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

Reference Question of the Week – 4/15/12

   April 21st, 2012 Brian Herzog

Virtual catOne evening this week, a patron walked up to the desk and said,

Can you find me a website to adopt a cat? But not a real cat.

What he wanted was an online virtual pet. I had never looked for this before, but a search for adopt a cyber cat returned lots of results.

We looked at a few sites*, but he ultimately chose adoptme.com, because it had the best graphics. For the next forty-five minutes, he sat at the computer playing and chatting with it, and every once in awhile he'd come up to the desk to tell us something the cat did or said.

But the last time was the funniest: he came up and said, "the cat said I talk too much." Maybe he exhausted the repertoire of the artificial intelligence of the program that responds to chat messages, and that was how the program forced the conversation to end.

He wasn't deterred though - he left, saying he couldn't wait to come back the next day to play with the cat some more.


*One that didn't make the cut, but made me laugh, was virtualkitty.com. Their Create an Account screen included this field:

Pick an Emergency Web Address (URL):
(You will be sent to this address if you click the special emergency button while playing with your cat. We recommend your company website, or something business related, in case you need it to look like you are working on something else.)

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/22/12

   January 28th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Planned ParenthoodThis reference question happened over the course of two days. This particular patron is in the library almost every day doing anti-abortion research, so this type of question isn't actually all that unusual for us - but I thought the details were interesting.

She came up to the desk with an article quoting President Obama talking about adoptions that initiated with Planned Parenthood, and another article citing the number of abortions they perform every year. She wanted to verify each of the numbers, and then find out the ratio of abortions-to-adoptions.

I thought the most reliable place for statistics like that would be the Planned Parenthood website, so we started there. Their About Us section had a link to their Annual Reports (perfect!), and the most recent one listed was for 2009-2010.

We clicked into the report itself, and on page five we found what we were looking for:

Health Service 2009 2010
Abortion Procedures 331,796 320,445
Adoption Referrals to Other Agencies 977 841

Those were a little off from the numbers given in the article, but she was happy with that, and wanted me to print a copy for her records. Sounds straight-forward, right? Turns out, it's not. Planned Parenthood uses issuu.com to host their documents, and in order to print anything, I had to sign up for an issuu.com account. I did, but then had to wait for the verification email before I could print.

Our email server doesn't deliver messages instantly, because it holds them to filter out spam. And of course, all this was happening fifteen minutes before we closed, and the verification email didn't arrive in time. The next morning I verified my account and printed the information for the patron.

But she also wanted the ratio, so that was my next task. But when I asked myself, "what is the ratio of 329,445 to 841," I could not for the life of me remember how to do that. I thought I just needed to divide 329,445 by 841, but I did that on a calculator and it didn't seem right.

I thought Google could do that calculation (329,445:841), since it does others, but it didn't. Next I searched for a simple online ration calculator, but couldn't find that did what I wanted.

Then I remembered about Wolfram|Alpha, which was designed not just as a search engine, but as a computational engine. When I typed 329,445:841 into that it gave me an answer - and to my surprise, it was the same answer I got myself on the calculator.

So the answer is that, in 2010, Planned Parenthood performed 392 abortions for every 1 adoption. The patron felt this number was way low, according to other news articles she had read, but I showed her the data and the calculations. She reluctantly accept it and thanked me - I was just glad I actually remembered some of my grade school math.

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