What Makes Cecil Adams the World's Greatest Reference Librarian?

By Piper, Paul S. | American Libraries, February 1995 | Go to article overview
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What Makes Cecil Adams the World's Greatest Reference Librarian?


Piper, Paul S., American Libraries


He's "a cross between Don Rickles and the Library of Congress" and one of the hottest dinner guests in town.

Imagine you're sitting at the reference desk. It's been a slow Thursday evening. In the last few minutes you directed a couple of students to the World Almanac for the GNP of Greece. You're reading up on a couple of new CD-ROM products, and thinking about the staff meeting at 9 a.m. tomorrow morning.

Suddenly a guy dressed in jeans, a Primo Beer T-shirt, and scuffed tennis shoes is standing in front of you. He wants to know if one billion Chinese got up on chairs and jumped off at the same time, would the earth be thrown out of orbit? You make him repeat his question to be sure that you heard him right. There is no hint of a smile on his face, and in his eyes, only a look of intense desperation. He's finally made it to the library. You are his last hope. You don't have the foggiest idea what he is talking about, much less where to get an answer. Who ya gonna call? Adams, of course!

Cecil Adams, self-proclaimed omniscient and "world's smartest human being," is also possibly the world's greatest reference librarian. When asked if he ever wanted to be a librarian or go to library school, Cecil answered "Good Lord, no!" Yet his mother was reputed to be a school librarian in Chicago, and ever since he was a little tyke his insatiable curiosity wrestled with some of the century's great questions; questions such as, "How can anyone really like opera?" and "Why is everybody so much dumber than me?" Obviously, similar questions propel most librarians to become who, and what, they are.

Cecil is the author of the column entitled "The Straight Dope," which currently graces the pages of two-dozen "alternative" newspapers in the U.S., reaching 1.5 million people weekly. "Is there something you need to get straight?" the final column inch reads in fine print: "Cecil Adams can deliver `The Straight Dope' on any topic." And with this innocent invitation, readers send their most nagging questions to him, questions that keep them tossing past 3 a.m., that lodge in the brain like a popcorn hull between the teeth. Cecil typically receives around 5.0 questions weekly, from which he eventually selects an average of two to answer.

Two questions a week, you say--is that it? I get 40 a night, and I barely make the rent. What's more, I have to immediately fess up to those I can't answer. On the other hand, how many of you want to regularly field questions like:

* Does the rain in Spain fall mainly on the plain?

* What does the H. in Jesus H. Christ stand for?

* How much can I get for my internal organs?

* What is a grape nut anyway?

* How can Hawaii have interstate highways?

* Why do men have nipples?

* Why is there no Q on the phone dial?

Off the wall

Many of the questions he receives are so off the wall even he doesn't bother with them. Others he invests a certain amount of work in only to hit a dead end. One of the beauties of his job is that he only needs to broadcast his successes, while the failures remain unanswered. Of course, he is seldom wrong; but when his readers think he is, they jump all over him, as is evidenced by some of the lengthy back-and-forth exchanges that occur from time to time. Besides "The Straight Dope," Cecil is the author of four books, His style is acerbic, condescending, outrageous, hilarious, and informative. He has a large and loyal following he affectionately calls "the teeming millions."

He has been written up in the Wall Street Journal and People, and has appeared on the Today show, Pat Sajak, Joan Rivers, the CBS Morning News, as well as CNN and NPR-affiliated stations. Edward Dolnick, writing in Discover, came up with what is perhaps the most accurate description of Cecil when he called him "a cross between Don Rickles and the Library; of Congress." In other words, while not quite up there with Madonna, the guy gets around.

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