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




Reference Question of the Week – 10/19/14

   October 25th, 2014 Brian Herzog

paul revere statueThis reference question isn't difficult or new (I talked about something similar back in 2007), but I still love this idea so I thought I'd share it.

A patron called and asked if I could search for a book for her by ISBN. When the search brought back no results, she said "well I'm getting this from an eight year old so who knows." Ha.

To verify the ISBN, I searched for it on Amazon, and sure enough it was a kids book on Paul Revere - published in 1986. I'm sure we had other books on Paul Revere, so I asked if she needed just information about him, or this particular book. She said,

No, I need this book. My niece got it out from her school library in Pennsylvania, and I wanted to read it with her over the phone.

Man I love this idea. I widened my search to include all the libraries in Massachusetts, and sure enough a few libraries outside my network had it. I requested it and the patron was happy. Since it's coming from outside the system, it might take up to a couple weeks to get here, but hopefully it'll arrive before the project is due.

So, another win for interlibrary loan, and also a win for staying involved in kids' lives despite living in a different state. Go libraries!



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Check Out This Telescope!

   October 23rd, 2014 Brian Herzog

I totally dropped the ball and am late in posting this. However, my library was featured in the October issue of Sky & Telescope magazine!

telescope check out

The article focused on a practical program for circulating telescopes from a public library. Thanks to the generous donation from local astronomy buffs, we've been circulating two telescopes for about the last six month.

telescopeThe photo above appeared in the article, showing library staff checking out a telescope to patrons. The article goes into detail about the best telescopes for library use (that is, easy-to-use and hard-to-damage), how to prepare them, and what to circulate with them to make it a good experience.

If you're interested in expanding your non-traditional collection to include telescopes, definitely read this article. Unfortunately the article isn't available free online, so if you don't subscribe it should be in both EBSCO's MasterFILE and Gale's OneFile databases. Or talk to me about an ILL request.

And one last note: there has been a double-digit waiting list on our telescopes ever since we started offering them. I neglected to sign up right away, and now have been waiting four months for it to be my turn.



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/12/14

   October 18th, 2014 Brian Herzog

So this is an interesting question - and a situation where I got schooled in applying Occam's razor to research techniques.

A friend of mine at work had an unusual coin, and we wanted to find out what it was. It didn't have any English lettering on it, and no Arabic numbers, although it clearly looked like it was a coin from the Middle East or Asia, or maybe North Africa (however, the lack of Arabic numbers made me think it wasn't from an Arab country).

Mystery coin

This came up late on a Friday, so I never got a chance to search for what it was. Over the weekend though, I did think about different approaches I could use to identify it:

  • The failsafe always seemed to be just sitting down with our big world coin book, and going through it page by page looking for something similar
  • I also thought a reverse image search would work - take a picture of the coin, run it through Google, and it should easily bring back exact matches
  • Often when I'm trying to identify things, I type in whatever is written on them to match the exact phrase - since this coin isn't in English, I'd first have to install that font set and then hunt and peck until I found the right characters, and then search on the phrase or translate it

See, this is how a reference librarian approaches the problem (or at least, how I approached it).

When I got in a Monday, my coworker (who had worked Saturday) left a note on my desk identifying the coin as an Iraqi 25 Fils coin. Neat! So I asked her how she figured it out - hours pouring over the book? The reverse image search? She said,

No, I just searched for "palm tree coin" and it came right up.

Now that's how you research.

I honestly did feel a little dumb that searching like that didn't even occur to me - but I was able to redeem myself with dating it. It seemed like the coin had two dates written on it, which is odd to me, but also written in another language so I'd need to figure out how to translate them - which is also odd because I would have thought Iraq would use Arabic numbers. Also, being an Iraqi coin, I was curious if this was from the Saddam Hussein era or not.

Searching for "Iraq coin dates" brought up a website that explained that Iraq uses eastern Arabic numerals, and indeed two dating systems. One is the same modern years we use, and the other is

a Hejira date based on the lunar calendar and starting at the time Mohammed was alive (around 600 AD)

Using the translation table on the website,

Eastern Arabic numerals

I was able to work out this coin to be from 1990 / 1410. Saddam was President of Iraq from 1979 to 2003, so it was indeed a Saddam coin.

A couple other notes about this question:

  • I was curious to see how well the reverse image search would work, so I tried it anyway - and it failed miserably. It seemed like it searched for anything round and silvery, which is just about every other coin in the world. Maybe it's not sophisticated enough yet to search for the image on the coin, or maybe my picture just didn't highlight the detail enough
  • Maybe descriptive searches like "palm tree coin" don't occur to me because I'm so used to working with library catalogs. There really is no reason we shouldn't be able to search catalogs for "blue book with dog on cover," but since we can't I guess I don't think like that when approaching searches. It'd be a lot of effort to get that kind of metadata into library catalogs, but clearly crowdsourcing search data works for Google
  • I had never heard of Eastern Arabic numerals, so it was fun to learn about something new

I liked this question a lot - and it wasn't even from a real patron!



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/5/14

   October 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog

The AnglerOne Saturday I was working at the desk with a coworker. She answered the phone, and it was a patron asking for a print of Winslow Homer's "Fishing the Falls." He said it's not one of his public works, and is in a private collection, and that's why he can't find any information about it online.

After my coworker hung up, she spent some time looking for it. After a little while with no success, she asked me to help - and then left for lunch. Slackers.

It didn't appear in the index of any of our Homer books in the 700s, but by searching for "fishing the falls" and "winslow homer" I did find a few websites that showed a painting with that name.

However, it was conspicuously missing from http://www.winslow-homer.com which bills itself as "The Complete Works." Also, it bothered me that it wasn't in any of our books, nor really anywhere else.

So I got the idea of doing a reverse-image search. I used the image from http://images.easyart.com/i/prints/rw/lg/1/0/Winslow-Homer-Fishing-The-Falls-10757.jpg and found a lot more sites with that same image - but more importantly, many of them had it listed as "The Angler." Ah ha.

This time I had more success searching for it by name, including http://www.winslow-homer.com/The-Angler.html - still though, not in any of the books we had. However, I did find a book online with a Publisher's Weekly review that specifically mentioned it:

Of its 184 illustrations, 123 are in color, with an emphasis on full-page reproduction of watercolors, including The Angler (1874), showing a raffish, bearded man casting with panache into a cascading river.

And some of the websites did indeed indicate it was in a private collection.

My coworker called the patron back and asked him to describe the painting, and sure enough, this was the one he was looking for. He actually wanted to buy a print, so she read him some pricing from different places it was for sale to give him an idea of the cost.

The patron seemed happy with the information, and my coworker seemed suitably impressed that I could apparently conjure an answer out of thin air after she had no luck. So overall it was a pretty good way to spend time while someone was at lunch.



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A Couple of Minor Interesting Things

   October 9th, 2014 Brian Herzog

magnifying glassI know there are significant issues coming to light this week regarding security and privacy, but this post highlights two far less consequential items. Both are search tips from Lifehacker.

1. Searching for Lyrics
The first is that Bing Now Shows Lyrics at the Top of Your Search Results. This will actually be extremely useful, because I haven't felt comfortable about visiting a lyrics website since about 2000. I don't know why those always seem to be the most virus- and crap-prone websites, but they are.

Of course this doesn't work for every song. In fact, quite literally while I still had the Lifehacker post open, a patron walked up and asked me to print the lyrics for Anything Goes. I was librarian-excited to try out a new tool to answer a question, but this Bing trick didn't work for that song. That's a fairly well-known song - and so are God Bless America and Born In The USA. I don't know what makes Man In The Mirror special, but something apparently. Maybe it's a copyright thing, or maybe the Bing developers are just starting with their favorite artists. But it's still worth trying out when the moment arises. And, it'd good to see Bing being innovative.

2. Searching Individual Websites
The second item is how you can Search Individual Sites on Google by Searching For Their Name. This is something I've been noticing for years, but also not something I've ever really counted on. But if it's planned to be a deliberate feature, I'll try to use it more. At least, it's sure easier that using the "site:" limiter.

Again, it doesn't work for every website. It seems like mainly just big, popular, and news websites have this available, but I also found some notable exceptions.

So that's it - now back to more important things.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/28/14

   October 4th, 2014 Brian Herzog

This is not a fast food restaurant signWhile I was talking to a patron, the phone rang and my coworker answered it. She listened for a little while, said "Yes, I think so," and then hung up.

Any time that happens, you know it's going to be a story.

She turned to me afterward and said the patron just asked her,

Is Boston Market considered fast food?

Yes. Her logic is that any restaurant where you order at a counter and pick up your own food is fast food - if you order at a table and your food is brought to you, it's not fast food. That seems like a good distinction, and apparently it satisfied the patron as well.

Sometimes, the hardest thing about working in a library is not getting to ask, "why?"



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