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


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!



Tags: , , , , ,



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.



Tags: , , , , , , ,



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.



Tags: , , , , ,



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?"



Tags: , , , , ,



Creating Better Passwords By Knowing How They’re Cracked

   October 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

password are like pants signThis weekend on Twitter, @itsokayihaveabook linked to a great article on the current thinking for choosing a secure password. I don't keep up with this stuff all the time, but every so often I will check in to see what the developments are. If you only read one password security article this year, this is a good candidate.

I liked this one because it wasn't just preachy-talky on why good passwords are important - he explains how password hacking works, and gives advice based on that to create better passwords.

Some things not to do:

  • don't use words: password guessing software crunches through multiple dictionaries at unbelievable speeds, so even nonsensical word combinations will eventually be guessed
  • don't use personally-identifiable information: many aspects of our lives are online, and hackers will use everything they know about us when guessing passwords - so don't use addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, schools, mascots, relatives' names, etc
  • don't be common: there's lots of standard passwords (like pa$$w0rd, temp1234, i<3book$, etc) that are incorporated into password-guessing - even though it looks tricky to the eye, if other people are using it, chances are the hackers will try it
  • don't reuse passwords: with corporate-level security breaches, even a good password might be compromised through no fault of your own. But if you use the same good password for all your accounts, once the hackers get it from Home Depot or Target or where ever, then it's much easier for them to get into your PayPal and Amazon and bank accounts

So here's what he feels you can do - the "Schneier scheme":

So if you want your password to be hard to guess, you should choose something that this process will miss. My advice is to take a sentence and turn it into a password. Something like "This little piggy went to market" might become "tlpWENT2m". That nine-character password won't be in anyone's dictionary. Of course, don't use this one, because I've written about it. Choose your own sentence -- something personal.

The entire article is worth reading. But his bottom-line takeaway is kind of scary: "Pretty much anything that can be remembered can be cracked."

I'm going to start recommending this technique when helping patrons set up email accounts. Thanks Jenny!

Update 10/3/14:

A reader sent me a link to another article, Why you don't need long, complex passwords. I sort of referenced the gist above, but it does a much better job of spelling out another major vulnerability. Thanks R. E.!

The bottom line of all of this seems to be that living is inherently dangerous, so live well and don't worry too much about it.



Tags: , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 9/21/14

   September 27th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Grammar Police Badge - To Serve and CorrectThis week's question is a two-fold cautionary tale: first, it illustrates the importance of annunciation enunciation, and second the importance of the reference interview. What I thought I heard initially was certainly not what this patron actually wanted.

A male patron calls the desk and says,

One of my wives' books is overdue - can you renew it for her?

Of course, what he meant was "One of my wife's books..." - it loses a little in the translation to typing it out, but it was pretty clear over the phone. Clearly wrong, though, and it made me laugh. It also reminded me of the joke about the importance of the Oxford comma.

But, item renewed, so everyone is happy (in a very non-polygamous sort of way).



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,