Whales, jumpers and spoons

Communication.  The key to the successful functioning of any organisation or social unit, yet something we seem to be terribly bad at.  Each day is filled with dozens of misunderstandings, ambiguities and missed opportunities to connect in any way.  Something which all trainee librarians learn is that the question being asked by a user is not necessarily the question they want answered, and even if it is, you may not understand it in quite the way it was intended.

The classic example is the librarian sat at an enquiry desk who is asked to help someone find information on ‘migration in whales’.  The immediate response is to send the user in the direction of biological information, specifically the behaviour of Cetaceans [599.51568 or thereabouts in Dewey].  However, it may be necessary to pause a while.  Did the librarian really hear an ‘h’, or did they just assume it?  Their enquirer might well have no interest in the movements of marine mammals, they may be researching economic migration in the United Kingdom, specifically in Wales.  Dewey would class a treatise on this subject with a hideously long number somewhere in the 300s, but journals and collections of statistics would be a more likely source for this information.

It’s easy to see that the potential for misunderstandings in libraries is immense, when the stock can cover everything from Sufi to sushi and a word like bridge can mean a multitude of different things to students of different disciplines.  However, two recent examples from the Library of Doom prove that this potential is greater than anyone could possible guess.  Both take place at the issue desk, our name for what is also sometimes known as the loans desk or circulation desk.  The place where students come to borrow, return and renew their books, anyway.

The first concerns a lady who had fines which had reached a level which prevented her from borrowing any further books without paying some of it off.  The problem was caused because our library software sometimes has a hissy fit and clears information from the screen when you don’t really want it to, meaning that you have to re-scan the user’s SmartCard if you want to get their information back.  The conversation that followed was a little odd to say the least…

Student: I haven’t got any money on me.  [Pause] How come I owe that much, anyway?

Library Assistant: I’ll just check.  Oh.  Hang on.  Can I have your card again, please?

Student (looking down): But it’s a jumper!  And I need it.

Library Assistant: Pardon?

Student: I’m not going to pay my fines with my jumper!

Library Assistant (puzzled): We can only accept cash and cheques.  I just need to look at your SmartCard again.

[Awkward silence]

Student (giggling): Oh!  I thought you said ‘can I have your cardigan’.

From a mishearing to a misunderstanding…  Our second example is connected with the SmartCards, which function not only as library cards, but also as ID cards and can be used for ‘cashless’ purchasing of food from the refectory.  A slightly belligerent student had lost his and had come in to the library for a replacement.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple, and he was sent up to the catering office, where replacement cards are issued.  He was having none of it, and demanded to know why his library card would be issued by the catering office.  The staff explained that some students use their SmartCard for their food.  “What?”  The student was utterly incredulous.  “They use it as a spoon?  That’s disgusting!” 

Sad to say, he was utterly serious, and wasn’t best pleased to have library staff laughing. He did eventually see the funny side and made his way up to the catering office, where they issued a new SmartCard and he carried on his merry way.

  1. I read the cardigan one out to brother-in-law (a student) and he laughed. I then tried to tell Mr C about the ‘card as spoon’ man and it took me about 10 minutes (no exaggeration) to tell him because I was laughing so much!

  2. Glad to hear there are some lighter moments in the L of D.

  3. Aw, bless their fluffy little heads.

    • Asteroid Lil
    • June 30th, 2007

    These sound a lot like mondegreens, which I fall prey to a lot, myself.

  4. There. I knew the jumber story would be worth it. He he he.

    And another snigger for the cardspoon man.

  5. Actually, Lil, I often mishear things as well, but I know I must have misheard them. I often end up saying things like “did you really just say Suzanne was a letterbox?”, knowing full well that it must have been something else, but not having a clue what the something else was. It does mean that there’s a very surreal world inside my head!

    This week, we had the joys of a final year student getting cross because we didn’t have a book by a particular author… James Etal. How had they got to the final year without learning what ‘et al’ means?

  6. I needed a good laugh today! Thanks. Cardigan. Spoon. I’ll probably bust out laughing during my next massage.

  1. May 25th, 2013

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