A reference desk at work. Photo by the Manchester City Library (https://www.flickr.com/photos/manchesterlibrary/3128145925, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/).

A Map Of The Cat: Tell Me What You Really Want

Richard Feynman, before he revolutionized physics and became the leading figure in quantum electrodynamics, was just an average (well, maybe not average) college student the day he walked into his campus library and asked for one thing: a map of the cat.

The poor librarian working the biology section that day was aghast. “A map of the cat, sir?” One can imagine the horror in her voice, the absolutely shocked expression on her face.

She managed, however, to set young Feynman straight. She led him to the appropriate zoology materials and to the charts that he needed –  the “maps” of the cat he was asking for. This story can be read in full in his book, SURELY YOU’RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN! (which is an absolute gem of a read no matter what your field is), and Scientific America samples this charming anecdote in a great write-up as Feynman as biologist.

When I first read that story last year as an undergrad English student, I laughed at Feynman’s ineptitude and the naivety of a physics genius barging into the world of biology and attempting to conquer its vocabulary, only to stumble a bit at the starting line. Later, after spending a little time in the LIS program, studying reference work and the functions of the reference desk, I feel sorry for Little Richard. And I certainly do not feel sorry for the librarian!

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