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Find more Real-Life Reference
Nicolette Warisse Sosulski is the business librarian at the Portage (MI) District Library and served as a virtual librarian for Question Point for 10 years. An active RUSA member, she was the 2011 recipient of the Gale Cengage Learning Award for Excellence in Business Librarianship, and teaches a collection development course for the GSLIS program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Between her various library jobs, Nicolette fields a wide variety of reference questions, and she’s happy to share her experiences with us in this new feature.
Sometimes when you get a reference question, the first thing to remember is not to get whiplash. While in the middle of a team transaction with a colleague and a patron trying to download a Kindle app onto her Kindle, another patron approached the desk asking, “I need the old books about the Bible. The good writers.”
GULP! WARNING, WARNING, DANGER WILL ROBINSON! When somebody refers to “the” good writers on religion or politics, I feel like I have just been asked to cross the Fire Swamp while dodging the Rodents of Unusual Size (yes, some people are in between Scylla and Charybdis—you have your hazards, I have mine).
“Sir, what kind of old books do you mean?”
“The classic ones. Getting back to the roots.”
Trying to figure out how to keep this an open-ended question, yet still get a response that would bring the conversation forward, I asked, “So do you mean biblical history, theology, history of Christianity?”
“I think so, yes.”
Frantically mentally scratching my head, I said, “Well some people get degrees in divinity on that—there are probably thousands of books to choose from. When you say old, how old do you mean, and when you say the roots, what tradition? You said Christianity?”
“Yes, the Christian tradition. It can be several hundred years old.”
“What kind of Christian? What Christian tradition or church?”
At this point, I am not really feeling like I know much more than before, and images of parchments nailed to church doors are going through my mind.
“Sir, let me make sure I understand what you are looking for. There are lots of Christian traditions, each with the roots at a place where a leader or issue had disagreements and started another church. Are you looking for a history of the Reformation?”
“Well, I think my church is getting off on the wrong foot, and I wanted to do some research and get back to the basics. It is a sort of independent Bible church. I had seen one book. It was a New Revival. Or a New York Revival. Or something like that.”
This did not result in any success for my frantic typing in the Michigan eLibrary union catalog. At this point I was confident that neither of us was entirely sure of what he wanted. So I took another tack.
“Since you are just at the beginnings of your investigation, one thing I can do is get you a time line of the Protestant Reformation. We’ll get a series of key events and people, starting with the church door at Wittenberg and Martin Luther and the sale of indulgences. From there, we can look for where others diverged. That should lead us to a variety of people or concepts we can read about or writings we can look up. For example, different groups have different beliefs about the bread and wine around the table. Some think there is a transformation, while others think it is a symbol. We can then look up the history of that concept.”
I performed a quick web search on the history of Christianity by centuries. That led us to Christianity.com, which may not be the most authoritative place but is a quick way to go through the centuries. It also lists a lot of writers whom I would call the major “rock stars” of Christian religions, along with many other respected writers. “Once we’ve identified writers and works, we can take a look at some.”
“But people won’t let me take the books out.” Apparently he had had some words with somebody in the rare books room of a Christian college library.
“Not the originals, but we might be able to find texts online. Here is Project Gutenberg. If the writing is no longer under copyright, we can look up and see if it is there. Here is how it works.” And I typed in the first person who came to my mind—John Calvin, who, unfortunately, does not have a lot in Gutenberg. “I can also try to get facsimiles from other libraries.”
“You seem to know something about this. Is this something that you studied?”
“I went to Georgetown. We had to take two classes each in philosophy and theology. And I took a history of religions class in high school.”
“Georgetown. I have heard about that. Through my brother. There are some radical Catholics there.”
“Well, there are a range of us Catholics, from Opus Dei on one end to the Jesuits”
“Yes. The Jesuits. They are the radical ones.”
“Those are the ones who taught me. But I will try not to let it interfere with your research project. My teachers there said that we are all in a friendly wager that our faith promotes the best way to live, but nobody knows until the very end. In the meantime, telling another person that their way is totally wrong kind of smacks of arrogance.”
“I can work with that.”
“Good. Now, I want to show you some parts of our collection.” And then he got the five-dollar tour of the religion reference section, our Bible selection, concordances, and dictionaries. He was impressed and said he had no idea we had all that.
“Sir, I am sorry I did not narrow down more what you want, but I think you are still working through some of that. You can contact me or my colleagues as you narrow down whose writings you want, and we can go to other places and get them. Here is my card. You can also e-mail me.”
He told me again that he had not been aware of all the things he could get and that I had given him a lot to think about. He then shook my hand, called me “a godsend,” and left. I think he will be back.
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