On the desk beside her in the vast History and Genealogy room at St. Louis' Central Library, Cynthia Millar rolls her mouse around on a pad that jauntily proclaims: "So many ancestors, so little time!" Consider that she and her reference colleagues in this one department fielded 2,377 questions from patrons in the last month alone ("kind of a slow month," she admits) and you can see where the "little time" comes in. She took a couple of minutes away from her ancestral digging to tell us about life in the library.
Q: What kinds of questions do people come to you with?
A: Well, since we are the history and genealogy department, they are all related to history. Or genealogy. I'd say the big majority of them are genealogy research, everything from how-to questions How do I start researching my family? What are the first steps? to people who have particular questions about a family member or document. Most of our questions come from walk-in patrons, although there are also phone calls that come in. We also deal a lot with questions about local history.
Q: What's the strangest thing anyone's ever asked you on the phone?
A: Whoa, there've been a lot! Let's see...I don't even know if I can narrow it down, but we definitely get some strange questions. I don't know that I can tell you some of them for print.
Q: Strange, like dirty, not fit for public consumption?
A: No, no, it's not that they're dirty; they're just insane! But the patrons who asked them would know who they are.
Q: What's your background in working with the library?
A: I have been with the library system for 25 years, and in this position for 21 years. I have a master's degree in library science and bachelor's degree in English lit and history. So I am doing something I'm interested in! This is a great place to work.
Q: Has the advent of the Internet had a big effect on your work?
A: In some ways it's dropped the number of requests I get, but then again, it hasn't. People sometimes have this false impression that they'll just get out there on the Internet and find what they're looking for...first, not everything is online, although more of it is getting there all the time, and second, just because you find something doesn't mean you necessarily know what you are looking at. Right now, there are a lot of states for which you can't just hop online and find a birth record. If you're going to do genealogy, you are eventually going to find yourself back in those same courthouses, and cemeteries, and right here at my desk; there's just no substitute for putting in the footwork. We do plan to have a terminal soon in this room with a hookup to ancestry.com that our patrons can tap into, which will be a great benefit for them, because it's something they normally would have to pay for.
Q: Do you ever feel like you should get a $5 fee for every question that you do all this work for when you deliver the answer to a patron?
A: (laughs) No, no! I'm here to help people, and the patrons themselves are really putting in a lot of work; they just need help along the way. Especially if I get people who wind up in this room from out-of-town, and they've made the effort to get here and know what questions they need help with, I feel like it's my responsibility to make the effort to assist them with their research. There can be people who drive you crazy, who just sit at home and expect you to do all the work for them, like, "Send me everything you have on Jones" or something. But it all goes along with the spirit of a public library.