Don’t Ask Me. Go Look It Up



There is one book in the library that I will never get rid of.

A painful part of every library worker’s job is to go through this process called “weeding” – the systematic culling of books from your collection that are obsolete, falling apart or otherwise haven’t been checked out in years.  In order to make way for new material, the old stuff’s gotta go.  No one likes making those decisions and we usually put them off as long as possible.  Who wants to kick books out of a library?  

But the 1993 Webster’s Third New International Dictionary is not going anywhere.  

Donated in 2015 by two South Pas residents Missy and Dr. B.A Finsted, this 15 lb. treasure is logically placed next to a set of books that have also received eternal weeding amnesty (by me): the encyclopedia.  They keep each other company, probably reminiscing about the old days once all the kids have left for the day and the lights are turned out. 

The reason the dictionary stays at this point is entirely personal.  It cracks me up.  Not because it sits there high and mighty on its own designated table, propped up by its pompous wrought iron and glass customized holder, but because every time I see a small group of kids around it, flipping through its onion skin pages, I know exactly what’s going on: They’re looking up dirty words.  Or what they perceive to be dirty words.  Or at least words they know they’re vaguely uncomfortable asking an adult about.  

I know this because once a group of – let’s be honest here, it’s almost always boys – walks away from the artlessly left open pages chortling like Beavis and Butthead, I quietly slide by and take a glance at what the page contains.  Yep, there it is.  There’s that body part.  Or that act between two consenting adults.  Or that unfortunate gastrointestinal condition.  

It’s sort of sweet, really.  Think about the myriad of other places that same word could have been looked up!  When I consider how not too long ago I wanted to wash my eyes with acid to erase the image of what came up when I innocently googled what I thought was an innocuous skin condition (for a friend), you can imagine if these boys had used anything but a charmingly analog paper and cardboard dictionary, what visuals and over-information they might have been assaulted with instead.  

I’m glad it’s there.  It makes me happy just to see it there.  I’m tickled that it doesn’t come with pictures or videos or links or malware.  Just look it up, have a chuckle, and move on.  The one time I super casually asked a student – no judgment here – what they were looking up, he answered: Erotic.  Did the definition make sense, I asked?  But by then he had already slinked away, very done with this conversation with his middle aged school librarian, thank you very much.  

It also makes me glad, in a smiley-face-with-a-tear emoji sort of way, that kids still know how to actually look up words in the dictionary.  I always wondered about this generation’s relationship with the alphabet, and whether they truly feel for how LMNOP is that chunk stuck in the middle, that R will always come before W, and that ABC and XYZ are the alphabet’s bookends.  When you’ve grown up popping words into, you don’t get that visceral knowledge of if your last name comes before or after your friend’s (before, making you superior of course), or if like Frank Zappa’s children during roll call, you wish your mom had married a different man.  But thanks to these boys and their PG13-rated curiosity, it’s clear to me that the alphabet lives on and lives strong.  

The donors of our beloved Webster’s would probably be happy to hear that this week I saw a boy sitting in front of the dictionary, pencil and paper in hand, looking up a list of words to make sure he had spelled them correctly.  Surely this is what they had in mind when they brought the tome to us in the first place!  Genuinely surprised that students even knew you could do that with a dictionary, I asked him where he learned that skill, and he told me his parents showed him when he was in elementary school.  Glancing over his shoulder, I saw the words were legit, and definitely ones that needed double checking.  Especially the fourth one down – diarrhea.  

Our Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, whom I’m thinking of naming.