On Verifying the Nonexistence of Nonabsurd Reference Objects

Like most reference librarians, I don’t like it when I can’t answer a question or find a source someone needs. I try not to be one of those librarians who keeps plying the patron with more and more sources until they start backing away from me with a look of terror, but I don’t like people to go away empty-handed.

Last week I had two occurrences of empty-handedness, and both led to the same feeling of frustration I always get when this happens. One student was looking for recent articles responding to a particular chapter of a 30-year-old philosophy book. This is still a standard work by a very prominent legal philosopher, but I could find no evidence of anyone ever responding to this particular chapter, much less anything recent. Another patron wanted some biographical information about an obscure German artist. (Actually, the query began, “I want an obituary for X person.”) The artist was so obscure there’s hardly a mention on the entire web, and no available biographical information in English or German, as far as I can tell.

As far as I can tell. Ay, there’s the rub. For ultimately, how far can we tell? At what point can we say with certainty that something doesn’t exist, at least something that isn’t inherently contradictory. If someone wanted help to find a squared circle, I might point them to Thomas Hobbes’ claims to have squared the circle, but I certainly couldn’t find a squared circle or any other absurd thing. But these reference objects aren’t inherently absurd. There very well could be biographical information about this obscure German artist, or a recent article responding to a particular chapter of a 30-year-old philosophy book. These things aren’t self-contradictory. They’re not impossible, just improbable. And so the reference transaction ends, as it must, with my saying that while I can’t confirm that such a reference object does not exist, I have exhausted the known resources without being able to find the thing.

I think what we reference librarians need is a reference source that lists all of the questions for which we know there is no answer. Then I could go to this source, look up the obscure German artist, and say, “See, it says here that no biographical information exists on this person, and this is the authoritative reference source on the nonexistence of nonabsurd reference objects. Do you have any other questions?” A source like this would let me rest easier after a fruitless search. It could be, though, that this reference source already exists, and I just can’t find it. If only I could know for sure.

7 thoughts on “On Verifying the Nonexistence of Nonabsurd Reference Objects

  1. What you need here is not so much a reference source as, ahem, a wiki: the Unanswered Question Wiki. (It could even have its own theme song, thanks to Charles Ives.)
    Reference librarians could post questions to the wiki. When someone finds an answer to the question, they could post it (presumably the person posting the question would have a watch on the page, so would be notified), and the page would move to the Unanswered No More section.
    I’m serious, actually. Seems like something RUSA could set up, or, for that matter, a librarian at a well-funded institution. After all, the software’s free, and many of us are getting used to wikitext whether we like it or not. I’d suggest MediaWiki, since it’s used for the three big multilibrary wikis and for some odd little ‘pedia that gets used by most everybody. (There’s been the Stumpers list, but a wiki seems like a more appropriate structure for this kind of thing.)

  2. Because Wikipedia (the “odd little ‘pedia” I had in mind) would be inappropriate for this particular use: This is a set of questions, where Wikipedia is (at best) a set of answers.
    The deletionists would be all over you like a ton of molasses if you posted an article consisting of nothing more than a reference question…

  3. We can’t use a wiki. I want something AUTHORITATIVE, not something that anyone can edit! I want to be absolutely positive that when I point out that this object doesn’t exist, that it really doesn’t exist.
    On the other hand, this wiki might actually be either useful or fun.

  4. A standard work by a very prominent legal philosopher strikes me as appropriate for Wikipedia. Mentioning which chapters have received recent comments and which have not seems to be within reasonable bounds.
    Creating a stub entry for an obscure artist seems appropriate as well. And perhaps the most efficient way to get people who know information about this artist to provide it.
    Perhaps contributing to Wikipedia may not be the best way to document questions that may or may not have answers, but it seems like a reasonable strategy. My guess is that it would be more likely to meet our patrons’ needs than a self-contained, authoritative repository of questions we can’t answer.

  5. Online reference is even worse. All answers are supposed to be available *now* on the internet with no waiting, even though the person you’re helping lacks the ability to find it himself.

  6. I had a similar experience the other day trying to answer a query for a faculty member. He was looking for a recording of a Mozart Divertimento ,K.251 made in the 1950s and produced (or recorded) by Peter Bartok (son of Bela). What was ironic is that we know the information is in the library (probably in a 1950s recording review journal), but because there is no online index to this material, because catalog entries rarely if ever mention the recording personnel — and because we’re not sure we’d recognize the answer when we saw it, there’s no effective means to retrieve it. The same is possibly true of your obscure German artist.

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