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About nine years ago, Bill Stephenson and his fellow librarians at D.C. Public Library’s (DCPL) Telephone Reference Service received an unusual call. A government supervisor wanted to know whether roaches had teeth. “One of her employees said a roach had bit her and she couldn’t make it to work,” remembers Stephenson, who quickly began investigating whether the claim was fact or fiction.
For over 30 years, in a back room between the Children’s Room and the History and Biography Division on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s second floor, a staff of three librarians tackled questions ranging from the elementary to the bizarre. But in early May, library officials shuttered the “Telref” service, leaving callers—ranging from anxious brides seeking weather predictions for their weddings to trivia hounds who wanted to know the longest river in the world—without a ready reference just seven digits away.
According to the library’s interim director, Richard L. Jackson, when one of the Telref librarians retired earlier this year, the division was closed and its two remaining employees were reassigned. He cites the increasing irrelevance of a telephone reference service in an ostensibly digital age. “We didn’t know if it’d be smart to go out and hire somebody for something we consider ‘yesterday,’” Jackson says. “Digital is in. We are one of the last ones to catch on to that.”
Starting in 1973, callers to Telref’s 727-1126 number always reached a live human voice, a feature that made the service a social hot line as well as an informational one. “We had individuals who were lonely and would call us everyday,” says Stephenson, who ran the Telref division for its last 12 years. “You knew you were providing some sort of comfort for them.”
Stephenson and his fellow librarians fielded an average of 125 calls a day, some from as far away as Europe and Australia. Arranged around a rotating bookshelf holding reference volumes, they made it their goal to provide answers in three minutes or less. Some questions—such as the tallest building in the world or the correct spelling of a politician’s name—made for easy research. Others, such as the roach query, took more time and manpower. “All three of us worked on that question,” Stephenson remembers.
The librarians finally found a reference book that explained that roaches have moving mouth parts that are, in fact, like teeth. They were able to report back to the government supervisor that her employee’s sick-day excuse was legit.
Over the years, calls came in from seniors in nursing homes wondering what day it was, crossword-puzzle fanatics, and Hollywood movie producers who wanted to check the existence of a particular street. In the early ’80s, construction workers building the first D.C. convention center began calling Telref regularly with questions on historical events and movies. Although it was his division’s policy never to ask why a caller was posing a particular question, Stephenson speculates that the construction workers were using the service to settle bets.
Jackson cites staffing issues and declining call volume as the reasons Telref was killed, but underlying those trends are the library’s increasing budget shortfalls. This year, the library threatened to continue abbreviated hours until the D.C. Council restored $2.9 million in funding. There’s no line item to indicate how much DCPL saved by cutting Telref, says library spokesperson Monica Lewis, but Jackson says the closing freed up librarians for other divisions.
These days, calls to 727-1126 are forwarded to the front circulation desk and then to the library’s various divisions. (On several recent days, only an answering machine was available.) Stephenson, now project manager for 21st Century Reference Library, says callers will eventually be served via e-mail and fax, in addition to the central reference number. “The physical [Telref] space doesn’t exist, but in the near future, the service will be expanded,” he says.
But since Telref closed, there’s been no digital alternative available. The DCPL’s 2005 budget does not earmark funds for an online replacement, according to Lewis.
Eloise Mitchell, a 74-year-old Michigan Park resident, misses the old service. For more than a decade, Mitchell often called Telref to get the previous night’s lottery numbers. After Telref closed, she explored another telephone information option—the Post’s “Post-Haste” service. But that line, which relies on an automated dialing system, is too much trouble, she says. She calls the library’s Woodridge branch, where she always gets a human voice on the line. “They always have the [lottery] numbers for me when I call,” she says. CP