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).
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,
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!
October 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog
One 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.
October 4th, 2014 Brian Herzog
While 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?"
September 21st, 2014 Brian Herzog
This ended up being one of those very rare reference questions where initially it seems like a million-to-one shot, and ends up very casually being that one in a million. This email request came to the reference desk:
Submitted via Chelmsford Library Reference Question.
Allan Daniel Clark, from (born\in North Clemsford, MA Born june 19, 1924, Father Shirley John - Mother Lela M. Lord Clark Enlisted in the US Navy on jan 27, 1953 at Boston, MA Lost on the submarine USS Swordfish (SS-193) --- This man's photo is needed for use with his published Memorial record in the set of six volumes of all the known men lost while attached to a US Submarine Command during World War II. Photos may be in local newspapers of school yearbooks, etc.
That sounds like a great project. My library does have a collection of Chelmsford High School yearbooks, but unfortunately it's not complete. And of course, the further back you go, the more gaps there are in the collection.
But by doing some estimation - someone born in 1924 would be 18 in 1942 - I guessed the yearbooks we'd need would be in the 1940-1943 range. According to the catalog that should be no problem, but when I got to the shelf the only one from that period that was actually there was 1942 - not great odds.
Also, it turns out that Chelmsford High only included photos of the seniors in the yearbooks, with other classes only having their names listed.
But, despite the odds, this was indeed the correct yearbook, and Allan Daniel Clark was right there at the bottom of the page:
I was rather surprised, but very happy. I emailed the patron some scanned versions of the page, as well as contact information for the High School to see about copyright permission. I felt really good about being able to answer this question, but even still I was expecting the inevitable reply:
Thank you for your efforts on locating photos. For your reference, i am attaching a description of the six volume series.
Although I wish him well with this project, the library will not be purchasing this six volume series.
Tags: chelmsford high school, chs, libraries, Library, photo, project, public, Reference Question, submarines, WWII, yearbook
September 13th, 2014 Brian Herzog
This whole interaction made me laugh, but I have to call Spoiler Alert for anyone who hasn't read Be careful what you wish for by Jeffrey Archer - because this question does reveal the ending (I think).
A patron called in on a cell phone (with driving noises in the background) asking if there's a book after Archer's Be careful what you wish for. While I'm checking our catalog (which has Novelist Select built into the pages to list books in series order) the patron says [and this is the spoiler],
Everybody just blew up and the book ended so there's got to be a sequel.
When I get to the record I tell him it was just released in 2014 and is the fourth book in the series, but the fifth book isn't out yet. The patron's reaction could have caused an accident:
What? You mean they're going to make me wait? I just finished the last CD and I want to find out what happens next!
I couldn't help but laugh. It's honestly a joy to hear someone so into a story.
At least I could tell him book five, Mightier than the Sword, is due out in February 2015. I haven't read any of these, but if this patron is so excited about them I think maybe I should. Any audiobook that caused someone to call the library immediately after the last disc ends has got to be good.
September 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog
Earlier this week, a coworker at our circulation desk sent me this message:
A patron came to the desk last night and asked where the last 6 months of Skeptical Inquirer were. He said they're never there except the new one. Did we have a blip in circulation?
It turns out that this is a bi-monthly magazine, and the issue the patron wanted was checked out. All of our copies were accounted for, but since there are fewer issues than a monthly magazine, it just seemed like more were missing than actually were.
But: this patron had doubts and that led him to ask a question - do you know what makes him? A Skeptical Inquirer!
It's things like this that make being a librarian worthwhile.