Talking with Rhone Talsma, Jeopardy! Champ
June 1, 2022
Joe Marcantonio, Schaumburg Township District Library
Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Rhone Talsma, the recent Jeopardy! champion who unseated the former 40-day champ, Amy Schneider and a current librarian at Chicago Ridge Public Library. Back in the day though, when Rhone was a middleand high-schooler he was a favorite teen patron of mine at the Plainfield Public Library. That was in the before times, when teen librarianship including running a library MySpace page and Dance Dance Revolution tournaments.We’ve met Rhone, the talented Jeopardy! player, but who is Rhone Talsma the librarian?
JM: It’s been a little bit since your brush with fame, how has your life changed?
RT: All told, not that much! I have a lot more followers on social media than I used to, which has proven interesting and at times strange. I also am now connected with the larger network of former Jeopardy! contestants and it’s been great to become a part of that community. A lot of my patrons have joked about me quitting my job, but one day’s worth of Jeopardy! winnings is not quite enough to manifest that kind of change—not that I’d want to quit!
JM: Looking back now, what was your favorite Jeopardy! memory?
RT: Without question, interacting with Ken Jennings. I have looked up to him for most of my life and meeting him was a dream come true. We didn’t know who would be hosting our episodes when we arrived in the studio that day, so finding out that it was Ken put me over the moon.
JM: How’s your family? Still in Plainfield? And what was their reaction?
RT: Yep, my parents are still in Plainfield! They, my brothers, and my nephew were all super excited for me. I think the most excited person was my mother—you’d think she was the one who won on Jeopardy! based on her reaction!
JM: Tell me about your path to librarianship.
RT: As you know, Joe, I’ve always been a fan of libraries and spent a lot of time at Plainfield Public Library as a kid and teen, even volunteering there for one summer during middle school—so I guess I’ve technically been a librarian since I was 12. In high school my focus shifted to extracurriculars, especially music, and I ended up matriculating to DePaul University with the intention of pursuing a career in music education. As often happens while in college, I ended up changing my major several times, settling on Women’s and Gender Studies to set me up for graduate school—at that point, I saw myself going to law school or pursuing a Master of Social Work degree.
Upon graduating in 2015, though, I felt pretty directionless, having decided against the legal field and feeling soured on pursuing social work. I met with the professor who oversaw my senior thesis, Dr. Robin Mitchell (now at California State—Channel Islands), and asked her for guidance on what to do next. She saw in me a knack for research and a strong desire to make a positive difference in the world, which to her meant that I ought to become a librarian.
It felt like a light bulb illuminating above my head, like a career path that had been hiding under my nose this whole time. I knew it was what I was supposed to be doing, and so I aggressively pursued it. I started off by volunteering at the Gerber Hart Library and Archives, an LGBT archive and community center on Chicago’s north side. I parlayed that into my first library job, working part-time as a CyberNavigator within the Chicago Public Library system for about two and a half years. I began working towards my MLS in the fall of 2016 at the University of Illinois, taking advantage of their distance learning program, and graduated in December of 2018. Earlier that year, I accepted an offer for a full-time role at Chicago Ridge Public Library, where I work to this day as an adult reference librarian and also design a great deal of the library’s marketing and communications.
JM: Give me a favorite book; I know you can’t possibly choose one, but what book most impacted the person you’ve become?
RT: The first book I thought of for this question was one I remember checking out from the Plainfield Public Library sometime in high school: How I Paid for College by Marc Acito. As an adult, I don’t read novels very often, preferring articles, essays, and nonfiction books, but this one has stuck with me for over a decade now and I return to it once every couple of years. This book has endured as my favorite due to it being the first time I remember feeling represented in a novel. To depict gay and queer teens so vividly and honestly, especially in a period piece, is no easy task, and Acito really makes the characters feel incredibly real. It is laugh-out-loud funny at times, heartbreaking at others. I can’t recommend it enough.
JM: Tell me about a favorite library moment from your career so far.
RT: The highlight for me so far is definitely getting to meet Carla Hayden at the ALA Annual Conference in Washington, DC, back in 2019. She had very recently been named the new Librarian of Congress and was overwhelmed with attention, but still made a point of doing multiple meet-and-greets, and she actually made a point of asking about my role and my ambitions in the field. My answers lead her to introduce me to a LoC employee working in their communications department who had great feedback and advice for me. She didn’t have to make me feel special, but she did, and I’m very grateful for that.
JM: Do you feel like this the right field for you? Why?
I’ve also generally preferred variety and spontaneity in my life and dread strict routines. Working at a public library, every day is different, and I find that very rewarding. I think my natural tendencies towards openness and honesty, empathy, flexibility, and creativity are all significant assets to me in this field.
JM: How do you find what to read next?
RT: I elect to read books based on whatever I’m reading about online. Short form texts like articles and essays are a bit more friendly to my ADHD brain—I *adore* Wikipedia and literally read an article on there every single day. I usually like to just get the gist of something and then move on to something else. That said, when I do want to do a deep dive, I’ll usually use GoodReads or booklists from public libraries to try to find books on the topic in question. I’m very mercurial, though, and tend to not finish books…does that make me a bad librarian? I generally tell people that my passions as a librarian involve information literacy, research, technology, and public service—as such, I’m a little less focused on books.
JM: What’s on your to-be-read list?
RT: Once I have the wherewithal, I look forward to reading An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Howard Zinn’s similarly titled A People’s History of the United States is probably my favorite nonfiction book I’ve read, and it had a big impact on my worldview and values when approaching historical inquiry. While Zinn does a nice job in that book of describing the lived experiences of indigenous North Americans and taking
a critical look at their interactions with settlers, I’m excited to read Dunbar-Ortiz’s more detailed account.
JM: What’s something you haven’t been asked yet that you’re dying to let people know?
RT: Even though everyone now associates me with neon yellow, my favorite color is actually purple. It’s opposite yellow on the color wheel, so I’ve always been drawn to yellow when it comes to accents and accessories, since everything else I own, basically, is purple. It’s actually kind of crazy that I didn’t wear purple on the show.
JM: Finally, who do you think you are? You were called the “cool-glasses guy” in Vulture and been referred to as the “cool-glasses librarian” online. I’ll have you know that I didn’t spend years collecting a coordinating library wardrobe with 15 different pairs of glasses, cardigans, and sweater vests to be unseated as the cool-glasses librarian because of a Jeopardy! appearance.
RT: I learned from the best, Joe! I remember admiring your mid-2000s hipster vibes! We can definitely both be “cool-glasses librarians. Maybe once there’s enough of us, we can get our own Jeopardy! tournament.