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


Reference Question of the Week – 7/27/14

   August 2nd, 2014 Brian Herzog

Out of My Mind book coverThis is a question from when my website is down - I only mention that because of the postscript at the end.

I haven't gotten this type of question in awhile, and finding the answer has never come this easily.

A young girl came up to me at the desk asked for "a blue book with fish bowl on cover." She couldn't remember the title except thought it was something like "one at a time." I asked her if she knew the author, and she said it was a blue book with fish bowl on cover. I asked her what the book was about, and she didn't know - she said her teacher was reading it to the class and she liked it.

So, I did a web search for blue book with fish bowl on cover, and the very first image in the results was exactly what she was looking for. Incredible.

I searched our catalog for Out of My Mind, only to find our copy was checked out. I offered to request it for her, but she declined. I hate that.

So the postscript is that this question is from May, apparently when this book (or at least, searches for this book) was more popular. It really was the first search result, and that's what shocked me and made me think it was a post-worthy reference question. I mean, how often does that happen?

While typing up this post though, I had to really look for the cover image in the results, as it had been bumped way down. Maybe I just got lucky, or that library serendipity was strong with me that day. Or maybe Google's search algorithms really are effective in making zeitgeisty things more prominent.

In any case, I could just have easily been asked this question this week, and the process of finding the answer would have been different - which I find interesting.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/10/13

   February 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Holding a duckOne common question at the reference desk is a patron asking for a specific book by describing the cover - they don't remember the title or author, but know it was "kind of red, with an airplane or a submarine, and maybe something like a roundish square type thing."

Being librarians, we take whatever information the patron can provide and do our best. I know many people dread this type of question (because it's often just impossible), but I sort of enjoy them. Since the expectation of success is so low to begin with, it's a fun challenge, and finding the right book is all the better for it.

In this case, the patron was actually a coworker of mine - she had taken her niece to a different library, and was trying to re-locate a book her niece had picked out and loved, to see if the author had any others. But all she could remember was that it was a newish kids book with a girl holding a duck on the cover.

I first went to Amazon's advanced search with this question. My keyword search was for "girl duck," limit to Condition=New, Format=Printed Books, Pub date after November 2012, and then submitted individual searches for each of the different kid ages one at a time. None of the searches has a likely-looking cover, so I decided to just use "duck" as my keyword (thinking that if a duck is on the cover it must be the important part of the story). I also dropped the idea of using the age limiter in favor of the Subject option limited to Children's Books.

Amazon advanced search page

In that search, result #10 looked promising. I called my coworker over to check, and she was excited - the book she'd seen with her niece was indeed Lulu: Lulu and the Duck in the Park (Book 1), by Hilary McKay and Priscilla Lamont*.

Lulu and the Duck listing on Amazon

Awesome. But then I started to wonder - was Amazon the best tool for this question? There is no really good "look up a book by cover" resource out there, although I would love there to be. LibraryThing started down this road with CoverGuess. The genius of their approach was to gamify the data entry part of tagging cover art, but I don't think a searchable interface has ever been created.

Anyway, out of curiosity I decided to run the same search process in Novelist and the library catalog, to see if I could have successfully located the book with those tools.

Novelist's advanced search is more complex than Amazon's - I used "girl duck" as a keyword, limited to Audience = 0-8 Years, and Publication Date from = November 2012:

Novelist advanced search

In my library's catalog's advanced search, I used "duck" as the keyword, limited to Format = Books, Audience = Kids, and Publication Year after 2011:

Evergreen's adavnced search

And now the results - each one has the number next to it indicating how far down this book was in the search results:

Amazon:

Result #10 on Amazon

Novelist:

Result #2 on Novelist

Library Catalog:

Result #55 in the library catalog

In all cases it was findable, but Novelist ranked it the highest with the fewest search limiters. However, since Novelist is a subscription database, getting to the search interface is a much more cumbersome process than using Amazon. The library catalog is easy to get to and the search interface is reasonable, but burying the book at #55 is bad because many people give up log before the sixth page of search results (thanks for that, Google).

Something else I noticed, and what I think is another strike against the library catalog, was the various sizes of the cover images. Comparatively, the library catalog's cover thumbnail is tiny, and because of this it's not really evident that the girl is holding a duck. Since that's all I had to go on with this search, if I had started with the library catalog, I probably would have missed this book entirely. I don't know why the thumbnails are as small as they are, but it seems the catalog would be improved by making them almost twice the size they are now.

So there you go, my curiosity was sated. Anyone else have a favorite method for finding books by cover descriptions?

 


*I don't know why Amazon has the publication date as September 2013, since the other library apparently had it cataloged and on their shelf. Ah, sweet mysteries of life.



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Courting Disasters

   April 5th, 2011 Brian Herzog

During a recent weeding, I found these two books in our collection:

Two books called Courting Disaster

At first I thought it was different editions of the same book, but then realized they were different books - different authors, publishers, and copyright dates, but same title, same photo, and very similar design. Huh.

I know that cover design is usually beyond the realm of the author, and it's unfortunate that it is always the author that comes out looking bad when something like this happens.

However, take into consideration that Courting Disaster is actually not an uncommom book title, as the phrase works on so many levels.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/14/10

   November 20th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Old House Journal cover 01-2011This wasn't actually a reference question, but can be filed under "things you didn't really question until someone provided an answer that showed you weren't asking the right question."

Occasionally at my library, if falls to me to add new magazine issues that arrive. We have a variety of subscriptions, like any library (weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc), and when I'm adding new issues, it always amazes me how early they arrive. Early, that is, based on the cover date of the magazine. I always just chalked this phenomenon up to a ridiculous marketing attempt to appear hyper-current.

Anyway, I was adding magazines in October, when the January 2011 issue of Old House Journal arrived. A month or so in advanced seemed the norm, so a magazine arriving three months early prompted me to tweet:

Tweet about Jan. 2011 Old House Journal arriving in Oct. 2010

A little while later, and with this tweet in mind, my friend Chris emailed me with this:

Huh, TIL (Today I Learned):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newsweek#Cover_Date

The date on a magazine is the date it's supposed to be pulled out the shelf, not the publication date or something else.

Wow - that actually makes a certain kind of sense. I tried to verify this with another source, but couldn't find one. However, Wikipedia did provide a little more information in the Cover Date article:

In the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, the standard practice is to display on magazine covers a date which is some weeks or months in the future from the actual publishing/release date. There are two reasons for this discrepancy: first, to allow magazines to continue appearing "current" to consumers even after they have been on sale for some time (since not all magazines will be sold immediately), and second, to inform newsstands when an unsold magazine can be removed from the stands and returned to the publisher or be destroyed.

Weeklies (such as Time and Newsweek) are generally dated a week ahead. Monthlies (such as National Geographic Magazine) are generally dated a month ahead, and quarterlies are generally dated three months ahead.

In other countries, the cover date usually matches more closely the date of publication, and may indeed be identical where weekly magazines are concerned.

So there you go - I love learning things by accident.



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Judging Book Covers

   September 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Book Title Fail - How to raise your daughter without reading a bookWith the demise of Bloglines, I've been going through all the posts I had bookmarked and pulling out the ones I wanted to mention in a post - this is one of those posts.

Something I really like about feed aggregators is that, by reading feeds from a wide variety of sources, it is possible to spot coincidental trends (which I like doing). For instance, a couple weeks ago I noticed a few of posts all about book covers:

Of course, this isn't a new trend - Awful Library Books has been around awhile, and I've talked about book covers, too.

And speaking of book covers, remember to play with LibraryThing's CoverGuess, to help build a database that can answer questions like, "well, I don't remember the title, but it was a red book, and had like this guy on a street with maybe like a purple penguin?"

Update: I forgot to include my two biggest book cover pet peeves:

  • Covers where the author's name is bigger than the title
  • Cook books where the chef (usually a celebrity) is more prominently-featured than the food

Those to things always make me suspicious.



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CoverGuess from LibraryThing

   March 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

CoverGuess websiteCoverGuess was released last week, and the LibraryThing blog post explains the what and why better than I can:

What is CoverGuess?

CoverGuess is a sort of game. We give you covers, and you describe them in words. If you guess the same things as other players, you get points.

Why are you doing this?

The goal is to have fun, but also to build up a database of cover descriptions, to answer questions like "Do you have that book with bride on the bicycle?"

You have to have a LibraryThing account to play, but it's worth a free account to get in on the action.

CoverGuess was inspired by one of my favorite internet timesinks, Google's Image Labeler. Both of these make the internet a better place, but CoverGuess could actually help in answering reference questions. I'll be keeping watch for when the search component is released, but for now, racking up tagging points is fun.



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