Any Questions? When Students Want to Know, They Ask a Librarian

This is a guest post by Danna Bell of the Library’s Educational Outreach Office. It first appeared in “A Library for Kids,” the September–October issue of LCM, the Library of Congress Magazine. The issue is available in its entirety online.

Photo by Shawn Miller.

Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk? Are children allowed in the Library of Congress? What is the smallest book at the Library? What is the favorite book of the Librarian of Congress?

What do these questions have in common? They’re all questions sent by kids to the Library of Congress.

The Library receives about 400,000 reference questions a year from people around the world, and it has a team of experts ready to respond quickly and accurately to users. The Library of Congress is for everyone, and kids are welcome to ask questions, just like adults do.

Some kids get in touch because they’re looking for homework help. Some are getting ready for competitions like National History Day. Some are just following their own curiosity or searching for answers to a question inspired by a book, a movie or a conversation with their friends.

The Library’s experts treat questions from kids the same way they treat questions from adults: They read each question very carefully and think about the best way to help. Then they respond as soon as they can usually within a few days. They don’t always provide the answer, but will often suggest books, websites and other resources to help kids find the answer for themselves.

Here are a few of our favorite questions from young scholars:

  • “I am studying Roberto Clemente. Do you know what he ate? Could you tell me what condiments he used to eat?”
  • “How many brothers and sisters did Pocahontas have?”
  • “Did Cesar Chavez have any pets? What did he like to do when he was a kid?”
  • “Do you have any books about homework and its effect on the human brain? I would like to be able to prove that homework is bad for you.”

Some kids take their questions right to the top, to the person in charge of the Library of Congress, Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden. They’ve sent her handwritten letters wondering:

  • “Is it fun to be the Librarian of Congress?”
  • “Did you always like libraries from the start?”

As with the adults who ask questions, the young scholars appreciate the help they get and often are eager to show it, with a hand-drawn thank-you card, a note decorated with “balloons of love,” feedback about a meeting with the librarian of Congress (“in addition, when you did the dab that was cool”) or even, perhaps, an invitation.

“I will stay in touch and write more letters to you,” one young correspondent wrote to Hayden. “Do you like Indian food? My mom and dad make out of this world paneer and if you have the time, can you have dinner with us?”

The Library loves to get questions from kids – and from anyone! The easiest way to ask a question is to visit the Ask a Librarian page on the Library’s website. Of course, if 30 students all from the same class all send questions at the same time, chances are good that our reference librarians will reach out to the school’s librarian and alert him or her so that he or she can work with the teacher to support the students’ curiosity with local resources.

Are you wondering about the answers to the questions in the first paragraph above?

  • Pigeons bob their heads because it helps them see. This question and its answer eventually ended up on the Business, Science and Technology Division’s Everyday Mysteries website.
  • Yes, kids of all ages are welcome in the Library of Congress. And anyone over 16 is welcome to do research in our reading rooms.
  • Our smallest book, “Old King Cole,” is about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
  • Hayden’s favorite book is “Bright April,” by Marguerite De Angeli.

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