People call the library for all kinds of reasons, each of which puts the skills of our staff members to the test in different ways. Many calls require searching for information. Some involve sleuthing and detective work. Others take patient technological talk throughs. These are the types of things you mentally prepare yourself to do when answering the library phone. You certainly don’t expect to have to do math, but that’s precisely what I was called on to do a few weeks ago when a caller hit me with a question about fractions.
It wasn’t an outright request for help with fractions; the caller wasn’t a third grader reading off the problems from her math homework. Rather, she was an elderly woman who was befuddled by instructions she had been given to feed her new dog a 5/8 cup scoop of dog food. She didn’t have a 5/8 cup and had never heard of one. What was she supposed to do? I had never heard of a 5/8 cup either and briefly panicked, but I quickly realized that by taking some of the common measuring cups and doing some fraction addition, we could reach the magic number.
One of the pesky problems with fractional cup measurements is they don’t have a common denominator, which you’ve gotta have to make adding fractions easy. Job one was converting everything to eighths, then it became simple. If you take 4/8 and add 1/8, you get 5/8. Unfortunately, a 1/8 cup isn’t a commonly used measuring cup, but fortunately a 1/4 cup, aka a 2/8 cup, is. Filling half of a 1/4 cup gives you 1/8, and adding that to a 1/2 (4/8) cup gives you 5/8 of a cup. I shared this with my distressed caller, and she sounded happy with and grateful for the solution.
A little later on, I did some searching online to see if there’s a better way (trying to eyeball half of a 1/4 cup isn’t the most precise way of doing things) to achieve a 5/8 cup, and of course there is. I learned that two tablespoons equals an eighth cup, so the simplest way is just to combine a full 1/2 cup and two full tablespoons. Can you tell I don’t cook much?
Even though it regretfully turned out I didn’t give the best possible answer, I was still glad to have helped, and I got a kick out of the caller thinking of turning to the library for help with such an unusual need. Library folks enjoy being viewed as Swiss Army Knife-style problem solvers, and math is just one of the tools we can employ to help you. However, if you call us with calculus questions, we’ll probably have to refer you to someone else.