Inaccurate Books

BooksBy Awnali Mills

I don’t know about your library, but it’s pretty unusual for people to object to books we have on the shelves.  It’s even more unusual to have someone who has a problem with one of our non-fiction books.  But that was just what happened to me the other day.  A woman came up to the desk and showed me a copy of one of the “Who Was” biographies (a.k.a. the bobble head biographies.)  This series is crazy popular in our system, and the usual question regarding them is “do you have” and “how soon can I get it?”

Not this time.

The customer wasn’t angry or aggressive, but she said that she had recently finished the Who Was Thomas Jefferson book, and said that it claimed that Thomas Jefferson said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”


Obviously, she pointed out, that was said by Patrick Henry, and if that book was inaccurate, then to her mind that called into question the accuracy of the entire series.  She felt that we needed to look into this.

Well, yeah!

None of us want an inaccurate book on the shelf.  Unfortunately, the book wasn’t on the shelf right then, so she couldn’t show it to me.  I confess that I had my doubts that she had read the book correctly, but I told her that I was putting the book on hold and would read it myself to see if I could find the inaccuracy.  She was very pleased with this solution, and thanked me profusely.  The book came quickly, and I read it.  Turns out that she was (not surprisingly) mistaken.  It was a simple misreading of the text, which contrasts Patrick Henry’s inspiring speeches (“Give me liberty, or give me death!”) to his friend Jefferson’s poor public speaking.  Page 30 in case you’re interested.

When I was discussing this incident with one of my co-workers, she said that it would be really shocking if one of the books was wrong.  This wouldn’t surprise me, though.  One of my more valuable lessons from library school was having to come up with a question which had different answers in various encyclopedias (i.e. where does the Oregon Trail start?).  Then, we had to write a paper on why the question was answered differently in the different sources.  As part of the lesson, we learned about how encyclopedia articles are written, and fact checking, and all kinds of behind-the-scenes nasty little secrets about the publishing industry.

Part of being a librarian is having a deep and abiding love for books, but we cannot check our brains at the covers.  Books are written with biases, the same way that TV shows, movies, newspaper articles and medical research are (sorry if that shocks you.)  Biases lead to inaccuracies, as do simple human mistakes.   I applaud this woman’s desire to make sure the books were accurate, and I’m sure that she will be happy to find that the error was on her part rather than the book’s.  At least, it was this time.

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