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.