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


Swear Like A Librarian

   August 9th, 2011 Brian Herzog

No Swearing signI hope this post doesn't get blocked by your filtering software.

When not at work, some librarians I know have the filthiest mouths of anyone I've encountered. But at the desk they obviously can't use bad words, so I got curious about the public-safe language librarians use to replace swear words. That's the catch-22 of libraries: serving the public can be stressful, but working at a public service desk means being limited in how we can respond when something goes wrong.

I asked around a bit and here's a list of some choice "safe" words library staff use:

  • some old standards: Shoot, Fudge, Bologny
  • Jeepers Crow
  • Flip
  • Fly me (to the moon)
  • Mother of pearl
  • What the what?
  • For the love of Pete
  • For cripe's sake
  • Frick
  • Shut the front door
  • Sugar Honey Iced Tea

The last one is my favorite - read it again, but just the first letter of each word.

I'm sure everyone has their favorites - what are your patron-safe swear words? Please share them in the comments or make #swearlikealibrarian a trending topic.

P.S.
When I was originally working on this post, I thought some gansta rap-style image would make an appropriate illustration. I couldn't find one exactly right, but I did think this was funny:

I Like Big Books And I Cannot Lie sign

Good job Hillsdale Free Public Library - Sir Mix-A-Lot would be proud.



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Ich bin ein Bibliotecario

   November 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Babel Fish from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyLanguage is fascinating to me. I'm particularly interested in the idea that our brains are shaped by the language we use to interpret our environments and communicate - and therefore, people of different cultures do perceive the world differently.

So, apropos of absolutely nothing, here are the translations for a few library-related words, according to the Babel Fish translator.

English library librarian book reading information reference
Dutch bibliotheek bibliothecaris boek lezing informatie verwijzing
French bibliothèque bibliothécaire livre lecture l'information référence
German Bibliothek Bibliothekar Buch Messwert Informationen Hinweis
Greek βιβλιοθήκη βιβλιοθηκάριος βιβλίο ανάγνωση πληροφορίες αναφορά
Italian biblioteca bibliotecario libro lettura informazioni riferimento
Portuguese biblioteca bibliotecário livro leitura informação referência
Russian архив библиотекарь книга чтение информация справка
Spanish biblioteca bibliotecario libro lectura información referencia

Something else neat is that other language can be clever sources of product names - who among us wouldn't buy into a chat reference product called "Referencia?" But my favorite is the word for librarian - "bibliotecario" - I think I might change my business cards.



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The Patron Whisperer (+ contest)

   August 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Unshelved comic stripI'm not sure what got me on this, but all week I've been thinking about the language library staff use with patrons, and what we're able to convey beyond the actual words we use.

I'm sure I learned about this in various customer service workshops in the past, and I'm also sure there's a name for it, but I can't remember what it is. It seems to be most relevant when there is a problem or staff has to correct a patron for violating a policy - in those cases, the words we use can go a long way to either help diffuse or inflame the situation. Here are a couple examples of what I'm talking about:

Example 1: A patron asks for help locating a book that the computer says is Checked In, but when the staff person goes to the shelf with the patron, the book isn't there.

  • Staff Response A: "It looks like someone put the book in the wrong place; let's go back to the desk and request it from another library."
  • Staff Response B: "It should be right here, but is definitely missing; let's go back to the desk and request it from another library."

Example 2: A patron walks by the desk eating a hamburger, which violates the library's no-food policy.

  • Staff Response A: "They don't allow food in the library, you'll have to throw that away."
  • Staff Response B: "Could you please finish your meal outside before you come into the library?"

Example 3: The computer a patron is using is extremely slow.

  • Staff Response A: "Yeah, these computers are really old, so you'll just have to wait."
  • Staff Response B: "I'm not sure what the problem is, but you're welcome to move to a different computer or I can reboot this one for you."

Alright, these aren't great examples, but here's my point: in all the Response A's, the patron is getting the message that someone is to blame, whereas the Response B's provide the patron with a solution without any passive-aggressiveness.

This is probably a major sociological interpersonal communication issue - whether it's better to give someone a neutral third-party "they" to focus their displeasure upon, or to dissipate the anger by working on a solution rather than assigning blame. I suppose it varies depending on the level of emotion involved, but I personally prefer the Response B approach, because it addresses the cause of the problem, rather than symptoms.

Let's have a contest!
Librarian's Book of Lists, by George EberhartSince I can't remember what this type of phrasing is called, I can't look up examples or tips on implementing it. So I was hoping that other library staff could suggest some common patron interactions, and some good wording to handle the situations.

I posted this as a question on Unshelved Answers, and whichever answer there gets the most votes over there will win a copy of The Librarian's Book of Lists, by George M. Eberhart. It's an interesting book, and not just because it includes my list of 10 Patron Pet Peeves.

Even if you're not interested in the contest, please do post any wording suggestions you have - I'm really interested in the subtleties of language (like the difference between "yes, but..." and "yes, and..."), and this is something that can be practically useful to a lot of people. Thanks.

Update 8/20/10: Congratulations to Jeff from Gather No Dust - his suggestion got the most votes, so he wins the book. Thanks to everyone, and be sure to check out the suggestions at Unshelved Answers.



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/9/10

   May 15th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Aleksandr Nikolayevich OstrovskyThis question was both fun and frustrating - fun in that it was a series of challenges, but frustrating in that, in the end, I don't know if the patron got what she wanted.

One quiet afternoon, the phone rings, and I have the following conversation with a patron with a thick Russian accent:

Patron: I am looking for Russian play by 19th Century famous Russian Nikolia Ostrovsky [she spelled it for me]
Me: Okay, what is the title of the play?
Patron: I don't know in English, but Russian title is something about girl and gift of marriage.

I started with a search of our catalog for just the author's last name, hoping I'd be able to pick out the title of the play, but it seemed like we didn't have anything by this author. I then tried this same strategy with the state-wide Virtual Catalog. It was much more promising, but I noticed no "Nikolia Ostrovsky" was listed - instead there was a "Aleksandr Nikolaevich Ostrovsky."

I asked the patron if that was the same person as the author she was looking for, and she said no, his name was just "Nikolia Ostrovsky."

While she was talking (which, because English is not her first language, was sort of forced and slow), I did a quick online search, which added to the confusion. I did see mentions of an author named "Nikolai Alexeevich Ostrovsky." The patron said that was the right name, but when I described his life and work, the patron said it was the wrong person.

I then described the life and works of Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, which the patron said must be the right person, even though she was convinced the name was wrong. In any case, we moved on to finding the right play.

I skimmed through the list from the Virtual Catalog, but many of the titles where in Russian, and none of those in English had anything to do with a girl or a wedding. I asked her if she knew anything else about the title of the play, and while she was talking it eventually dawned on me that "gift of marriage" probably referred to "dowry."

The patron said she liked the word, so I searched online for Ostrovsky dowry, and found many pages referring to a play called "The Girl Without a Dowry." Perfect.

Next I translated that from English to Russian, copy/paste the result into a Virtual Catalog search, and... get zero hits because the search does not support Cyrillic characters.

Hmm. Now I realize I need to find the English spelling of the play's Russian title using Latin characters, and the patron has no idea what it might be. I go back to the search results that told us what the English title was (Firefox tabs must have specifically been designed for reference librarians, by the way), and saw an Open Library record for Bespridannitsa / the Girl Without Dowry* - that must be it, right?

I go back to the Firefox tab with the Virtual Catalog results for the author's last name, and search the page (CTRL+F) for the word "Bespridannitsa." Nothing. Just on a hunch, I start backspacing through the letters of Bespridannitsa, thinking that the spelling might be different in the Virtual Catalog (I like that Firefox searches the page in realtime, rather than having to do a new search each time). I get down to "Bespridanni" and Firefox highlights a record titled "Bespridanniëtìsa" which is a videorecording**.

The patron asks me to request that, but she really wants to read the play. I'm running out of ideas, so I search the Virtual Catalog for "Bespridanniëtìsa" and all that comes up are videorecordings. Just for the heck of it, I also search for "Bespridannitsa," and surprisingly, there are a few matches for this author. Even more surprisingly, none of the matches for print items actually include the word "Bespridannitsa" in the visible record.

I read (as best I can) the titles to the patron ("Izbrannye p§esy," "Izbrannye sochineniëiìa"), and we decide these might be collections of of plays, of which "Bespridannitsa" might be one, so I request them for her.

The patron is happy (well, hopeful), and hangs up. I couldn't tell if she thanked me because she thought I found what she wanted, or was just thanking me for the effort. I suppose I'll only find out if it was the right thing if the patron calls back and asks to keep searching - and hopefully she doesn't ask for the play in English.

With questions like this, I'd really be curious to see the whole flow mapped out visually. Using tabbed browsing makes me realize how many times I repeatedly consult the same source (for different information), and I think it would be interesting to illustrate how different search strategies lead to blind alleys, doubling back, and most importantly, an answer.

 


*Open Library has a direct link to WorldCat, which shows which nearby OCLC member libraries have this item. No Massachusetts libraries had it, and we use out-of-state requests only as a last resort.

**As an aside, I thought I could verify the Authority library spelling of Bespridannitsa by searching WorldCat for Bespridannitsa Ostrovsky. There were lots of matches, but sadly, most of them had different spellings and accents.



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The Language of Service

   January 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Hitting a nail on the headI love Kate's recent post about the words we use and the impact they have on customer service.

Language is very important. Just yesterday I had an unpleasant exchange with a patron. She came up to say she was having trouble with the printer, and I started giving her printer tech support. All of this was unhelpful, because she was actually having trouble with the copier. It was frustrating for both of us, and could have been avoided if I had listened to what she was saying instead of the words she was using.

I'm going to make a point of using Kate's "yes, and..." suggestion from now on. It's such a simple thing, yet it encapsulates so much of what libraries do right (and wrong). Great observation, Kate.



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Traveling, and World Book in Chinese

   April 16th, 2009 Brian Herzog

chinese world book encyclopediaI'm going to Ohio for a week, and so won't be posting for awhile. But here's something:

In preparation for being away, I was trying to clear off my desk at work. A few layers of papers down, I found a scrap with "to blog" ideas scribbled on it. The only one still interesting is that, at the end of last year, our Children's Room purchased the Chinese version of the World Book Encyclopedia.

We have a large Chinese-speaking population, with varying mastery of English, so this will likely be useful to many of our patrons.

But being curious, and lacking a Chinese-speaking staff person, we asked one of the library's regular patrons, originally from Taiwan, to compare a few articles related to China in both editions. Her impression was that, despite the 2007 date on the cover, the information inside seemed to reflect the China of the mid-1980's. This opinion didn't come from an in-depth reading, but she felt that the last 20 years of political change was missing from the Chinese edition.

She also, of course, took great interest in the Taiwan article. Here she felt it was almost identical to the English edition, with only one significant difference. The very end of the article had an extra statement, indicating that Taiwan, as a whole, was looking forward to unification with mainland China.

I would have loved to have this patron (and others) do additional detailed comparisons, but her child was already using one volume to work on her homework, and needed her mother's help. I'm happy this is a resource my library can offer our patrons, and although I'd like to have a better understanding of what patrons are getting out of it, I believe it is playing an important role in our Children's Room.

Have a nice week - I'm off to play with my nieces and nephews.



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