Coffee with Mimi:A research call to remember

Published 6:34 am Saturday, April 28, 2018

“Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.”  Confucius, c. before 479 BC —  maybe.

I am a trivia buff. Many of my former students would say that is the natural by-product of being a history teacher. I wonder how I managed to get through the day before the invention of the internet as I reach for my cell phone a dozen times each day to look up some random bit of information. I also search for information which is actually useful.

In the course of planning this column, which was originally influenced by a task I need to complete as a member of an organization, I remembered the above quote. It is frequently cited when work life gets tough, boring or seems meaningless. I know and use a lot of words, and I know when they belonged to someone else first.

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In giving credit where credit is due, I turn to my handy cell phone, perhaps the greatest invention since the printing press. Right there, in one hand-held device, is just about all the information in the history of the world.

As a student, despite the time it took from other pursuits, I didn’t dislike doing research. There was satisfaction in watching the pile of little index cards grow, each containing a single fact with the correctly identified source. Later, the cards would be spread out on the desk, categorized and color coded according to the details of the topic of the assigned paper.

I sort of miss those little cards. We carried them around on the top of a pile of books and notebooks in the days before backpacks, carefully guarded as they were, at that time, your life all wrapped up in a rubber band.

A cell phone, or other small device, doesn’t feel quite the same. Everyone has one and no one else knows what the current big project is. Those little cards were a sign, evidence you had been studious and organized as the pile grew and the edges became a bit dog-eared.

In my first job out of college, I worked for an educational media company. Originally, I sorted, filed, labeled and carried. The opportunity presented itself while I was still in school. It was within walking distance of my dorm and the hours were flexible. There was no plan for a future. I graduated, the company made an offer so I stuck around.

My new role involved verifying facts in educational material. Writers would send me manuscripts and illustrations and I would check the details. At the time, this involved frequent trips to the libraries around town. Sometimes research can be an adventure based on a hunch. My favorite memory involved a sketch of a ship being tossed about in stormy seas in the early 1800s.

Something about the ship nagged at me. It was depicted as a steamship, not a sailing vessel. Was that accurate? No amount of searching locally resulted in a definitive answer. Call the Library of Congress. Why not? They know everything worth knowing. Their staff is helpful and packed full of every expert there is in the world of facts. There isn’t a print-worthy book they don’t have at their fingertips.

Though I was fairly well educated, the Library of Congress had never been accessed by me in the course of any of my studies. I had no idea you could actually call them up (pre-computer internet days) and ask them questions. The staff will, as much as reasonable, help you. Great, give me the number.

The voice at then end of the line listened to my story and connected me to the appropriate desk, the one staffed by the person who knew all about maritime history. In actuality, the particular ship I was looking for didn’t fall in his wheelhouse and he politely connected me to another desk. I went through my story again. The new expert almost immediately found the information I needed. I trusted it was correct, he did work for the Library of Congress, after all. And he was so professional and polite.

We exchanged some simple pleasantries and at the conclusion of the call, he inquired how I got his number. Well, I called the number of the Library of Congress, asked my question and was eventually connected to you. I wondered if this was some sort of quality assurance survey question.

“Why?” I asked. Well, this number is reserved for use by the White House. Hey, your folks connected me. It would seem completely logical that when needing to know something, the White House would not want to be kept waiting by anyone, including research librarians. That research experience was better than a big stack of color coded, rubber band wrapped index cards.

For the record, It is difficult to attribute the above quote to Confucius, as he lived in a time when ordinary people had no choice in selecting a career path and the others didn’t need a day job, or any other gainful employment. The quote has been bounced around throughout history by any number of writers, teachers and speakers of note — just not me.