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


Reference Question of the Week – 6/12/11

   June 18th, 2011 Brian Herzog

SAT score reportOne afternoon, three high school kids came up to the desk and asked if they could use one of the study rooms. I set them up, and then about a half hour later they came back with this question:

Do you have a book with SAT scores by town for all of Massachusetts?

I didn't think we would have anything in print with scores down to the town level, so I told them I'd search online. They said they had been and couldn't find anything - I told them I'd try anyway, and I'd come get them if I found something (said the librarian, with confidence).

The first place I went was the MA Department of Education website, but a search for SAT scores didn't provide statistics, just news articles about trends.

Next I tried a general web search for SAT scores by town Massachusetts, which did produce a Boston Globe article with scores by schools from 2006. Since this proved such data was available, I thought surely the DOE website must have something.

So I searched again limiting to site:doe.mass.edu (actually, at first I just typed in .gov, but it turns out the DOE website is a .edu - huh), and found the exact same Boston Globe data on the DOE website - plus data from previous years.

It always bugs me when Google's site: limiter search works better than a website's own native search, but at least I found something.

And finally, I searched around CollegeBoard.com to see if they had breakdowns of SAT scores. All I could find there were national percentile tables, but that seems like it might be useful, too.

I went to the study room to tell the kids what I found, and they were pretty happy. Of course, since everything I found was online, the only real way to get it to them was to get the email address of one of the girls in the group and email her the URLs - which seems a little awkward to me, but it worked well enough in this case.

This was the email I sent them...

From the Department of Education's website:
http://profiles.doe.mass.edu/state_report/sat.aspx

The same table a little easier to read from Boston.com:
http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2006/08/29/2006_sat_scores_for_massachusetts/

And if you need general statistics on SAT test takers overall, that's
on the SAT website:
http://professionals.collegeboard.com/data-reports-research/sat/data-tables

Let me know if you guys need anything else.

They stayed in the room for an hour or so more, and stopped by the desk to thank me on the way out. How nice.



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Search Engine Blind Taste Test

   June 18th, 2009 Brian Herzog

blind search screenEven though I use Google for web searching most of the time, I do use other search engines, and I wonder how the results compare.

With the launch of Microsoft's new Bing search engine, a Microsoft employee must have been wondering the same thing - so he created a neat Blind Search tool (and states this is not a Microsoft project).

Type in a search term, and Blind Search shows you the results from Google, Yahoo and Bing - but without telling you which engine produced each list. So without brand bias, you decide which results list includes the most relevant websites.

And the best part is the reveal, when you "vote" and see which search engine the results came from.

I played a bit, and surprisingly, Google didn't always provide the most relevant results. As the creator states, this seems most useful as an observational curiosity, but it certainly is fun and interesting (or, it gives people a way to find pron three times faster).

via Closed Stacks



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/15/08

   June 21st, 2008 Brian Herzog

YouTube logoThis is a reference question I've been holding onto for awhile, hoping I'd have an answer to share. I don't, so now I'm hoping someone else might.

A patron came to the desk asking for help with YouTube. He's one of our regulars, and has a bit of a compulsive personality. He's also a big fan of The Doors: he's working on a book, buys whatever merchandise he can from eBay, and watches any related video on YouTube - or rather, tries to.

One day, he came to the desk and said:

When I search for "the doors" on YouTube, there are over 79,000 videos. However, It only shows the first 50 pages of search results, which is only the first 500 videos. How can I watch the rest?

I had never clicked this far into any search returns in my life. So I tried it out, and sure enough, he was right. I played a bit, but couldn't find any way to get past this barrier to the rest of the videos.

I searched their Help Center with no success, and so sent in the question via their Contact Form. I also searched the general internet, but couldn't find anything relating to this issue.

This was on April 25th, 2008. So far, I haven't heard anything back from YouTube or Google. I resubmitted the question a couple weeks later, but again, no response.

I've played with this search limit again recently, and it looks like now YouTube cuts off the returned videos in the 540's, which is on page 28. The pagination shows out to page 31, and implies there is more, but when you click beyond page 28 the pagination and video numbering starts over at 1.

I can understand the technical limitations and the necessity of an upper cap on returned search matches. But with no explanation or message that there is a limit, and this confusing/resetting pagination, this patron feels YouTube is teasing him personally, and cheating him out of these other 78,500+ videos.

Does anyone have an answer I can pass on to the patron? Thanks.



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New Google Feature?

   March 6th, 2008 Brian Herzog

U.S. Mint SearchWhen I use Google to find information, I often use the "site" limiter to improve the returns.

For instance, when looking for information on the new economic stimulus tax rebate thing, a search for "tax rebate site:irs.gov" gives much more direct information than does just searching for "tax rebate." Which is great if you know the domain to which you'd like to limit your search, but yesterday, I didn't.

Someone was looking for information on the James Madison dollar coin, and the U.S. Mint website seemed the most logical place to look for it. However, I didn't know the Mint's domain name. So before my usual site-specific search, I first searched for "us mint" to get the domain, and then I was going to run a second search limited to that domain.

But Google is one step ahead of me (I don't know if this is a new feature or if I just never noticed it before): my search for U.S. Mint returned the Mint's website as the first result, and the listing included a site search built right in to the search result (see picture).

Neat. And it saves me a step. Searching there for "james madison dollar" gave exactly what the patron was looking for as the first result.

I'm generally skeptical of Google as a company for hording private data, but they do have smart people working there.



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