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


Reference Question of the Week – 7/19/09

   July 25th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Dictionary Missing PagesHere's something you never expect. A patron calls in and asks:

I want to get a cat, but I don't know what some of the words mean that they're using to describe this breed. Can you tell me what docile, placid and amicable mean?

I knew the general sentiment of these words, but whenever someone asks me the meaning of a word, I like to look it up in a dictionary to give them the real meaning. In this case, I looked up docile and placid with no problem, reading the patron the definitions.

However, when I went for amicable, I got a surprise - our (newly purchased this year) dictionary skipped from aggressive to baby. That seemed like a bit of an omission, so I checked the page numbers - sure enough, our dictionary was missing pages 25-88. Wow.

I quickly switched to the internets to finish answering the patron's question, and since he was on the phone, he never knew the difference.

One of the criteria I use when evaluating books for the reference collection is, "can we answer patrons' questions even if our internet connection is down?" But when it comes to resource redundancy, I've never asked myself, "will I still be able to provide definitions even if 60+ pages are missing from a book?"

I sure hope Merriam-Webster gives us a new dictionary.



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ALA’s New 404 Page

   October 2nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

ALA's new 404 page screencaptureMost of the talk about ALA's new website redesign has died down, but I noticed something this week I want to comment on.

On the whole, I think the new site is a vast improvement over the old one. And with any new site, I understand they're still shaking out the bugs, and dealing with lots of dead links.

But: for my previous post, I wanted to find information from the ALA about library activity rising in time of economic trouble. A search on Google linked to something sounding exactly like what I was looking for on the ALA site. However, the link was broken.

By searching the ALA site itself for the title displayed in the Google results, I ultimately found the article's new location. Which is fine, but I have to say I am disappointed with the new website's 404 page.

When the 404 "Page Not Found" page loads, the most dominate thing on the page is the search box right in the center. So of course I clicked on this to search for the page I wanted. But - surprise - it's not a functioning search box. It's just an image of what the search box at the top of the page looks like. Of course the text above this image tells you to use the one at the top, but who reads? I don't - especially when a dominate image draws my attention away from the text.

So ALA, how about making the search box in the center a functioning search box, instead of just teasing us? It would add utility to the page, and make the 404 page incrementally just that much more user-friendly.

But otherwise, I think this is a pretty good 404 page, as far as they go. It customized and nice-looking, and gives some tips for finding what you're looking for. It also includes an email address to contact a person for help, which is great. I think I only noticed this because I talked about library website 404 pages before, and gave my library a fancy-pants 404 page.

I don't understand why it doesn't show up all the time, but maybe that's in the works, too.



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Phone Book Follies

   August 21st, 2008 Brian Herzog

The Phone Book ListingsSo apparently, in 34 years, I've never looked up in the phone book a business name starting with the word "The."

While looking up a phone number of someone whose name started with "Terr," I happened to glance at the rest of the page. I was surprised to notice that there were business listings filed under "the" - The Pizza Place, The Family Eye Care Center, etc.

Since listings like this in a library catalog would be an error, it caught my eye. It seems like it should be wrong for a phone book, too, but I could understand there are business where "The" is an official part of their name.

But I was amazed I'd never noticed this before. Just to make sure I wasn't crazy, I looked up some of these businesses where I would have thought they'd be - under "P" for Pizza, "F" for Family, etc. Some were listed, and some weren't. How strange.

So I checked the other phone books we have, to see if all the publishers did it that way. I found that some businesses are listed under "The," some aren't, and some are under both. And then I found something even stranger.

Test Test in the phone bookOn the "T" page of one of the books, there were listings for "Test Test." This is something I commonly do when entering junk information to test a new system, and I was thoroughly entertained to see it published in a phone book.

All of the various "Test" entries were listed at the same address, but with different phone numbers. Curiosity got the better of me, and I tried a few of the numbers - but they all just went right to a generic voicemail. These "Test" entries were listed in the other phone books, too, so I'm guessing it tracks back to whoever complied the data originally and sold their database to the publishers. Ha.

But again, this underscores the important of knowing the appropriateness and limitations of your resources.

And so, now the world knows that I can entertain myself for a good twenty minutes reading the telephone book.



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Shelf Reading Guide

   August 30th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Library ShelvesQ: What's the most important job in the library?
A: The lowly Page.

Pages are important because how well they do their job dictates whether or not a book can be found on the shelf. A library is dependent on its organization system (whatever it might be), so the process for getting returned books back to the right place on the shelf needs to be pretty close to perfect.

Pages are the first step in that process.

The second step is shelf reading. Books get mis-shelved. Patrons pick up books and put them back in the wrong place. It happens. This is why it is necessary (however dreadful and tedious) to shelf read a library's collection from time to time.

Dodie Gaudet, on her blog Quick T.S., provides a nice Guide to Shelf Reading. It's kind of a recap of what is taught in library school, but distilled to the important parts, including suggestions and useful links.

Although I dread a massive shelf-reading project, we can always use one, and this might actually prompt me to begin.

libraries, library, page, pages, paging, public libraries, public library, shelf reading, shelf-reading, shelving



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