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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/1/11

   May 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Emporer TrajanThis week's question has a bonus happy epilogue.

A mom and daughter walk up to the desk. The mom starts to explain how the daughter has a homework project on ancient Greece, but the topic she originally was given was too hard so the teacher gave her a new one. The mom then blanked on the new topic, and so told the daughter to tell me what it was - the daughter said,

The Trojan Emperor.

I had never heard of an Emperor of Troy, or any Greek Emperors for that matter. But since there are lots of things that fall into that category, I took them down to the 938's and started looking through the indexes of books on Ancient Greece with them.

After just a minute or two of not finding anything at all, the whole thing just didn't feel right, so I told them to keep looking while I went back to the desk to try something else. In this case, the "something else" was to search the internet for "trojan emperor," thinking I would find a name or some other information to help with the search.

I did - Google's search result page prompted:

Did you mean: trajan emperor

Ha - I totally did. I knew "Trojan Emperor" sounded kind of right, but not completely. "Emperor Trajan" makes much more sense.

I walked back down to the mom and daughter to tell them what I found. As soon as I said it the girl recognized it as what her teacher had told* her. I switched them to looking at the books on ancient Rome (937's), and instantly the daughter had more than enough information for her project.

So that's great - the patrons were happy they got what they needed, and reference transaction over.


As I walked back to the desk, I kind of grumbled to myself...

So typically library - Google is smart enough to correct a mistake like that and suggest the right answer. Our catalog should be able to do the same thing.

By the time I got back to the desk, it occurred to me that I hadn't actually ever checked the catalog - I just knew where those books are on the shelves, and took the patron right to them. But I also know that our current catalog doesn't have any kind of suggestion feature.

However, my consortium will be switching to Evergreen over Memorial Day weekend. Our Reference Desk has gotten into the habit of repeating each patron search in the Evergreen demo catalog to see how it works (thanks for the idea, Katie), so I ran this search on our test server to see how it handled it. And guess what? It worked!

Few hits were returned for your search.
Maybe you meant: Trajan emperor

One problem with it is that it's just way too subtle at the bottom of the page, but the nice thing about open source is that I can lobby to have that changed. But just that fact that it's there at all is a huge step into the modern internet world. Yay for progress.


*This is why it's important for assignments to be written down. And why it's helpful to bring the assignment sheet to the library.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/18

   March 25th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Sometimes, existing knowledge just does not translate well when things change. And, having worked hard to obtain that knowledge, people are sometimes reluctant to let it go.

This seems especially true in libraries. Some of the convoluted procedures and jargon we come up with are not just barriers to entry for new patrons, but also barriers to evolution for experienced patrons who have learned our complex requirements.

This week's reference question was posted to the Maine Libraries Listserv, but I thought it was worth sharing here. I thought it was both funny and sad, but also intriguing:

patron: Is there any way to interlibrary loan a downloadable audiobook?

(I've actually encountered this before myself, with the Boston Public Library's eCard program. My consortium subscribes to Overdrive, and so does the BPL. We have different downloadable audiobooks in our collections, so my patrons (since anyone in Massachusetts can get a BPL card) essentially has two collections to borrow from. It isn't quite interlibrary loaning, but it is worth knowing.)

Why it's funny:
This question makes me laugh just because it's such an unusual idea - right on the border between clever and naively optimistic.

Why it's sad:
As clever as this might be, it also sounds like someone trying to circumvent the system - which always bothers me. But too, it could just as easily be a case of the system failing the needs - if we can freely share books, magazines, videos, CDs, DVDs, and pretty much everything else in the collection, why can't we share digital audiobooks? Such strict copyright laws exist for electronic media (which laws covering other media don't even approach in restrictiveness) that it's frustrating to me to see this shortcoming. What this patron wants is possible with current technology, but is prohibited by the current business plans of corporations.

Why it's intriguing:
But even still, the idea of interlibrary loaning a digital audiobook is interesting. Aside from the file size, why shouldn't libraries be able to loan around their digital audiobook collections? They could be emailed or made available in a password-protected section of our website. This is another case where, if libraries banded together and spoke with one voice, we could possibly force change so we can get the tools we need to best serve patrons, rather than just take the tools that vendors develop.

Like with opacs - as companies like Sirsi/Dynix decide to drop entire product lines [pdf], librarians are developing tools like Evergreen and Scriblio (formerly WPopac) that actually address the needs that exist, not just make sense in a boardroom.

audiobooks, digital audiobooks, downloadable audiobooks, dynix, evergreen, libraries, library, opac, opacs, overdrive, pines, public libraries, public library, reference question, rome, scriblio, sirsi, sirsi/dynix, sirsidynix, wpopac

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