One quiet afternoon, the phone rings, and I have the following conversation with a patron with a thick Russian accent:
Patron: I am looking for Russian play by 19th Century famous Russian Nikolia Ostrovsky [she spelled it for me]
Me: Okay, what is the title of the play?
Patron: I don't know in English, but Russian title is something about girl and gift of marriage.
I started with a search of our catalog for just the author's last name, hoping I'd be able to pick out the title of the play, but it seemed like we didn't have anything by this author. I then tried this same strategy with the state-wide Virtual Catalog. It was much more promising, but I noticed no "Nikolia Ostrovsky" was listed - instead there was a "Aleksandr Nikolaevich Ostrovsky."
I asked the patron if that was the same person as the author she was looking for, and she said no, his name was just "Nikolia Ostrovsky."
While she was talking (which, because English is not her first language, was sort of forced and slow), I did a quick online search, which added to the confusion. I did see mentions of an author named "Nikolai Alexeevich Ostrovsky." The patron said that was the right name, but when I described his life and work, the patron said it was the wrong person.
I then described the life and works of Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, which the patron said must be the right person, even though she was convinced the name was wrong. In any case, we moved on to finding the right play.
I skimmed through the list from the Virtual Catalog, but many of the titles where in Russian, and none of those in English had anything to do with a girl or a wedding. I asked her if she knew anything else about the title of the play, and while she was talking it eventually dawned on me that "gift of marriage" probably referred to "dowry."
The patron said she liked the word, so I searched online for Ostrovsky dowry, and found many pages referring to a play called "The Girl Without a Dowry." Perfect.
Next I translated that from English to Russian, copy/paste the result into a Virtual Catalog search, and... get zero hits because the search does not support Cyrillic characters.
Hmm. Now I realize I need to find the English spelling of the play's Russian title using Latin characters, and the patron has no idea what it might be. I go back to the search results that told us what the English title was (Firefox tabs must have specifically been designed for reference librarians, by the way), and saw an Open Library record for Bespridannitsa / the Girl Without Dowry* - that must be it, right?
I go back to the Firefox tab with the Virtual Catalog results for the author's last name, and search the page (CTRL+F) for the word "Bespridannitsa." Nothing. Just on a hunch, I start backspacing through the letters of Bespridannitsa, thinking that the spelling might be different in the Virtual Catalog (I like that Firefox searches the page in realtime, rather than having to do a new search each time). I get down to "Bespridanni" and Firefox highlights a record titled "Bespridanniëtìsa" which is a videorecording**.
The patron asks me to request that, but she really wants to read the play. I'm running out of ideas, so I search the Virtual Catalog for "Bespridanniëtìsa" and all that comes up are videorecordings. Just for the heck of it, I also search for "Bespridannitsa," and surprisingly, there are a few matches for this author. Even more surprisingly, none of the matches for print items actually include the word "Bespridannitsa" in the visible record.
I read (as best I can) the titles to the patron ("Izbrannye p§esy," "Izbrannye sochineniëiìa"), and we decide these might be collections of of plays, of which "Bespridannitsa" might be one, so I request them for her.
The patron is happy (well, hopeful), and hangs up. I couldn't tell if she thanked me because she thought I found what she wanted, or was just thanking me for the effort. I suppose I'll only find out if it was the right thing if the patron calls back and asks to keep searching - and hopefully she doesn't ask for the play in English.
With questions like this, I'd really be curious to see the whole flow mapped out visually. Using tabbed browsing makes me realize how many times I repeatedly consult the same source (for different information), and I think it would be interesting to illustrate how different search strategies lead to blind alleys, doubling back, and most importantly, an answer.
*Open Library has a direct link to WorldCat, which shows which nearby OCLC member libraries have this item. No Massachusetts libraries had it, and we use out-of-state requests only as a last resort.
**As an aside, I thought I could verify the Authority library spelling of Bespridannitsa by searching WorldCat for Bespridannitsa Ostrovsky. There were lots of matches, but sadly, most of them had different spellings and accents.