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

Reference Question of the Week – 6/14/09

   June 20th, 2009 Brian Herzog

BPL e-Journals linkThis week's question itself isn't very exciting, but it does have two interesting features:

  1. a useful reference tool
  2. an example of a patron being absolutely positive about something, and still being wrong

When I got into work one morning, there was a note from the previous night's staff. It said a patron came in just before closing, and since they didn't have time to research her question, could I please do it and call the patron.

No problem. The patron had an exact quote (three sentences long!) from an April 2006 issue of USA Today, and wanted to read the entire article. The note also said the patron was absolutely sure the quotation was correct.

We don't have USA Today in print back to 2006, so we rely on databases for this type of research. And I can never remember which databases index which journals and newspapers, so I reply on the Boston Public Library's e-Journals By Title search*.

It told me which database(s) had USA Today as full-text for 2006, so I logged into that database through my library's website (so our stats get credited for the use). In this case, it was Gale's General Reference Center, and used their advanced search to narrow to the publication and timeframe.

I searched for a couple of the keywords in the quote, and got zero hits. I tried a few different keywords, and got zero hits. I tried the most general keyword in the quote, and got three articles having nothing to do with that quotation.


So I kept the timeframe but removed the publication limitation, re-ran the search for the first set of keywords, and this time it found four articles - none of them from USA Today, but all of them relevant to the quotation.

I called the patron and explained that I couldn't find the quote in USA Today, but I did find articles in other newspapers that had to do with that same topic. She insisted that she had the quote exactly right.

I tried to diplomatically say that I wasn't disputing she had the quote right, but just that I couldn't find it. Perhaps, I suggested, it was printed in part of the newspaper that isn't indexed in the database, such as the Letters to the Editor or a supplement. The patron considers this, then said,

Oh, that could be. [pause] Or, you know, maybe I read that one in the The New York Times. I bet that's why I wrote "NYT" after it - I wondered what that meant.

One of the articles I found was from The New York Times. Not that it really matters - in fact, the patron got four articles instead of one, so she was happy. And the e-Journals By Title from BPL led me right to the database I needed, so I was happy.

So yay for efficiency, and yay for exceeding the patron's expectation.


*in case you missed it, this was the useful reference tool - really, I love this search

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