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


Reference Question of the Week – 8/18/13

   August 24th, 2013 Brian Herzog

PAT 154071Back in library school, I remember distinctly being told that patent searches are one of the most difficult types of reference questions, because usually you're trying to find out if something isn't there. However, this patent search was difficult for a different reason.

I think I've mentioned before that one of my hobbies is metal detecting, which I share with my brothers. One of them emailed me this photo of something he had found, saying it was a chunk of metal about the size and shape of an ear with "PAT 154071" stamped in it, and asking if I could help figure out what it came from.

He had already done some online research and had a couple potential patent dates, but wasn't really sure. I love knowing right off the bat the best resource to check, so when I got this message I just typed in http://www.uspto.gov and clicked on "search for patents." The US Patent and Trademark Office has a full-text search, which is great, but since I was looking for a specific patent number, I just went to the Number Search, typed in 154071, and... that's when the problems started.

The first screen to come up said that this patent, dated August 11, 1874, wasn't available in full text, so it would have to be viewed as a scanned image. Which is fine, except viewing the image just prompted me to update my Quicktime plugin.

I tried going through the steps to update it, but I could not get the update to download from the Quicktime website. I tried this on a few different computers at my house and in the library, but all of them (all Windows computers) had the same issue. Next I tried searching for "can't download quicktime" and found someone with the same problem and an alternate link on the Apple website. This time the update did download and seemed to install, but I still couldn't view the image on the PTO website - and still got prompted to update Quicktime.

Frustrated, I went to my last resort: I used one of the library's Apple computers. I got a weird plugin update message too, but the image did display:

154071image

Actually, the PTO website said there were two images associated with this patent, but the other one was clearly for a different invention (and different patent number).

So, pretty cool, especially because of all the problems I had getting it. I couldn't tell from the drawing where the piece my brother found came from, but it was still worth the effort.

Since the patent drawing listed names, I thought I'd expand my search online and see what else I could find. I tried various combinations of the names of the inventors and "combined folding chairs and benches," but didn't have any luck.

So, I just tried searching for "patent 154,071," and boy did I get a surprise. The first result was for Google Patents, conveniently displaying the image that I had tried for two days (and had to use a Mac!) to view. I didn't know patent searches were a Google offering, but I suppose all public domain information is probably assimilated by now.

I am disappointed that the Google search was more productive than using the Patent Office's own website, and that they'd use a tool that relies on a problematic plugin.

But since I was at Google, I tried a few few things and found this entry in the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, page 214:

pat 154071 gazette

Neat.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/10/13

   February 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Holding a duckOne common question at the reference desk is a patron asking for a specific book by describing the cover - they don't remember the title or author, but know it was "kind of red, with an airplane or a submarine, and maybe something like a roundish square type thing."

Being librarians, we take whatever information the patron can provide and do our best. I know many people dread this type of question (because it's often just impossible), but I sort of enjoy them. Since the expectation of success is so low to begin with, it's a fun challenge, and finding the right book is all the better for it.

In this case, the patron was actually a coworker of mine - she had taken her niece to a different library, and was trying to re-locate a book her niece had picked out and loved, to see if the author had any others. But all she could remember was that it was a newish kids book with a girl holding a duck on the cover.

I first went to Amazon's advanced search with this question. My keyword search was for "girl duck," limit to Condition=New, Format=Printed Books, Pub date after November 2012, and then submitted individual searches for each of the different kid ages one at a time. None of the searches has a likely-looking cover, so I decided to just use "duck" as my keyword (thinking that if a duck is on the cover it must be the important part of the story). I also dropped the idea of using the age limiter in favor of the Subject option limited to Children's Books.

Amazon advanced search page

In that search, result #10 looked promising. I called my coworker over to check, and she was excited - the book she'd seen with her niece was indeed Lulu: Lulu and the Duck in the Park (Book 1), by Hilary McKay and Priscilla Lamont*.

Lulu and the Duck listing on Amazon

Awesome. But then I started to wonder - was Amazon the best tool for this question? There is no really good "look up a book by cover" resource out there, although I would love there to be. LibraryThing started down this road with CoverGuess. The genius of their approach was to gamify the data entry part of tagging cover art, but I don't think a searchable interface has ever been created.

Anyway, out of curiosity I decided to run the same search process in Novelist and the library catalog, to see if I could have successfully located the book with those tools.

Novelist's advanced search is more complex than Amazon's - I used "girl duck" as a keyword, limited to Audience = 0-8 Years, and Publication Date from = November 2012:

Novelist advanced search

In my library's catalog's advanced search, I used "duck" as the keyword, limited to Format = Books, Audience = Kids, and Publication Year after 2011:

Evergreen's adavnced search

And now the results - each one has the number next to it indicating how far down this book was in the search results:

Amazon:

Result #10 on Amazon

Novelist:

Result #2 on Novelist

Library Catalog:

Result #55 in the library catalog

In all cases it was findable, but Novelist ranked it the highest with the fewest search limiters. However, since Novelist is a subscription database, getting to the search interface is a much more cumbersome process than using Amazon. The library catalog is easy to get to and the search interface is reasonable, but burying the book at #55 is bad because many people give up log before the sixth page of search results (thanks for that, Google).

Something else I noticed, and what I think is another strike against the library catalog, was the various sizes of the cover images. Comparatively, the library catalog's cover thumbnail is tiny, and because of this it's not really evident that the girl is holding a duck. Since that's all I had to go on with this search, if I had started with the library catalog, I probably would have missed this book entirely. I don't know why the thumbnails are as small as they are, but it seems the catalog would be improved by making them almost twice the size they are now.

So there you go, my curiosity was sated. Anyone else have a favorite method for finding books by cover descriptions?

 


*I don't know why Amazon has the publication date as September 2013, since the other library apparently had it cataloged and on their shelf. Ah, sweet mysteries of life.



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How Would You Improve The Overdrive Interface?

   July 11th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Over the weekend, Stephanie tweeted:

Stephanie's tweet

I thought she was right on (sadly), so I retweeted it. The next day, @OverDriveLibs replied:

OverDriveLibs' tweet

Good on them for paying attention and being open to ideas. Since they're listening, I put together the following list that I think would improve the Overdrive experience.

Granted, I know their web interface is somewhat customizable, so different libraries have different looks and slightly different experiences. And, I know they have a mobile interface, which I'm going to ignore for now. I also won't even talk about Overdrive Advantage, because I don't know how much just seems overly complicated to me due to my library being part of a consortium.

  1. Remove the bookbag entirely.
    It doesn't seem like a whole lot of people shop for and then check out a bunch of books at once. In my experience, most people look for one book at a time, and then download it. This process becomes overly complicated by having to add that one book to the bookbag, review the bookbag, then proceed to checkout to download it. I think Overdrive would be so, so much easier to use if, instead of the "add to bookbag" link, people clicked a link that would take them right to the download process.

    If you make downloading a book easy enough, and then return people back to where they were after downloading is complete, you don't need a bookbag anyway.

  2. Combine the loan-period selection screen with the download button screen.
    Once someone chooses a book they want to check out, they should be taken to a single screen that lets them choose the loan period AND click a button to download right from that page. Combining these eliminates a step, which would go a long way to making Overdrive easier to use. The whole experience should be:

    1. search for book, then click the link to get the book
    2. choose loan period, click "Download" or "Get for Kindle" button
    3. struggle with DRM software*
    4. enjoy book

    I see no reason why the process couldn't be this streamlined.

  3. Change "add to bookbag" link text.
    With the bookbag gone, the "add to bookbag" link needs to be changed. One problem I've seen patrons have is making sure they choose the right format - because format is specified on the left of the screen, but the link they need to click is on the right.

    Overdrive example

    It seems difficult to make a mistake, but I have watched more than one person do it - especially in this scenario: Someone has a Kindle, and they limit to show only available items. The Kindle item is checked out, but the EPUB line says "add to bookbag" - the person is thinking Kindle, and sees the "add to bookbag" link, so they click it. Likewise, I've also seen people download an ebook thinking they were getting an audiobook.

    My suggestions for better link text is:

    Instead of Replace with
    add to bookbag Download Kindle Ebook
    Download EPUB Ebook
    Download WMA Audiobook
    Download MP3 Audiobook
    place a hold Request Kindle Ebook
    Request EPUB Ebook
    Request WMA Audiobook
    Request MP3 Audiobook

    I actually go back and forth between "Download Kindle Ebook" and "Checkout Kindle Ebook" - Checkout has better library connotations, but Download is more evocative.

  4. If someone limits to a format, show only that format.
    I hate that a patron can limit to see only Kindle books, and yet EPUBs will still display, if we have both formats for the same title. If someone limits to Kindle, then hide the EPUB line from the image above (and same for audiobooks).

    And because format is so important, it should be easier to limit to format - for instance, provide a separate interface for each format that libraries can link to, like, "click here to search for EPUB ebooks." And then, all the patron would see are EPUB ebooks, without them having to further limit to format.

    The advanced search format limiter box should include options for "all Ebooks" and "all Audiobooks" options, since someone with an iPad and a Kindle app can use either format. Also, when someone limits to format in advanced search, this should stick even if they click a "Browse by Genre" link too.

    Patrons should be able to save their preferred format in their account settings, so they don't have to keep limiting every time they return.

  5. Change the search algorithm to AND and not OR.
    If you search my consortium's Overdrive catalog for "vonnegut last" there are 42 results. However, a search for just "vonnegut" gets four results, and a search for just "last" gets 38. 4+38=42, which means there is no overlap between those search terms. Most people searching for more than one word except to find items containing BOTH of those words.

    When our Overdrive catalog was new, and we didn't have a lot of items in the collection, using the OR operator seemed like a cheap trick to make it appear that we had a bigger collection than we did. We're past that now, and clogging up the search results with everything under the sun just adds to why Overdrive is difficult to use.

  6. Keyword searches should search title and author fields
    This refers to the keyword search on the advanced search screen. "Keyword" seems like is should search everything, but it doesn't. Why not? If it's not actually a keyword search (like the basic search box on every page), then call it something else. Or better yet, just replace it with the actual keyword search.
  7. Add a direct link to the software download page.
    The Overdrive Help pages are getting better, but the fact that they periodically change means that library staff even need to refamiliarize themselves with how to help patrons. The most common question that sends me to the Help pages is to download Overdrive Media Console or Adobe Digital Editions. However, none of the options on the Help screen mention downloading software, and I can never remember which one it's hidden behind. Just having a "Download Free Software" option on the Help screen, which leads to a device/OS selection, would be great.
  8. AARRGH!
    I know this is beyond Overdrive, but getting things set up on an iPad can sometimes get trapped in a loop: in order to install the Overdrive app, you need to create an Adobe ID, but one of the Adobe webpages requires flash, which the iPad does not support, so you have to use a computer to actually accomplish everything. This doesn't happen every time, and I don't know why it does sometimes and not others, but I've seen patrons trapped in this loop more than once - and Overdrive gets the blame every time (justified or not), which just sours the patron on using Overdrive in the future.

I sure this is just the tip of the iceberg. Since Overdrive asked for input, please suggest what improvements you'd like to see in the comments below or tweet them to @OverDriveLibs.

 


*DRM is a much larger issue, and not entirely under Overdrive's control - so I won't even discuss it here, and instead just focus on their interface and things they can improve. But let's all enjoy The Brads Why DRM Doesn't Work comic once again.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/21/11

   August 27th, 2011 Brian Herzog

This isn't a real reference question, but it's kind of related and I thought people would be interested.

When I was reading The Atlantic article about people not knowing about Ctrl+F, the last paragraph mentioned Google's AGoogleADay.com campaign. I had never heard of this, but it's basically a Google game - here's how they describe it:

A Google A Day directions

The couple questions I've done have been fairly simple, and taken only minutes to answer (although one I had the right answer but Google kept telling me it was incorrect - it might be picky about the format you use to type in the answer).

I enjoy games and challenges like this (librarian!), but it's not like we need to go out of our way to find them. But something I liked about AGoogleADay was that, when it gives you the answer, it also tells you what Google thinks is the right way to find the answer. It's never matched my search strategy, but like they say, "there's no right way to solve it."

To prevent players finding the answer after someone else has posted the question, the game is powered by Deja Google - it's a "wormhole inspired time machine [that] searches the Internet as it existed before the game began ... Because nobody wants someone's recent blog post about finding an answer spoiling their fun." Good thinking.

Something else interesting was the link to Google Inside Search. I'd heard that Google retired Google Labs, and Inside Search seems to be, not exactly a replacement, but a new method for Google to introduce their new tools. My favorite part was the timeline at the bottom, that shows you exactly when different tools launched.

So if it's a slow day at the library, or you're a library student looking to hone your reference skills, give it a try.



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/22/11

   May 28th, 2011 Brian Herzog

I was all proud of myself for ultimately finding the answer to this question - but afterward I discovered the answer wasn't nearly as hard to find as I had thought. Oh well.

A patron came up to the desk and pushed this newspaper clipping towards me (click to read it):

WSJ clipping

As she did this she said,

This from the Wall Street Journal page A12, but I can't remember date. I looked through all the issues you have, but it's not in any of them. You need to find out when is this article from because I want to read the rest of it. I'll leave this with you and go back to my computer, so just bring it over when you find it.

We keep the last three months of the WSJ in print, and since she said she looked at every issue, that ruled out anything between now and March 2011. I asked her if she had any idea when she photocopied it, and she said she thought it was in March, but it could have been a little earlier, so I decided to focus my search between January and March 2011.

Unfortunately, we don't have subscription database access to the WSJ, so I went to their website to see what kind of archive search they had. Their search did allow limiting to a date range, so I combined that with what seemed like the most important keywords from the article (Victim Funds, Columbine High School, Virginia Tech, Von Mour, etc) - and came up empty.

I usually don't have much luck with newspaper searches, so I quickly switched to Google - sometimes their cached results contain a better record of what has been published (or at least a temporary view through paywalls), and I'd be happy if I could even just get a citation. I searched on various iterations of those same keywords, and included the "site:wsj.com" limiter, but still had no luck.

I thought I was on the right track, but just using the wrong keywords, so I reread what I could of the article, looking for something unique. Towards the top of the page is a photo caption listing peoples' names, so I tried another Google search for "victim funds" "dan smolnik" site:wsj.com and got exactly one hit.

Clicking into the article and skimming it, I saw the same "Victim Funds" table, and also did a Ctrl+F for the phrase "As many as 4.62 points," which appears at the bottom of the clipping, so I knew this was the right article.

So yay, that made me happy. I scrolled back up to the top to find the date: March 28, 2010. Wow, the patron had the right month, but the wrong year.

I went over to the patron's computer and pulled up the article for her. At first she was skeptical because of the year, but when I showed her the table and the same paragraphs from the clipping, she agreed it must be the same one.

After getting back to the desk, I felt pretty proud of myself for being able to unearth this based on such a fragment of a clipping - no title, no author, no date. But I was curious if the search on the WSJ website would have found the man's name. I tried it, and it didn't - until I remembered to expand the time frame to 2 years, and then it did.

I also found success searching on the phrases "As many as 4.62 points" and "token of support from the community" which were in the article. At this point, my pride dissipated, as I realized I had just picked all the wrong keywords from the start - making what should have been a 1-2 minute search unnecessarily long. Luckily it didn't matter in this case, as the patron was still around - but next time I'll just start with random phrases as keywords and see how it works.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/27/11

   April 2nd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Lifehacker QR Code #1Instead of a reference question, here's something in honor of April 1st:

Yesterday, Lifehacker posted an April Fools QR Code Internet Scavenger Hunt - the point is to find and decode a series of QR codes hidden on various websites. But the trick is that you not only need to decipher the clues, but use reference skills to search and find the right websites.

It was fun, and the information provided in the clues is remarkably similar to library reference transactions - cryptic and obscure, but usually enough to go on.

So test out your reference skills - it's fun. It's also a very good example of how a library can use QR codes for an enjoyable and engaging project.

It would have also been interesting to sort of track peoples' search techniques and strategies, to see if librarians are any better at something like this than anyone else.

Bonus
The article also linked to a handy online QR code decoder - neat.



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