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


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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Reference Question of the Week – 1/13/13

   January 19th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Here's my own reference question this week - why are so many of our magazines arriving in the mail torn and mangled?

Usually it takes our patrons a day or two to make the magazines look like this.

The damage is worse than the photograph shows - most of those rips are 20+ pages deep, and these were just three damaged issues we got in the mail delivery in one day. We've been getting them like this (or other variations, from minor tears to just a cover with no pages inside at all) almost daily now for a couple weeks, whereas before it seemed like maybe once a month, if that, a magazine would get damaged in the mail.

The first few I claimed through EBSCO, our magazine subscription aggregator. But finally it seemed like the problem must lie with the Post Office, so I decided to register a complaint there.

I went to USPS.com, and spent probably too much time looking for a "make a complaint" or "ask a question" email form. Eventually I found their Customer Service page, and submitted an email explaining that more and more of my library's magazines were getting damaged during delivery.

Not five minutes after I clicked send - and I'm not kidding, it was like five minutes - the phone rings and it's the local Postmaster for Chelmsford. Holy smokes, now that is impressive.

He said this is happening all through the USPS right now. The problem is that they've been using sorting machine with letters and envelopes for years, and it worked so well (as in, saved money and sped up the mail) that the USPS decided to use it for magazines, too.

However, the machines have not yet been calibrated for magazines, and routinely rip the crap out of them. He apologized, of course, and said they're working on it, but that it will continue until they figure the machines out. I hate answers like that, but I'm sure in this case they're highly motivated - he said they get daily calls from residential customers who are also getting badly damaged magazines delivered.

Anyway, I wanted to share this experience, in case other libraries have also seen their number of damaged magazines jump. And also to commend the USPS for such amazingly prompt customer service. Now just stop ripping up the magazines.

Postscript: something else the USPS could stop is their ridiculous (I felt) "How are we doing?" post-contact survey. It came into my email a couple days after I submitted the form on their website - which, in and of itself, was fine. But I think surveys like that should be five questions long, tops, and take less than a couple minutes. This one just kept going on and on - it even repeated questions, but varied them slightly, as if they wanted to see if I answered consistently. Seriously, this survey was probably 20+ questions and took more than seven minutes to complete. I could have quit at any time, of course, but I went through to the end because I was so fascinated by its complexity. Also, they seemed to know exactly the point at which I got annoyed, because after that point they no longer provided an open text comment box, so I couldn't tell them how much I disliked the survey itself. Oh well.



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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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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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Great Book Cover and Bookmarks

   January 28th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Speaking of creative bookmarks, I love these combination custom book covers/bookmarks:

Custom book covers and bookmarks

Custom book coversSimilarly, last year our Children's Librarian started pulling books that she felt were good, but had misleading or unexciting covers, and had kids design their own covers. That's a great idea, and it's fun to take great ideas just a little bit further.

Yay for activities that involves patrons and lets them take more ownership of their library use.

via LISNews



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