or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

Archives for Reference Question:

Reference Question of the Week – 11/2/14

   November 8th, 2014 Brian Herzog

wall street journal signI like reference interactions where the initial question really just ends up being an ice-breaker for a series of bonus tangents. Well, sometimes I like those.

In this case, a patron came up to the desk carrying a back issue of the Wall Street Journal and asked,

Can I check this out? I want to take it home to compare it to the online version, because I think they're not giving me everything online that they are in the newspaper. I cancelled my newspaper subscription and just do the online now, but an online subscription is the same price as the newspaper and I don't think they include all the articles that are in the real paper.

I don't know the specifics of the WSJ's pricing structure, but I suspect that this patron is correct. I noticed this years ago with our online subscription the Lowell Sun database - articles people swore they saw in the print paper were not coming up in the database (and it wasn't hard for me to verify).

At the time, I called Newsbank to ask them about it, and they said that yes, that is correct. They only have the rights to put Lowell Sun-generated content into their database - so, any syndicated content like AP articles, comics, puzzles, etc, will not appear online. This was a few years ago and in a different context, but the Newsbank person said we'd never see an online version of anything that has everything the print edition has.

I relayed this to the patron, and he appeared to feel vindicated.

He also was extremely interested in the previously-unknown-to-him fact that we had online access to the Lowell Sun - and the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. I showed him how to log in from home with his library card, so that was a happy little tangent. Then he had another tangent for me:

Well, that's okay anyway about the Wall Street Journal articles. Sometimes what I can do is look at the headlines on the Wall Street Journal website, and if an article I want to read is one you have to pay for, then I just search for that headline in Google and usually it links to the full article for free. I don't know why, and it's not all the time, but usually.

So then we had a little talk about paywalls and Google access, for which I had no good answer. But while listening to him, I suspect that some of the articles he links to from Google weren't actually on the WSJ website, just news articles from other sources that had very similar headlines.

What I did not tell him about was the Element Inspector trick - a method for editing a website's code to remove the "sign in to read the full article" blocking mechanism. However, after the patron left I did try out both that trick and his search-for-the-headline-on-Google technique, and I couldn't get either of them to work for WSJ.com articles. Which isn't too surprising - if anyone is going to put a lot of effort into making sure casual circumvention can't be used to access their content, it'll be online newspapers.

Anyway, so instead of taking the back issue of the newspaper home, he just sat down at one of our computers and spent some time comparing the print headlines to the articles available on WSJ.com. I didn't talk to him again though, so I don't know what he discovered.

But another delightful bonus from this question is the idea of letting patrons take home old issues of newspapers. We don't catalog them at all, so all our newspapers are in-library only. I've never been asked this before, but it's certainly a good one for our No Log, to see if we get to yes on it. We already use the honor system for our collection of Cliff Notes, so it might work for old newspapers too.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/26/14

   November 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

sadieThis happened over the summer, and got lost in my "to blog" folder.

A male patron called in and asked when was the next time the girl scouts would be meeting in the library. Since lots of groups use our meeting rooms, it isn't too unusual that someone might forget their meeting time. No, this didn't get unusual until I asked him which troop he was looking for...

Patron: Oh, I don't know.

Me: There are a few different Brownie and Girl Scout troops that meet at the library, but all on different nights and times.

Patron: Well, I read about one in the paper planting trees in a park, and I wanted to give them an award for community service award.

It's the Sadie Award, which is named after my dog.

I want to come to their next meeting to give them the award.

And I want it to be a surprise, so please don't tell them I'll be coming.

It is entirely possible I am overly-sensitive to such things, but this started to sound odd. But in any case, I didn't know which troop he was talking about. So, I told him I'd look it up and give him a call back.

I had heard of the tree planting, and checked the Facebook page for the local Open Spaces Stewardship group (which organized the event) because I figured they'd mention the troop number - which they did.

Fine, but now I also want to research this Sadie Award to see what that's all about. And apparently, it's totally a real thing. I even emailed the head of the Open Space Stewards to see if he'd heard of it, and he had - he said this is an local gentleman who created this award, and goes around giving it to anyone he feels has had a positive impact on the community. And Sadie, his dog, comes too and poses for photos.

Huh - I guess that's what I miss for being cynical.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find this Girl Scout troop number on our calendar, so I didn't know when they were next meeting. I called the patron back and let him know what I had found, and gave him the contact information for the Stewards. Since they coordinated with the troop for the tree-planting, they must know who to contact there about meeting times.

The patron thanked me and was excited to be a step closer to awarding the Girl Scouts for their good work. And I was happy to learn about such a nice thing in town that it seems everyone knew about but me.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/19/14

   October 25th, 2014 Brian Herzog

paul revere statueThis reference question isn't difficult or new (I talked about something similar back in 2007), but I still love this idea so I thought I'd share it.

A patron called and asked if I could search for a book for her by ISBN. When the search brought back no results, she said "well I'm getting this from an eight year old so who knows." Ha.

To verify the ISBN, I searched for it on Amazon, and sure enough it was a kids book on Paul Revere - published in 1986. I'm sure we had other books on Paul Revere, so I asked if she needed just information about him, or this particular book. She said,

No, I need this book. My niece got it out from her school library in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to read it with her over the phone.

Man I love this idea. I widened my search to include all the libraries in Massachusetts, and sure enough a few libraries outside my network had it. I requested it and the patron was happy. Since it's coming from outside the system, it might take up to a couple weeks to get here, but hopefully it'll arrive before the project is due.

So, another win for interlibrary loan, and also a win for staying involved in kids' lives despite living in a different state. Go libraries!

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/12/14

   October 18th, 2014 Brian Herzog

So this is an interesting question - and a situation where I got schooled in applying Occam's razor to research techniques.

A friend of mine at work had an unusual coin, and we wanted to find out what it was. It didn't have any English lettering on it, and no Arabic numbers, although it clearly looked like it was a coin from the Middle East or Asia, or maybe North Africa (however, the lack of Arabic numbers made me think it wasn't from an Arab country).

Mystery coin

This came up late on a Friday, so I never got a chance to search for what it was. Over the weekend though, I did think about different approaches I could use to identify it:

  • The failsafe always seemed to be just sitting down with our big world coin book, and going through it page by page looking for something similar
  • I also thought a reverse image search would work - take a picture of the coin, run it through Google, and it should easily bring back exact matches
  • Often when I'm trying to identify things, I type in whatever is written on them to match the exact phrase - since this coin isn't in English, I'd first have to install that font set and then hunt and peck until I found the right characters, and then search on the phrase or translate it

See, this is how a reference librarian approaches the problem (or at least, how I approached it).

When I got in a Monday, my coworker (who had worked Saturday) left a note on my desk identifying the coin as an Iraqi 25 Fils coin. Neat! So I asked her how she figured it out - hours pouring over the book? The reverse image search? She said,

No, I just searched for "palm tree coin" and it came right up.

Now that's how you research.

I honestly did feel a little dumb that searching like that didn't even occur to me - but I was able to redeem myself with dating it. It seemed like the coin had two dates written on it, which is odd to me, but also written in another language so I'd need to figure out how to translate them - which is also odd because I would have thought Iraq would use Arabic numbers. Also, being an Iraqi coin, I was curious if this was from the Saddam Hussein era or not.

Searching for "Iraq coin dates" brought up a website that explained that Iraq uses eastern Arabic numerals, and indeed two dating systems. One is the same modern years we use, and the other is

a Hejira date based on the lunar calendar and starting at the time Mohammed was alive (around 600 AD)

Using the translation table on the website,

Eastern Arabic numerals

I was able to work out this coin to be from 1990 / 1410. Saddam was President of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, so it was indeed a Saddam coin.

A couple other notes about this question:

  • I was curious to see how well the reverse image search would work, so I tried it anyway - and it failed miserably. It seemed like it searched for anything round and silvery, which is just about every other coin in the world. Maybe it's not sophisticated enough yet to search for the image on the coin, or maybe my picture just didn't highlight the detail enough
  • Maybe descriptive searches like "palm tree coin" don't occur to me because I'm so used to working with library catalogs. There really is no reason we shouldn't be able to search catalogs for "blue book with dog on cover," but since we can't I guess I don't think like that when approaching searches. It'd be a lot of effort to get that kind of metadata into library catalogs, but clearly crowdsourcing search data works for Google
  • I had never heard of Eastern Arabic numerals, so it was fun to learn about something new

I liked this question a lot - and it wasn't even from a real patron!

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/5/14

   October 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog

The AnglerOne Saturday I was working at the desk with a coworker. She answered the phone, and it was a patron asking for a print of Winslow Homer's "Fishing the Falls." He said it's not one of his public works, and is in a private collection, and that's why he can't find any information about it online.

After my coworker hung up, she spent some time looking for it. After a little while with no success, she asked me to help - and then left for lunch. Slackers.

It didn't appear in the index of any of our Homer books in the 700s, but by searching for "fishing the falls" and "winslow homer" I did find a few websites that showed a painting with that name.

However, it was conspicuously missing from http://www.winslow-homer.com which bills itself as "The Complete Works." Also, it bothered me that it wasn't in any of our books, nor really anywhere else.

So I got the idea of doing a reverse-image search. I used the image from http://images.easyart.com/i/prints/rw/lg/1/0/Winslow-Homer-Fishing-The-Falls-10757.jpg and found a lot more sites with that same image - but more importantly, many of them had it listed as "The Angler." Ah ha.

This time I had more success searching for it by name, including http://www.winslow-homer.com/The-Angler.html - still though, not in any of the books we had. However, I did find a book online with a Publisher's Weekly review that specifically mentioned it:

Of its 184 illustrations, 123 are in color, with an emphasis on full-page reproduction of watercolors, including The Angler (1874), showing a raffish, bearded man casting with panache into a cascading river.

And some of the websites did indeed indicate it was in a private collection.

My coworker called the patron back and asked him to describe the painting, and sure enough, this was the one he was looking for. He actually wanted to buy a print, so she read him some pricing from different places it was for sale to give him an idea of the cost.

The patron seemed happy with the information, and my coworker seemed suitably impressed that I could apparently conjure an answer out of thin air after she had no luck. So overall it was a pretty good way to spend time while someone was at lunch.

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/28/14

   October 4th, 2014 Brian Herzog

This is not a fast food restaurant signWhile I was talking to a patron, the phone rang and my coworker answered it. She listened for a little while, said "Yes, I think so," and then hung up.

Any time that happens, you know it's going to be a story.

She turned to me afterward and said the patron just asked her,

Is Boston Market considered fast food?

Yes. Her logic is that any restaurant where you order at a counter and pick up your own food is fast food - if you order at a table and your food is brought to you, it's not fast food. That seems like a good distinction, and apparently it satisfied the patron as well.

Sometimes, the hardest thing about working in a library is not getting to ask, "why?"

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