At Large Let Us Now Praise Seattle Public Library
posted by July 13 at 8:00 AMon
When in the course of human evenings it becomes necessary to find the answers to the questions in the Ketel One ad on the back of the current New Yorker, and it’s after midnight, it is something to know that Seattle Public Library is there for you. In a shifting, stricken, electronically connecting world, www.spl.org is at the ready. It’s true that long before midnight the librarians manning the quick information line (whom I love) have gone home, but the library has connections. It knows some people. It’s not a problem.
Before we go any further, here is the back of the current New Yorker (at least it’s dated this Monday—there’s probably an even newer one downstairs in the mail box):
In case you can’t see the image, it’s an all-white page with text on it. At the top it says “Dear Ketel One Drinker” and continues “Here are the answers to 10 commonly asked questions.”
The answers to the 10 commonly asked questions are:
Depends on who you ask
Down the hall, second door on your left
District of Columbia
The Nile (if you include the Blue & White)
114 Years, 211 days
93.2 million miles
OK, so I didn’t need an answer from Seattle Public Library. I needed a question. I needed the question that “114 Years, 211 days” was the answer to. Because I knew all the other questions.
The first answer, “Yes,” is clearly the answer to the question “Do you find Christopher Frizzelle unbelievably attractive?” “George Washington” is “Who was the first president of the United States?” “Briefs,” “Depends on who you ask,” and “Down the hall, second door on your left” are advertising writers having fun around a conference room table. “District of Columbia” is the answer to “What does the abbreviation in Washington, DC stand for?” “86 cents” is hard, but, with Google’s help, I’m guessing it’s either “Roughly how much do women make for every dollar a man earns?” (from one website: “Women make 86 cents for every dollar men earn in the District of Columbia”; from another: “Female managers in the communications industry made 86 cents for every dollar”; from another: “Asian Pacific American women earn 86 cents for every dollar”) or “How much is an Aussie worth next to a U.S. dollar right now?” The answer “The Nile (if you include the Blue & White)” is clearly the answer to “What’s the longest river in the world?” And “93.2 million miles” is “How far is the sun from Earth?”
But this “114 Years, 211 days”—this one isn’t easy. When I Googled “114 Years, 211 days” I got tables of numbers, pages of equations, databases full of dates. When I put “114 Years, 211 days” in quotes and Googled that, I got only one page: Some guys on a Google Groups thread talking about the “booze ad on the back of The New Yorker.” (I feel so much less alone!)
People weighed in to that Google Group with answers. But the only answer anyone posted—er, question—for “112 Years, 211 days” was: “How long was the 100 Years’ War? (Well, actually, someone else did pose another question that “112 Years, 211 days” could answer: “When will the Celtics hang up another championship banner?”) But Wikipedia says the 100 Years’ War was 116 years. Huh.
I went to the library to see if someone there could help. I went to www.spl.org and clicked on Contact the Library. Then I clicked on Live chat (24/7). Then I typed in my name, my email address, my question, and hit Chat.
Here is what I typed in:
OK. This is a little weird. “114 years, 211 days” is the answer to a question. I need to figure out what the question is. There’s an ad on the back of The New Yorker for Ketel One, and they have a list of “the answers to 10 commonly asked questions,” and “114 years, 211 days” is the only one I can’t figure out the answer to. The question isn’t “How long was the Hundred Years’ War?” because, according to Wikipedia, the Hundred Years’ War lasted 116 years. Is Wikipedia wrong? Or can you think of another question “114 years, 211” days is the answer to? Help me out! thanks, christopher
I hit the button, that went off into space, and a new window opened with instructions to the left and, to the far right, in a vertical column:
Hello, christopher frizzelle
Thank you for your question. There may be a brief delay while we connect you to a librarian. While you wait, can you provide any more information about your question…
Two minutes later, the following text appeared below that:
Jasmine (24/7 Librarian): Librarian ‘Jasmine (24/7 Librarian)’ has joined the session.
christopher frizzelle: Hey Jasmine.
Jasmine (24/7 Librarian): Hi Christopher
It was 12:12 AM, and I had this new friend, Jasmine.
Jasmine (24/7 Librarian): My name is Jasmine, and I’m a reference librarian with the QuestionPoint chat service. Your librarians have asked our librarians to staff this 24-hour service when they are unavailable. I’m reading your question right now to see how I can help you…
Two minutes passed, and she said:
Jasmine (24/7 Librarian): If there are slight delays, it’s because I’m assisting other patrons along with you, but I’m right here with you also.
Isn’t that sweet?
Another four minutes passed.
Jasmine (24/7 Librarian): Still searching, Wikipedia is not always accurate.
Look at Jasmine and I, in this together. She’s so right, Wikipedia isn’t always accurate.
christopher frizzelle: great, thanks.
christopher frizzelle: great, thanks.
[I accidentally hit the button twice. Slight delay on the site.]
Rather abruptly, Jasmine dumps me without so much as a personal goodbye. All I get is a message that says:
Librarian: Please wait a moment while I transfer you to another librarian
Jasmine, we coulda had something! We coulda been some people! You and me, baby. Why’d you have to go chang—
Two minutes later:
Raul (24/7 Librarian): Hi
christopher frizzelle: Hey, Raul.
Raul (24/7 Librarian): I’m reading your question.
Raul (24/7 Librarian): I’m now searching.
And then, in a miraculous two minutes flat:
Raul (24/7 Librarian): On March 29, the Guinness Book of World Records certified her as the oldest living woman at 114 years and 211 days
Raul (24/7 Librarian): http://slick.org/deathwatch/mailarchive /msg01378.html
As this link appeared in the far right column, a web page—that very page he’s just given me the URL for—opened up automatically in the larger left frame.
christopher frizzelle: oh, awesome.
christopher frizzelle: did you just find that through google?
Raul (24/7 Librarian): Puerto Rican Ramona Iglesias-Jordan died on March 29 aged 114 years and 211 days.
Raul (24/7 Librarian): yes
A minute went by.
Raul (24/7 Librarian): Can I help you with anything else
I kind of wanted to keep talking.
christopher frizzelle: somehow google couldn’t find that for me. well, thanks. hey, just curious, where in the world are you? I’ve never used this service before.
But Raul was all business. A minute went by, and then:
Raul (24/7 Librarian): This service is monitored by librarians across the United States when your local library is not open.
So, like, everyone can see us, Raul, is that what you’re saying? They can see what we’re saying to one another? Before I could reply—
Raul (24/7 Librarian): Thank you for using our service. Please, contact us again if you need further assistance. Goodbye.
The whole thing took 16 minutes.
Then there was a pop-up survey about my experience. Under “The ease of using this online reference is?” I clicked “Very Easy.” Under “Will you use this service again?” I clicked “Very Likely.”
But in the “Additional Comments” field, I was honest about my feelings:
This service is excellent.
One thing: I wish I knew where my librarian was. Just for the sake of, I dunno, true global connectivity. It’s 12:29 AM in Seattle — dead of night — but it is, for example, 9:29 AM in Madrid. I picture the guy who just helped me sitting at a desk and eating a muffin, his blinds open onto a view of Madrid in the morning sun.
He’s a librarian, but he’s also human, right?
thanks again (whoever’s getting this, wherever you are),
It’s only now—now that I’m retyping all this for you—that I see that Raul told me the thing is “monitored by librarians across the United States.” So much for Madrid. Or the morning sun. Maybe he was eating a muffin.
Anyway: Raul, ladies and gentlemen.