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!

Why? Because Feynman reflects what a lot of reference desks run into: patrons who lack the appropriate language to convey what they really want; although they know what they want to get, they have not been given the tools to articulate properly to a librarian what that is. They are not stupid, they are not inept, they are driven to find information but lack an essential key to reach it: how to ask for it.

As a reference librarian in training, how would I have reacted in this situation? Would I have responded to a young Feynman with the same horrified reaction – “a map of the cat!”, repeating the patron’s words to underscore the ridiculousness of them – or would I have been able to automatically disseminate what he wanted and go, “Oh, you would like the anatomical map of a cat? Are you interested in domesticated cats or a wild cats?”

The college librarian who fielded the “map of the cat” question got Feynman to what he needed, but in the process humiliated a prospective repeat patron, and possibly started a rumor about him as the “dumb biology student”. Can you imagine him wanting to darken those particular halls again anytime soon? Not me! If anything, she serves as a cautionary tale for librarians in training.

When there are these internal barriers for patrons in accessing information in a library setting, librarians must function as a cipher to translate the patron’s initial, potentially jumbled, question into a understandable request that can be fulfilled, all while not insulting the patron’s intelligence. We are seen as the keepers and distributors of knowledge, the ones who understand how the library systems work, and we should not abuse that perception of our abilities. How we handle tricky queries reflects on us as professionals.

The larger issue of information literacy is what keeps patrons from being able to fully express what they mean. It’s a much larger, more complex issue than I can summarize in one blog post, but it’s definitely an issue that librarians will have to address if they want to continue to empower their patrons with the tools and resources that make them able researchers. How do we express to patrons the best way to find sources? How do we teach essential library skills without being patronizing? At what time does the patron/librarian relationship tackle the issue of teaching some of the tools of the trade without overwhelming the patron with information? It’s a lot to consider, and it’s something I’ll be considering while I am in school.

Personally, the idea that how I respond to a weirdly phrased question might permanently turn a young learner or curious thinker away from the library for good is enough of a driving force for keeping my interactions with patrons honest but thoughtful and always kind. If I can teach them to use the library more efficiently and improve their future interactions with other library staff, even better.

In this current atmosphere where patrons are more stressed than usual, we can choose to turn our backs and dismiss their needs due to the barrier in understanding one another. Alternatively, we can just show them where to find the dang map of the cat.

Additional reading:

Taylor, Robert S. “Question-Negotiation and Information Seeking in Libraries.” American Documentation 13.4 (1962): 391‐6. College & Research Libraries. 

Pikas, Christina K. “Communication Is The Key Skill For Reference Librarians.” Evidence Based Library & Information Practice 2.4 (2007): 88-91. Library & Information Science Source.

Whisner, Mary. “Relevance, Choices, And The Goldilocks Problem.” Law Library Journal 103.2 (2011): 307-311. Library & Information Science Source.

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