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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/1/11

   May 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Emporer TrajanThis week's question has a bonus happy epilogue.

A mom and daughter walk up to the desk. The mom starts to explain how the daughter has a homework project on ancient Greece, but the topic she originally was given was too hard so the teacher gave her a new one. The mom then blanked on the new topic, and so told the daughter to tell me what it was - the daughter said,

The Trojan Emperor.

I had never heard of an Emperor of Troy, or any Greek Emperors for that matter. But since there are lots of things that fall into that category, I took them down to the 938's and started looking through the indexes of books on Ancient Greece with them.

After just a minute or two of not finding anything at all, the whole thing just didn't feel right, so I told them to keep looking while I went back to the desk to try something else. In this case, the "something else" was to search the internet for "trojan emperor," thinking I would find a name or some other information to help with the search.

I did - Google's search result page prompted:

Did you mean: trajan emperor

Ha - I totally did. I knew "Trojan Emperor" sounded kind of right, but not completely. "Emperor Trajan" makes much more sense.

I walked back down to the mom and daughter to tell them what I found. As soon as I said it the girl recognized it as what her teacher had told* her. I switched them to looking at the books on ancient Rome (937's), and instantly the daughter had more than enough information for her project.

So that's great - the patrons were happy they got what they needed, and reference transaction over.


As I walked back to the desk, I kind of grumbled to myself...

So typically library - Google is smart enough to correct a mistake like that and suggest the right answer. Our catalog should be able to do the same thing.

By the time I got back to the desk, it occurred to me that I hadn't actually ever checked the catalog - I just knew where those books are on the shelves, and took the patron right to them. But I also know that our current catalog doesn't have any kind of suggestion feature.

However, my consortium will be switching to Evergreen over Memorial Day weekend. Our Reference Desk has gotten into the habit of repeating each patron search in the Evergreen demo catalog to see how it works (thanks for the idea, Katie), so I ran this search on our test server to see how it handled it. And guess what? It worked!

Few hits were returned for your search.
Maybe you meant: Trajan emperor

One problem with it is that it's just way too subtle at the bottom of the page, but the nice thing about open source is that I can lobby to have that changed. But just that fact that it's there at all is a huge step into the modern internet world. Yay for progress.


*This is why it's important for assignments to be written down. And why it's helpful to bring the assignment sheet to the library.

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