Sunday, October 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Erik Lacitis / Times staff columnist

Librarians hold answers to life's little questions

Seattle Times staff columnist

Three-hundred-fifty to 400 times a day, your fellow Seattleites dial 206-386-4636 and prove the value of books.

Three-hundred-fifty to 400 times a day, one of your fellow Seattleites starts thinking about something, and soon figures out that ... he's clueless. He needs information, and he needs it now.

Let's take last Tuesday, from which today's list of Questions Seattleites Wondered About is drawn. Maybe one of your fellow Seattleites was watching an expert-type on CNN pondering the events of this past month and how we should show tolerance to various religions.

That Seattleite suddenly wondered, "How many Muslims live in the United States?" And, of course, he had no clue.

That is when he ended up talking to someone such as Joanne Clemmons, a librarian at the downtown Seattle Public Library, who was sitting in a room containing a Lazy Susan with four tiers holding some 500 reference books at her fingertips, plus computers accessing the Internet.

Clemmons pulled out the 2001 World Almanac and there was the answer — 5,780,000 Muslims.

And then maybe another Seattleite was listening to talk radio and getting all worried about the subject matter being discussed. Suddenly that Seattleite wondered, "What are the symptoms of anthrax, and how is it spread?"

Now, some rigorous academician types might sneer at the World Book Encyclopedia, what with its simple, summarized explanations. But working the phones at the library's Quick Information line, Clemmons knows her callers aren't expecting a Ph.D. treatise.

The World Book Encyclopedia explains anthrax in three paragraphs, and tells that fever, vomiting and shock are among the symptoms.

Clemmons tells me she never considers any question too stupid. "We take a certain amount of pride in treating people's questions with equanimity," she tells me. (And, hey, you can call 206-386-4636 to find out what equanimity means. I'm just glad my computer has spell-check.)

For example, she tells me, one woman calls on a regular basis and asks, "What is the date?" The librarians always provide the answer with equanimity.

Here are more Questions Seattleites Wondered About Last Tuesday.

Where can I get my IBM Selectric repaired? (At Pacific Typewriter or Jet City Business Machine Repair.)

What are the three terms for love in ancient Greek philosophy? (Eros, philos and agape.)

What is the value of a 1997 Toyota Camry? (Trade-in, $9,475. Retail, $11,475.)

How many people are in a battalion? (Between 300 and 1,000.)

What language is spoken in Algeria? (Arabic is the official language, although many Algerians speak French, and one-fifth of the populace speaks dialects of the Berber language.)

The way Clemmons sees it, she's helping the callers negotiate their way through life. She knows how to use the labyrinth known as the government blue pages in the phone book. It takes her a minute to find the address and phone number for the Kent School District; it might be a daunting task for the caller.

I ask Clemmons if she gets, you know, Life's Big Questions from callers.

"Oh, you mean, like what is the meaning of life?" she says. Yes, she has gotten that question, and she also treats that query with equanimity. The caller gets referred to the library's section on philosophy and religion.

Clemmons also gets asked Life's Little Questions, like this one: "How do you get dog slobber off a pearl necklace?" Fortunately, at her disposal are books such as, "How to Clean Everything."

The answer is that you clean the necklace very, very carefully, wiping the dog slobber off with a cloth and warm water, being careful not to get the string wet.

On Tuesday, the questions just kept on coming.

What is Bill Clinton's office address in Harlem? (55 W. 125th, New York, NY 10027).

Who was America named after? (Amerigo Vespucci.)

When is the full moon in November? (Nov. 30.)

I ask Clemmons if she's ever been stumped.

Stumped? With not only her 500 reference books but also the 1,434,121-book collection from the entire Seattle library system available? Equanimity is a word in her vocabulary, but not stumped.

Erik Lacitis' column runs Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. His phone number is 206-464-2237. His e-mail address is:


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