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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/14/08

   September 20th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Industrial ArchaeologyI was sitting at my desk back in the reference office when a coworker came in and said she needed help with a reference question:

Me: Sure, what's the question?
Coworker: Well, a student is researching how the Industrial Revolution was influenced by archaeology.
Me: Okay, so let's try... wait - archaeology?

This might be the most bizarre combination of research topics I've ever heard a assigned to a middle school student.

My coworker had so far approached the question from the "Industrial Revolution" angle. She and the student found books on the Industrial Revolution and checked for "archeology" (and "archaeology") in the index, but with no luck.

The first two resources I thought of were our databases (a.k.a. Online Resources) and the Encyclopedia of Science and Technology from McGraw-Hill.

In the encyclopedia, there were quite a few entires beginning with "archaeology," including one for "Archaeological Chronology." This one proved the most useful, as it pegged the beginning of archaeology as we know it to the 19th century, which coincides with the Industrial Revolution.

When I brought this resource over to the patron, I learned then that the teacher had excluded encyclopedias from the assignment. However, the student and his parent decided to photocopy these pages anyway, just for background material.

In the meantime, my coworker had been searching Gale's General Reference Center database, trying various ways to combine the terms "archaeology" and "industrial revolution." Again, there wasn't much to be found, but she did locate a few full-text articles that would help.

We also tried searching the catalog again, this time for books on the history of archaeology instead of the Industrial Revolution. Lots of matches were returned, but they all had to do with the archaeology of history, and not the history of archaeology. That's a frustrating combination of terms.

It turned out the student's project was just a one-page paper, and he felt that, between the database articles, a couple Industrial Revolution books, and the information from the encyclopedia, he had enough information, so they were happy.

This is the worst way to identify a gap in a library's collection, but at least the student who comes in next year with this assignment will find us better prepared.

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