Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mr. Dent

A recent semi-regular patron of ours is Mr. Dent. He might be the fourth grumpiest old man in all the world, but he perhaps has more reason than some. Mr. Dent is so named because he has an enormous dent in his head. He looks exactly like he might have once had some kind of head trauma that required the installation of a metal plate, only the metal plate was either flat to begin with or has since rusted and sagged, leaving a flatish slope to one side of the top of Mr. Dent's head.

Mr. Dent approached us a while back with a reference question. He wanted a book that told him everything there was to know about the English county of Devon. Now, while I'm sure such a book on such a specific subject does exist in the world, it does not exist in our library, nor any library in our state. So we had to resort to other reference works and overall books about England to start the man off. Throughout our efforts to find information for him, Mr. Dent remained planted at the circ-desk, peering at us through his enormous glasses like some sort of myopic, cranky, dented hawk, while one, then two and then three of us joined in the search. Mrs. C went for print sources while Mrs. B and I tackled the innanet. Each of us found some general information about Devonshire, but nothing we found seemed to suit Mr. Dent. It just wouldn't do. It simply wasn't what he was looking for.

Finally, it occurred to one of us to ask him precisely what it was that he wanted to know about Devon. Mr. Dent then explained that he recently read a novel in which a fictional character, while traveling through Devon, made the observation that there were thousands of people populating Devonshire, yet there were only 14 surnames between them. Mr. Dent wanted to find out if this is true.

Now, as a library employee I should hate to say it, but there are some reference questions that, while completely possible to research, are just difficult enough to do it from THIS side of the Atlantic that the whole thing quickly becomes an enormous hassle and you wish the person making the request would realize this and go away. This was one of those questions. I'm sure there are loads of libraries in Devonshire and throughout England that could sort out this statement very quickly. I just didn't see how WE could easily do so, at least not with Mr. Dent looming over us the entire time, preening his feathers and sharpening his talons. In the end, we printed out 20 pages on the history of Devonshire, didn't charge him for any of it and he then agreed to go away.

Two weeks later, Mr. Dent returned. He deposited his books on the desk, searched out some more, checked them out and then announced to Mrs. B that he needed her help in locating some information.

"Do you already know what I'm going to ask about?" he said.

"No," she replied.

I did, but I'd seen Mr. Dent coming toward the circ desk and had retreated around the corner, near enough to hear what was going on but with no intentions of getting pulled into any of it as a participant.

Mr. Dent explained that the material we'd given him on Devon had not been at all useful. And he again told us the story about the fictional tale he'd read in which a character professes there are only 14 surnames to be found in the whole county. And then Mr. Dent laid down the basic fundamental behind his search...

In a voice far louder than necessary, which carried across the entirety of the main floor, Mr. Dent announced, "I want to see if that's why English people have their eyes so close together." He paused to allow this to sink in, then added, "You know... incest." He paused again. Then, in a voice even louder than before, he added, "LIKE PEOPLE SAY ABOUT WEST VIRGINIA BEING THE INCEST CAPITAL OF THE WHOLE COUNTRY." This last part drew shocked and foul looks from nearby patrons. Some innanet crowders also peered up at this disturbance to their netting bliss and beamed stink-eyes in his direction. I stepped even further away, fearing Mrs. B might see me and wave me over to help.

Mrs. C, who had been in the staff workroom until then, could not have avoided hearing Mr. Dent's bellowing and came out to see if she could help. She again searched the catalog while Mrs. B hit the net. Mr. Dent, of course, stood there the entire time watching the ladies as they jumped at his whim. I knew Mrs. C's search of books we had on hand would be fruitless, but Mrs. B soon announced that she had found some references to census records, though not yet the actual records themselves yet.

After more minutes had passed, during which I continued to lurk like a big coward on the fringes, I saw that there were some patrons approaching to check out and I decided to step behind the desk to take care of them, knowing this would free Mrs. B to continue her search on the other computer. Soon enough, though, I found myself alone there, Mr. Dent's gigantic, magnified hawk-eyes boring into me. I decided I had no excuse not to try and help search for something, ANYTHING, that might make him go away again. So I hit Google and tried to search for surnames in Devon, England.

I didn't expect to find much, as I'd done similar searches the last time he was in to no avail. But, oddly, it took very little time to find the information needed to refute Mr. Dent's claim. I was actually amazed we hadn't found it before. After Googling the phrase "list of devonshire england surnames" I found a site that lead me to another site and a couple of link clicks later found this page which provided me with a reference to a comprehensive list of Devonshire surnames written by Dr. Henry Brougham Guppy in 1890. Furthermore, it was a list of about 400 Devonshire surnames that were gathered from censuses taken during the mid-19th century. It even had a link to the list itself, which did indeed seem to have about 400 names on it.

I explained this to Mr. Dent, indicating the reference on my screen, then showing him the actual list itself. I even offered to print it for him it for him in case he wished to study it at home. But the bottom line of all this was that if there were 400 surnames in 1890, there would certainly be more during whatever time the fictional book he'd read in which a character was driving an automobile was set. Not knowing the context in which it was given, I suggested that perhaps the character in the novel was making a joke at Devon's expense, much as people frequently make similar jokes at West Virginia's expense. Mr. Dent, noncommittally supposed that this might be the case, but he looked rather put out that his research into English incest had been so easily squashed.

I thought our little reference battle with Mr. Dent was finished and that he would retreat to his aeiry to tend his wounds. He, however, was not finished with me.

"I have a brother..." he slowly began. Then he paused a moment, as though his brain were processing the next words to come forth, a pattern which he would continue throughout the remainder of his statement.

"...who lives up north.


"He has one of these cell phones...


"... that he has so many minutes on that he has to use.


"And he calls me on it...



"...every day.


"But he doesn't charge his battery...


"...and it goes out whenever he goes under a bridge.


"He only calls me...


"...when he's traveling.



"This really annoys me.


"The last time I talked to him...


"I told him I wanted him to research this business about Devon for me...


"...and I haven't heard from him since."

He then gave a considerably longer pause during which the corners of his mouth twisted up into a raptor-like smile.

"Maybe that's the way to keep him from calling me all the time," he finished.

I laughed, agreed with him, and Mr. Dent soon departed.


Lois Aleta said...

If Mr. Dent is still pursuing his question about Devonshire (which seems to mostly just go by "Devon" these days), get him onto the "innanet" to the Genuki website, which is sort of a RootsWeb for Great Britain. Specifically
There's a page at
with links to histories/genealogies of specific families, searchable by family name. There are many more than 14. I suspect the author he read was making a joke, not at all being serious, and I hope Mr. D. can accept that. Some people, when they get an idea in their heads, dented or not, have trouble letting those ideas go.

Juice S. Aaron said...

Yeah, that's the page I linked to in the blog entry.

Lisa said...

That ending is both surprising and a little creepy.

Julie said...

A great thing about working in an academic library is that you see patterns in the Patronese. I had a girl come up to the desk today and say: "Is there anywhere I can get census or statistics information for Homewood?" I said, "Is Homewood in Pennsylvania?" She said yes. I asked "Are you looking for birth and mortality statistics?" She said yes. I had already answered that question for someone looking for the same info on McKees Rock, PA, a few weeks ago.

Anonymous said...

Have some local knowledge from an English liberry assistant!

Devon, and its neighbours Cornwall and Somerset, are indeed the butt of many incest jokes. Also bestiality jokes. It doesn't help that the local accent is very similar to the stereotypical pirate accent, or that the south west in general is the home of the scrumpy (ie: cloudy and suspicious) cider industry. Or that Cornwall has its own flag and a dialect that's pratically a language.

"Oooh arrr, I'm a West Country farmer. I'm orf to molest some goats while drinking zider with Denzil. He's my father and my uncle!"

So there you are.

Vicki said...

Or, you could have referred him to the
library in Devon
. I would love to hear how they would respond!

An employee of a small town "liberry" chronicles his quest to remain sane while dealing with patrons who could star in a short-lived David Lynch television series.