Not So Trivial Pursuit | Reference 2018

Bolstering fun competitions with reference skills

When Lissa Staley, a librarian at Topeka and Shawnee County Public Library, KS, walks around town, she often runs into people who happily exclaim, “You’re that trivia lady at the library!” Staley has been organizing trivia contests at her library since 2003, and the recognition she receives in the community is a tangible sign of how effective such events are at promoting a library’s collection and services.

Creating and staging a trivia competition also dovetail with the research talents of reference librarians, obliging them to find information, vet sources, and craft intriguing questions. Most important, it creates a public face for their profession. “People understand what librarians do better when they see us doing it,” Staley says. “They know that they can ask almost any question at the library because I’ve asked them almost every question.”

be thorough

Different methods can help ensure that trivia questions are accurate, thought provoking, and attractive to a wide range of patrons. Chris Vaccari, the director of national accounts and library marketing at Sterling Publishing, has been running trivia contests at the Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library since 2014. Vaccari taps books, newspapers, and magazines for ideas and draws on his love of sports, films, and television. “I either carry a pocket-sized notebook or jot notes on my phone when something comes to mind,” Vaccari says.

According to Staley, research has changed radically over the past 15 years, especially “as print reference collections shrink due to budgets and in-house use statistics.” Researching trivia in the early 2000s meant spending a great deal of time in the Dewey classification 031.02, with authoritative sources such as The World Almanac. Although librarians today may not use the same standbys, most still assiduously check their work. “Wikipedia is a good starting source for information, but you’ll definitely need to double-check it against a second or even third source,” Vaccari says.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN Top: Patrons at Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library (TSCPL), KS,
wore matching costumes to a trivia event. Bottom l.: Students at Stony Brook Southampton
University (SBU), NY, test their research skills at a contest led by William Ste. Marie (r.).
Top photo courtesy of TSCPL; bottom row photos by SBU Libraries

Elissa Burnley, community relations manager at Mid-Columbia Libraries (MCL), Kennewick, WA, and her ­colleagues craft questions around different themes for their competitions, which are held at a local pub. For an event inspired by International Cat Day (August 8), Burnley went first to Wikipedia, where she found a list of authoritative sources such as the veterinary version of PubMed.

Precision is crucial because most patrons can dispute an answer by turning to their smartphones. Says Vaccari, “Be specific with your question, too, and that will eliminate room for doubt.”

Not long ago, Staley asked for the Greek equivalent of Mars, the Roman god of war (answer: Ares). Though information pertaining to history or mythology isn’t likely to change frequently, Staley did her due diligence.

“Verifying the names of key mythological figures is easily done in a general print or online encyclopedia like The World Book, a subject-specific encyclopedia like Encyclopedia of Greek and Roman Mythology by Luke Roman, or a classic work like Mythology by Edith Hamilton,” she says. She then conducted an Internet search on recent films involving Greek mythology, such as Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, to ensure that the movies referred to the god of war as Ares.

“The double-checking may seem extraneous,” Staley says, “but asking a trivia question that is factually true in accepted reference books but to which pop culture has altered the answer in blockbuster entertainment would make the library look less relevant and trustworthy instead of more so.”

She adds that librarians must understand that sources and answers change, which requires ongoing research. Vaccari notes, “It’s important to be on top of the headlines, too. As an example, the all-time baseball record that stood on Friday may have been broken on Saturday.”

Burnley and her colleagues give other staff members their questions to see if they come up with the same responses. If not, a question may need to be revised or discarded.

Staley also tests her questions on others. “I don’t actually care if [they] know [the answer to] what I’m testing,” she says. “I want to know how this question makes [them] feel. Does it feel like I’m tricking [them]? Is this bad wording?” A satisfying question will intrigue players and push them to think and learn or, as Staley says, “tickle at my brain.”

Knowing your audience

Librarians also need to pay attention to player demographics and find trivia that will resonate with the community. “I like to have a crowd where a twentysomething can bring their parents or even their grandparents and there will be something for all of them,” Vaccari says. “But if you only have twentysomethings, ask more about Stranger Things than ­Laverne & Shirley or The Ed Sullivan Show.”

Many librarians grapple with how hard to make questions. “I think it’s good to challenge people, so I err on the side of hard/difficult,” Vaccari says. But he cautions against overly obscure questions. “An impossible question is not fun, and the event should be fun if you want people coming back.”

In Burnley’s community, topics related to well-known films and TV shows, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, have proved effective lures. A Harry Potter–themed night, held around the release of one of the films, drew about 200 people. Staley and her colleagues like giving players who know a lot about a niche subject a chance to shine. “I want people to feel good about being at the event.”

Promotion

Trivia-based activities often encourage participants to explore the library’s materials. MCL devises contests around five books, which the staff announce in advance on the website. It’s a surefire way to promote the collection—copies of the selected titles usually run out.

Trivia can also spur patrons to hone their reference skills.William Ste. Marie, a creative writing MFA student and resident assistant at Stony Brook Southampton University, NY, built an immensely popular contest earlier this year around the school’s print reference collection, which often goes unnoticed. Ste. Marie wrote questions based on several reference works, such as an atlas of the ocean, an encyclopedia of water science, and the Oxford Dictionary of Modern Slang.

For each round, teams could select a print book to help them answer. While initially students were reluctant to do so, eventually they realized the value of the works. Because there was a time limit, librarians such as Chris Kretz, who assisted at the contest, demonstrated methods to find relevant information quickly, such as using the index.

Staley, too, promotes the library’s collection during events. She’s developed a trivia persona, complete with banter. After asking a question, she’ll tell her audience how to find more information about a subject. She often works in the phrase, “Don’t forget you can take that out at the library.” After a question on foreign languages, for instance, Staley will give a shout-out to the online language-learning product Mango, or before a book round she’ll call out, “OK, now get your pencils ready so you can make your book list.” And if she forgets to do so, often her audience will remind her.

Deep dives into information are at the core of trivia contests, and librarians, even those who aren’t trivia buffs, are ideally poised to organize them. “A running joke in my community is that you should come to my trivia night but you shouldn’t get me on your team,” says Staley, “because I don’t actually know the answers, but I know how to find the answers.”

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for School Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

Comments

  1. Anna says:

    I disagree that having the factual answer that differs from pop culture doesn’t make the library less relevant or trustworthy. It should then be a learning experience for the patron that their pop culture reference changed the name of a historical figure. It doesn’t make the information any less correct and both answers could be consider a “correct” answer. In terms of the example, the Ancient Greeks have been around a lot longer than the Percy Jackson series, so Ares name will always be the God of War in Ancient Greek no matter if Percy Jackson series had changed it or not.

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