no smoking signs posted conveniently in lots of places.
I blinked again, and through librarian-ly powers of customer service, said apologetically that smoking was not permitted in the library. He thanked me and went on about his day. I then proceeded to collapse behind the desk in a pile of pink-lipsticked, over caffeinated shock. My thoughts were something like this:
- Libraries are buildings full of books.
- A lot of books and other awesome stuff in libraries are made of paper.
- Paper (and many other materials you can find in libraries) is, at least the last time I checked, flammable.
- Smoking requires fire to light whatever one is smoking.
- If a fire started in a library that might make me late for lunch. This is a problem.
- So how on earth does smoking in a library even vaguely make sense? My leftover birthday cake lunch is waiting, and I don’t have time for fires.
This is what I asked myself, as I went about turning back into a mostly normal looking human from the pile of librarian shock. I think I managed, since no patrons or coworkers ran screaming. Granted, one did collapse into laughter upon hearing this particular story. Maybe you will too. Laugh, I mean, not collapse. Don’t collapse. You might be late for lunch.