The voice at the other end of the phone was familiar, one with which certain specialists at the county library were well acquainted.
When, the caller wanted to know, was the Roman invasion of England?
The inquiry was made by the Godfather himself. Stanley Kowalski. Superman's father. One of the superstar actors of modern-day. Marlon Brando was phoning again from his Hollywood canyon home.
Linda F. Crismond, librarian of the Los Angeles County Public Library, said the 63-year-old actor is a frequent customer of what is the world's largest circulating library.
What Brando seeks, Crismond said, is information, not books. In that, the reclusive actor might like to know, he is not alone.
For the first time in the 75-year history of the county library, for the fiscal year ended June 30, the total asking of questions for information exceeded the number of books checked out.
"For example, in the previous fiscal year, we were asked 11,189,314 questions, and 11,795,130 books were checked out," Crismond disclosed in her office at the library's headquarters in Downey. "But now the figures have reversed--12,320,000 questions compared with 12,217,000 checkouts of books."
A boom in the need for information.
"I think we really have entered the information age," Crismond said. "This is proof that people are increasingly reliant upon information to operate in their environment, to conduct their daily lives, to raise their children."
Peter Morrison, who is on the staff of the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, pointed out that so much more relevant information is available.
"Take a medical specialist. The information he should be on top of is probably three or four times as much as he would have had to cope with 10 years ago. Therefore, he is either going to be uninformed or he will have to employ a more efficient strategy for getting information and absorbing it.
"This is something," Morrison added, "that society in general also is facing."
The county library, whose circulation of materials makes it No. 1 in the world, has 91 branches and other outlets (such as at alcoholic rehab centers) that make it No. 1 under a single jurisdiction in the United States (followed by the 89 in Chicago).
(One of its community libraries is on Santa Catalina Island. Once a week, books are sent from the Downey headquarters to the Avalon facility aboard a commercial boat. "We call it our overseas branch," Crismond joked.
Additionally, the Catalina folks receive library material from the mainland via telefacsimile. This way they theoretically have access to all 5 million volumes of material in the county system--although getting "War and Peace" thusly isn't encouraged.)
A Witness to Change
The Burbank-born Crismond, who has already seen many shufflings of the cards during her nearly seven years as county librarian, sees yet another change about to take place:
"Next year we will be experimenting with customers having access to the libraries, for information requests, via their home computers," she said.
As things now stand, customers request information in person at a reference desk or call their local branch, phone in on the county-run Community Access Library Line at 1-800-372-6641, request by mail, or--in the case of the deaf--use a TDD (Telecommunication Device for the Deaf).
The library is already providing service from on-line data bases, computer storehouses of information, much of which used to be in hard-copy form. "Now, with computers, we can search faster and more comprehensively," Crismond said.
All of which doesn't mean that material isn't being checked out anymore at the 91 community libraries, which serve 48 of the 84 incorporated cities, plus most of the unincorporated territory.
"We spend more than $5 million a year on library materials," Crismond said. "Not only for books, but for newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, records, audio cassettes, video cassettes, maps, sheet music, dress patterns, framed prints."
Crismond predicts that one day self-service will be introduced into the circulation of books. Customers, she said, will check out their own books and be responsible for seeing that any fines are paid and recorded.
As might have been expected, the fire that last year closed the city central library had an effect on the county's facilities. Although no statistics were available, Wini Allard, coordinator of adult services with the county library, said there was a discernible increase in information requests.
"Some people simply wanted to know where they could go to find another library," Allard said.
The city central library, although never a laggard on book checkouts, usually always was more active in answering questions.
According to spokesman Michael Leonard, during the fiscal year 1984-85, the last full one before the blaze on April 29, 1986, a total of 894,000 books and other materials was checked out but there were 5.9 million questions answered.