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Chapter 10: Humor and Anecdotes: "How Do You Fricassee a Snapping Turtle?"

"Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend; inside of a dog, it’s too hard to read." - Groucho Marx, comedian

From 1947 through 1984, Madison Public Library librarians shared information and stories through a staff newsletter that became known as the Listening Post. In the early 1980s, Ann Waidelich wrote a brief history of the Listening Post which was duly presented in, of course,the Listening Post:

"On September 20, 1947, Ms. Helen Jansky, Head of Circulation, started 'to send around typed and routed, not printed so everyone could have a copy, a circular letter with news, notes, new rules and miscellany because it was so difficult to get everyone together for staff meetings.' She asked the staff for suggestions for a name for the letter and on October 17th she announced that 'Dick' has won a box of candy for the name, Circulating "D" News. (D both for Department and 'the'). This was published fairly regularly through 1954.

In January of 1955 Circulating "D" News came under new authorship, put out three issues, and seems to have been dormant until November 17, 1960. Again, there was a contest to name the publication. Bernard Schwab and Orrilla Blackshear (Director and Assistant Director respectively) chose Norma Churchill's entry the Listening Post. The newsletter was published without interruption until 1984."

The Listening Post primarily focused on local issues, but regularly featured stories related to libraries throughout the United States and abroad. The contents often mirrored many of the major concerns and interests of library staff during the thirty-five years of its publication. There are tales that are funny, serious, and poignant as well as articles whose intent is simply to share news and information. During that same time period, as well as during the first half of the century, MPL librarians also compiled scrapbooks of library-related newspaper clippings that offer a similar wealth of stories from MPL's history and from other libraries of interest to MPL librarians.

The selections in this chapter are some of the funniest and most compelling tales from those library records. The comic stories reveal MPL librarians' abilities to laugh at themselves, to appreciate humorous incidents at MPL and in other libraries, and, as the Mad Magazine brochure suggests, to consciously use humor to accomplish the goals of the library. The reference questions preserved by librarian Dorothy Huston in the late 1940s offer a spectrum of inquiries from patrons ranging from the mundane to the profound. The tales of the JFK assassination and the Nation represent rare instances in which MPL has received national exposure. Finally, the Isaac Bashevis Singer anecdote offers the wisdom of an author who briefly passed through the doors of the Madison Public Library.

"A Bit of Humor"

JoAnn Zamacona reported the following reaction to her assumption of a new position at Lakeview Branch Library:

Eight-year-old girl: Are you new to the library?
JoAnn: Yes, I am.
Girl: Well, I guess I'll get used to you.

"To Borrow Trouble"

"In 1970, a Lakeview Branch patron claimed she had returned a book. Later she called to say she thought her poodle had eaten the book. The book was called To Borrow Trouble."

"On the Lighter Side"



 The following comments are taken from written work of 4th and 5th graders (not from Madison) who were studying librarianship as a career:

"Librarians are one of the main by-products of books."
"Card catalogues are so complicated they are really not good for anything but being card catalogues."
"Librarians are very interesting folks. All their ways are helping ways and glad to see you ways."
"If anybody ever said librarians don’t have to work very hard, boy would that ever boil my temper."
"I have always wanted to be a librarian but not very much."
"ZZzzz. You would be sleepy too if you stayed up and read as much as I did about what librarians do at their jobs."
"I am going to be a librarian like you are. I have decided you are my ninth favorite person in the universe."

"Grammatical Judgment"

"It might be incorrect to say that a book was write or a book was wrote, but it might be perfectly all right to say a book was wrotten."

"Passing the Buck"

"The Chicago Tribune reports that readers looking for books in one of Chicago library's card catalog dealing with sex will find a card that reads as follows: "Sex. See librarian."

"Wormwood Scrubbs"

"What is Wormwood Scrubbs?" children at Randall school asked their music teacher. One verse of the song they were learning goes,

"From there I went to Pimlico
To try my hand at crime, sir.
I landed up at Wormwood Scrubbs
And there I learned to rhyme, sir."

Eventually the question reached the Art and Music Division. And what did they find out? After trying the usual sources the clue was found in the Eleventh Edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (c1911) still stored in the basement. It was a local prison for North London located in one of the 'open spaces' of the same name (193 acres) under the administration of the London City Council. Definitions: wormwood, the bitterest of all herbs; grows in waste places; associated in the Bible with punishment, hardship, etc. Scrub, of stunted growth."

"Next Time Someone Asks You Where the 300s Are"

"Staff members at Northwestern University Library Cataloging Department have identified what is believed to be the longest Dewey number ever under serious consideration for assignment: a 23-digit monster for ARAB ATTITUDES TOWARD ISRAEL by Yehoshafat Harkabi, 301.1543012917492705694. The meaning of the number can be broken down as follows: 301-Sociology, 1543-Opinions, attitudes, beliefs on specific topics (Add 001-999); 301-Sociology; 29-Historical and geographical treatment (Add "areas"); 174-Region where specific racial, ethnic, national groups predominate (Add from Table 5); 927-Arabs and Maltese; 0-General relations between two countries (Add "areas"); 5694-Palestine, Israel. In other words: Historical and geographical treatment of opinions on countries where Arabs predominate, and their relations with Israel."

"Read More Slowly"

The public library in the town of St. Ingbert Germany recently had its book budget cut drastically, from DM 40,000 to DM 10,000. Der Spiegel reports that "for reasons of economy, the library director requests that books be read more slowly to make them last longer."

Patron Accuses Librarians’ High Heels Guilty of Making Too Much Noise

"If high heels were so wonderful, men would still be wearing them." - Sue Grafton, author

During the 1880s, Melvil Dewey (the creator of the Dewey Decimal System, among his many library-related contributions) was particularly concerned about noise in the library.

According to historian Wayne Wiegand, Dewey, for the Columbia College Library, "had rubber tips placed on chairs and tables, rubber wheels on book trucks, and even issued slippers for all pages. All new readers were handed cards requesting them to step lightly across the room and not talk away from the loan desk, even in low tones. They even were told not to use tobacco, wear hats, put their feet on chairs or tables, or litter the premises. When Dewey became head of the New York State Law Library, he insisted employees wear rubber heels."

In 1966, one of Madison Public Library's patrons complained about the noise made by female staff members with their high heels. She requested the guilty parties place rubber tips under their high heels. There is no indication that the staff members responded to her concerns.

On March 9, 2000 the Capital Times ran a story on high heels with the headline, "They're Still Around, But Many Women Have Told Them to Take a Hike." The article presented both the viewpoints of women who love to wear high heels and of podiatrists who warn of the health risks presented by wearing high heels. Given their continued popularity, perhaps the "noisy" high heel controversy will emerge again in the future.

 "Chaos Caused by Caught Canine"



 "Residents in the neighborhood of the Madison Free Library were kept awake during the past night by the howls of a dog, which had begun at 9:30 p.m. and lasted till 6:00 a.m. today; it is revealed that a dog had been accidentally locked in the library until the janitor arrived at work and released it." This event occurred on Saturday, August 26, 1911.

"Pressure Group"

"64 8th grade boys from Lake Mills visited the library on Tuesday, March 23, 1972. They were finding material to present as background information to persuade their principal to buy weight lifting equipment for their school."

Onion Skins, Ivory Soap, and Books!!

On February 20, 1940, in her column "All Around Town", Capital Times columnist Madge Yohn interviewed city librarian Helen Farr to find out what happened to old, worn-out library books. Miss Farr’s answers surprised the columnist and probably many of her readers. The unusual book repair techniques employed in 1940 are described in the excerpt from the column below.

"What becomes of them … those worn-out books that have served their term of active circulating usefulness at the city library? Are they destroyed, given to the old rags and paper man, or what?

Helen Farr, city librarian, lets us in on the inside of this feature of the workings of the Madison Free Library. Those old books have a definite place on the working schedule of this well-regulated institution. One wouldn't believe what they do to those books unless you really witnessed it.

For instance, would you believe they actually wash some of the books with soap and water? Well, they do! Naturally, all the books get pretty dirty from so much handling. "So," says Miss Farr, "we make a light suds with Ivory soap, dip a rubber sponge in it and go over the book quickly and lightly."

"Not only that," she went on to say, "but we mend the torn leaves with transparent onion skin; put on whole new covers; make new hinges and give them a thorough overhauling and fixing so they can go back into circulation for a while longer."

The Bicycling Librarian

Madison Free Library librarians' dedication to provide a high quality service to patrons often has extended beyond the boundaries of the library. Dena Babcock's "reference on wheels" experience exemplifies this commitment. In an interview with the Wisconsin State Journal in 1948, Miss Babcock commented that "she had become more or less accustomed to being asked unusual questions on buses and at social gatherings." She thought it time to analyze the public's confidence in her powers, however, after receiving two appeals for information while bicycling down Madison streets.

"Librarians do not 'know everything,' as many patrons profess to believe when they ask for information," Miss Babcock said. She did know the answer, however, on each of the two occasions mentioned, once on Regent Street and again while pedaling down Kendall Avenue. Not only was she able to provide the impromptu reference information, but she was able to "toss it over her shoulder" without slowing down! Dena Babcock seemed to have readily accepted her responsibility to answer reference questions even beyond the doors of the library.

How Do You Fricassee a Snapping Turtle?

Reference librarian Dorothy Huston had her own particular sense of responsibility for library work. Between 1946 and 1951, she recorded thousands of reference questions she received by entering them with abbreviated notations in stenographers notebooks. It remains a mystery why she maintained such records. Perhaps they were a means to keep track of questions whose answers she had not yet discovered, or perhaps she understood the historical value of such documentation. In either case, they are a boon for an archivist of library history.

Surveying her records reveals both similarities and differences between reference questions posed back in the 1940s and 1950s and those asked today. Consumer Reports information, for example, was commonly sought both then and today. Patrons requested consumer information on washing machines, refrigerators, mix-masters, portable typewriters, bathroom scales, steam irons, waffle irons, corn poppers, cold creams, and more. They sought enlightenment on how to say "Merry Christmas" in Russian, spell rosemaling, and the existence of albino muskrats. Contemporary political figures like Stalin were of interest as were recent events like the bombing of Hiroshima.

A sampling of her reference questionsgives the flavor of the inquiries of patrons nearly fifty years ago:

How do you fricassee a snapping turtle?
How do you remove chewing gum from a child's hair?
Should a woman guest take the arm of a junior usher (5'0") at a formal wedding?
Who was the actress who appeared in "Born Yesterday?"
What kind of preparation is needed for refinishing old floors so that the varnish will dry fast?
How do you raise hamsters?
Is Helen Keller still living?
What’s the difference between a centime and a centavo?
What are the duties of the matron of honor?
Is cabbage grown on the white cliffs of Dover?
Does the spelling go "flag flies" or "flag flys"?
How to make dandelion wine?
How old was Stalin when he attended the priesthood seminary?
Where can I find a picture of William Tell's bow?
Cancer, what did people in the 17th and 18th centuries think of it?
Amount of territory covered in Hiroshima’s destruction by the atom bomb?
How to tan fox pelts?
"Familiarity breeds contempt," who said it?
Potatoes and apples, how many in a bushel?
What US President was a bachelor?
What effect do bad debts have on business?
Pros and cons of comic books?
How do IBM machines work?
In what magazine was the article published "Should communism be outlawed?"
How to remove ink stains?
How to take care of a dachshund?
Should Alaska be a state?
How to plan a bridge tournament?
Number of displaced children in Europe?

A Noisy Day at the Library in 1948

During the 1940s and 1950s, several staff columnists for the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times devoted regular columns to Madison Free Library-related topics. Herb Jacobs, Capital Times columnist, for example, had a column "Try and Stump Me!" in which he challenged readers to submit questions for him to answer. Often, he cited the Madison Free Library as the source of the information for his answer. On June 3, 1948, Wisconsin State Journal columnist Betty Cass wrote the following column about a day at the library in which calm and quiet were the exception rather than the rule.

Day by Day columnOperation Dream Search

"Society often forgives the criminal; it never forgives the dreamer." - Oscar Wilde, playwright

On April 3, 1981, Clark Smith, librarian and co-editor of the MPL newsletter the Listening Post, asked MPL staff to share with him their most interesting library-related dreams to publish in a future newsletter issue. He introduced this request by reporting the dream of a staff member who "recently dreamed that Mr. Schwab was on television (as "TV Bernie") advertising a closeout sale of truckloads of discounted closeout books." Below are some of the dreams reported by staff members, which Clark Smith published in the May 1, 1981 issue of the Listening Post:


"So far our contributions have ranged from the trivial all the way to the full-fledged short story. Staff members have reported routine anxiety dreams (working in the stacks and suddenly discovering that one has left one's clothes at home; reporting to work and noting that one's supervisor is one’s mother). High school dreams are also popular — being late for class = being late for the desk; inability to answer a reference question = taking an exam and realizing one forgot to study for it.

My own personal variant is always a high school Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, manned by elaborately costumed MPL staff, some or all of whom have forgotten their lines.

Another librarian had a furniture dream:

I arrived at work, went to open my locker. After several attempts, using my regular combination, I was told all the combinations had been changed and I was not allowed to find out the new one. I then went into the office to sit at my desk and found my chair had been removed and a wooden straight-back chair put in its place. When I tried to sit on it, it collapsed."

NOTE: Perhaps the dream about leaving "one's clothes at home" harkens back to the mid-1970s "streaking" craze in which daring Lady and Larry Godivas ran naked through innumerable settings. Although MPL never reported a streaker appearing in its libraries, streakers were reported racing past the reference desk and through the stacks at the Los Angeles County Public Library. The Livingston Park, Mississippi Library set up a special bookshelf honoring streaking. Among the titles: Naked Came I, The Naked Runner, Man from the Beginning, Treasures to See, More Shapes and Stories-Flights That Made History, Comparative Anatomy, and Mom! I Need Glasses.

What…Me Worry? Alfred E. Newman and The Madison Public Library Join Efforts

By 1966, the United States was in the early stages of a populist social movement that grew stronger as the decade continued and was to culminate in a period of conflict that permanently changed the attitudes and values of Americans and the character of American social institutions.

The public library could not isolate itself from the social movement of the time or the turbulence and changes it wrought. Many librarians believed that the library must establish its identity as an institution serving all the people; that it must create new forms of service that would make it a vital force in the life of the community as a whole.

In this vein, the Madison Public Library took a particularly creative tact in their effort to reach out to schoolchildren. In 1966, the library distributed the following flyer to entice children to take advantage of the opportunities provided both by school libraries and public libraries.

Mad BrochureMad Brochure

"You Insist on Having Your Own Daily Paper, Fountain Pen, Toothbrush, Surely You Need Your Own Nation": The Madison Public Library Fights Crime in 1924

From its inception, the Madison Public Library has attempted to make library materials available to patrons when they need them. Many strategies have been employed to prevent the theft of materials from the collection. In October 1974, an electronic book theft detector was installed at the exit door of the city's main library building to reduce the growing loss of materials from the main library. This technological breakthrough occurred on the heels of suspicions that a city alderman was stealing books containing information on sex for children because of his objections to books on that topic. He supposedly chose to pilfer the books in order to remove them from the shelves. When queried, he claimed to have lost the books.

On December 3, 1924, unbeknownst to the staff of the Madison Free Library, the magazine the Nation reproduced a notice that had been posted in the reading room of the Madison Free Library in an attempt to apprehend the person who was stealing the Nation from the library. The Nation creatively used the Madison sign in an attempt to enlist new subscribers. This notice is presented below.

Nation AdvertisementFrom the end of World War I through the era of McCarthyism, the Nation was involved in several censorship controversies. In 1921, it was banned, along with the New Republic, from the school libraries of Los Angeles for "undermining the economic principles of America." In 1948, the Nation was excluded from school libraries in Newark, New Jersey, and in New York City. The initial NYC ban occurred because school officials deemed a series of articles by Paul Blanshard to be disrespectful of the Catholic Church. The Nation also had been labeled "left-wing" and "pro-Soviet." The American Library Association organized an Ad Hoc Committee to Lift the Ban on the Nation, headed by former Librarian of Congress and poet Archibald Macleish. Despite protests from the committee and subsequent lobbying efforts from prominent writers and editors for nearly a decade, the ban on the Nation was not removed from New York City schools until 1957.


JFK's Assassination: Madison Public Library Makes the Huntley-Brinkley Report

Where Were You When President Kennedy Was Shot? book cover

"If this nation is to be wise as well as strong, if we are to achieve our destiny, then we need more wise men reading more good books in more public libraries."


- John F. Kennedy


The Madison Public Library closed its doors on Saturday, November 23, 1963, and on Monday November 25, 1963, to mourn the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. A picture of the Main Library with its "Closed" sign in the door was shown on NBC's Huntley-Brinkley Report that Saturday evening along with other photographs from all over the country showing the effects of the tragedy on the life of the nation.

In the December 6, 1963, issue of the Listening Post, an article described the assistance provided by Library Director Bernard Schwab's children during this crisis: "During the long weekend when library agencies were closed, Mr. Heyroth (custodian) kept a check on the East Side branches and Main. The Schwab children kept book drops at Monroe and Sequoya cleared."

A Button for a Nobel Laureate

During the 1967-68 academic year, Polish-born writer Isaac Bashevis Singer was a writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Within two years, he would receive the National Book Award for A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, one of his several books for children. In 1978 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for an "impassioned narrative art" that is rooted in Polish-Jewish culture.

On April 25, 1968, he presented a public lecture at the central branch of the Madison Public Library. Before the lecture, he noticed that a button was missing from his jacket. Assistant Library Director Ellen Erickson, always ready to provide service to library patrons and visitors, quickly sewed on a new button.

On May 17, 1970, the Listening Post reprinted the following statement made by Mr. Singer in accepting the 1969 National Children's Award in Children’s Literature:

"There are five hundred reasons why I began to write for children, but to save time I will mention only ten of them.

  1. Children read books, not reviews.
  2. They don't read to find identity.
  3. They don't read to free themselves of guilt, to quench the thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation.
  4. They have no use of psychology.
  5. They detest sociology.
  6. They don't try to understand Kafka or Finnegan's Wake.
  7. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff.
  8. They love interesting stories, not commentary, guides or footnotes.
  9. When a book is boring, they yawn openly, without any shame or fear of authority.
  10. They don't expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have some childish illusions.

Thank you very much for bestowing this honor up me, a mere beginner in juvenile literature.