A Reference Lesson at Trivia

I am a sucker for trivia. All forms of it; quizzes online, Jeopardy, Trivial Pursuit (especially the Star Wars edition), Scene It and trivia nights at the bar. I had a QuizWiz growing up and loved it! Pop-up Brady? I’m there. So it’s no surprise that you can often find me at local bars on trivia night.

Now all this love of trivia does not mean I’m any good. When the topic is history, literature or classic movies I do pretty well – science and sports….nope (and bar trivia seems to be heavily slanted towards sports).

But last night at Penguin Pizza (great pizza, great beer and pretty ok trivia on Saturdays at 8!) a question during one round asked us what language, after English, was the most frequently spoken language in Australia. After debating the merits of various options (and trying to decide where the world’s highest airport was) we came to an agreement to put down Mandarin because one of us knew there was a large Asian community in Australia.

The use of smartphones during bar trivia is of course prohibited as a means of getting the answers. However as soon as our answers were turned in we all quickly pulled them out to “fact check” our responses and tally our points. Well the world’s highest airport is in Tibet, not Nepal like we guessed but George Harrison is in indeed the Beatle most closely affiliated with Hare Krishna. A quick google search also pulled up that Mandarin is the second most spoken language in Australia and we high fived each other.

A few minutes later our score sheet came back telling us that Italian is the second most frequently spoken language in Australia.  Excuse me? We pulled out our cellphones again and pulled up the Wikipedia article that says “According to the 2011 census, 76.8% of people only spoke English at home. Other languages spoken at home included Mandarin 1.6%, Italian 1.4%, Arabic 1.3%, Cantonese 1.2% and Greek 1.2%” in order to support our case and went to ask the trivia master where she was getting her information (because we all know that Wikipedia is always correct, but in this case it was cited to the 2011 census).

Her first responsive was a defensive, “I don’t write the questions” and then a reminder that we weren’t supposed to be using our phones but she agreed to change our score. Library grad students that we are we started to talk amongst ourselves about the importance of having correct information and how much smarter we are at reference.

But when I got home curiosity caused me to search again and this time I found this statistic, “According to the 2006 census, close to 79 per cent of Australia’s population spoke only English at home. The three most common languages other than English were Italian (accounting for 1.6 per cent of the population), Greek (1.3 per cent) and Cantonese (1.2 per cent)”.

Mandarin isn’t even listend on this list though Cantonese is, And in 2001, “English was the only language spoken in the home for around 80% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home were Chinese (2.1%), Italian (1.9%), Vietnamese (1.7%) and Greek (1.4%).”

Why the big leap? Was Mandarin and Cantonese combined for this census making Chinese so much higher? All these results are from the official census. Are any of them wrong? Are any of them right?

It’s been a while since I took my reference course at Simmons but navigating reference questions was a big topic. You need to be sure of the specific question the patron is asking. Did the trivia master want the most recent data? 2006? 2001? You also need to be sure that you don’t just go with the easiest answer, the first one that pops up on google or even in a reference book. You have a responsibility to your patrons (in libraries and in archives) to provide them with the correct information. Even something straight forward may not be as simple as it seems. Always keep that in mind!


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