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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/15/10

   August 21st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Google Books search linkThis question might get me into a little trouble* but it's a good example of the importance of librarians, so here goes:

The phone rang, and the person on the other end said she was a librarian fresh out of library school, working at elementary school in Colorado, and having trouble locating some poems her teachers wanted for class. She knew the titles and authors, but couldn't find the actual text in her library or online. She called me because she likes my website and hoped I could help.

My first suggestion was Granger's Index to poetry - it wasn't in her collection but was in her local public library. But because online resources are more useful for these long-distance questions, and it was a very quiet afternoon at work, after we hung up I thought I'd try searching for the text myself, too.

The four poems she was looking for were Eating the World, Last Kiss and Statue by Ralph Fletcher, and Spaghetti by Cynthia Rylant. I started by searching for title/author combinations, grouped together with quotes (ie, "ralph fletcher" "eating the world"). I was somewhat surprised that, even after going through the few pages of results, the texts weren't there.

Then I thought maybe they were scanned as part of the Google Books project, so I clicked the link on each page to switch to searching Google Books (see image above). And if I was surprised at not finding the texts in a regular web search, I was doubly surprised to find they were the first or second result when searching Google Books.

So far, including the phone call, this all took me literally less than ten minutes.

I emailed the four story links to the librarian, and she replied that they were exactly what she needed. So that's nice.

But I do think this is also a nice example of why librarians remain relevant in the internet age - an inexperienced searcher may not have known to enclose the author names and titles in quotation marks, or may not have known to try the more specialized Google Books search when the first attempt produced no results (keeping in mind that there are also lots of non-Google tools available, too), or may not have recognized the answer even though it was in a form other than what they were expecting (these poems turned out to be short stories).

This is especially true in light of the recent Northwestern University study that shows "digital natives" aren't actually all that web-savvy. The study's results seemed to imply that kids expect the internet to present them with the answer to their question, rather than expect to be engaged in the information search and critically evaluate resources themselves.

My favorite quote:

During the study, one of the researchers asked a study participant, "What is this website?" The student answered, "Oh, I don't know. The first thing that came up."

If it were someone from the iGeneration searching for these stories, it seems likely they would have stopped after the first search, empty-handed. So, yes, there certainly is, and will be, a need for librarians and experienced information searchers.


*Since I work in a public library, my tax-funded salary is intended to be spent on helping local patrons. It's hard for me to say "no" when people ask for help, but I do not (and ethically can not) make a habit of helping other librarians with their questions on work time - unless, of course, I'm contacted to check a resource my library owns. There are forums that can help with questions like this, such as Unshelved Answers, the PUBLIB mailing list, the Internet Public Library question form, Ask Metafilter, and many others of varying degree of credibility. Something I love about librarianship is the collaborative and cooperative nature of the profession, but I guess there has to be limits, too.

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Google Offers Secure Searching

   June 1st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Locks and glassesI read last week that Google is now offering an encrypted search option, and was surprised the story didn't get more coverage.

Anyone wanting to use it needs to go to https://www.google.com (note the https:), and it appears it only applies to web searching - not images or the other searches. Read more at:

This is good for those library patrons who want extra privacy while searching the internet. However, online privacy increasingly seems to be an illusion (remember, Google will still see and track these searches - this just cuts down on other people monitoring the searches).


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Mobile App for Searching Libraries

   February 2nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

redlaser logoNot having a cell phone, I can be a bit behind when it comes mobile apps - but this is still cool even to tech-no's like me.

My former co-worker Chris pointed out the iPhone app RedLaser, that turns the iPhone's camera into a barcode scanner. The app was designed to do instant price checks while you're in a store, to see if you could buy something cheaper online.

He also found that the database it scans can be customized - which means it could be modded to search a library catalog (among other things).

So a patron with an iPhone (or an Android) could be shopping in a bookstore, see a book they'd like to read, and instantly scan it to see if it's available at their local library. Great stuff.

But wait, there's more...
Another colleague, Scott Kehoe of NMRLS, posted about making customized versions that can search the MVLC (my library consortium), MassCat and the NOBLE consortium catalog. His post shows how he did it, links to Delicious for the customized databases, and explains how you can customize it yourself.

I think this is a great thing to promote to patrons, but they need to be careful about walking around bookstores scanning barcodes. I've heard many stores will throw people out if they appear to be doing "research" (recording a store's prices or looking for country of origin). Also, about this app, one bookstore owner was quoted as saying:

If I see any lecherous internet bottomfeeders using my store as a display case for a discount website, I will politely ask them to leave.

As the world of mobile devices becomes more compatible with the world of ebooks, the next step will be to create customs searches of places like Overdrive and Project Gutenberg, so that patrons can not just locate but also download the desired book immediately. I tend to think instant gratification is not a good thing, but in this day and age, it is certainly easy to support.

For a few more library-related apps, check out Aaron's post on Walking Paper.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/3/10

   January 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

You Can't Do That on Television sceneAbout 30 minutes before we closed one night, a patron came to the desk and asked:

How do I find a website that starts with "F"?

When I asked him what he meant, he said he was on a website last week that had Armenian Christmas music, but all he could remember was that the web address started with "F" - maybe "fru" or "fron" or maybe not.

Remember that show on Nickelodeon, You Can't Do That On Television, with the teacher who always said, "Where does the school board get them and why do they keep sending them to me?" Yeah.

I was pretty sure that Google's [site:] operator didn't work with wildcards, but I tried searching for "armenian music site:f*" anyway. That did not work, so I searched to find out how wildcards can be used with Google's limiters. A nice forum posting mentioned the [inurl:] operator, which seemed perfect (if you don't already use them, read about operators and other tips for searching Google).

I re-searched for "armenian music inurl:www.f" and that worked - it showed all websites that mentioned Armenian music and have a web address that starts with "www.f".

Of course there are holes in this tactic: the site might not start with "www.", the site might not mention the words "armenian music," the site might not be in English, etc.

I gave him these caveats when I showed him how to use [inurl:], but he was still excited. He tried a few combinations of "armenian" and "christmas" and "music," but he hadn't found the right website before closing time. I actually haven't seen him since, so I'm not sure if he ultimately found it or not. It's kind of a needle in a haystack situation, and it feel like all I did was give him a very small magnet.

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Google and Predictive Searching

   December 15th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Google Autocomplete for Swiss Army L...Jessamyn links to an interesting article about Google's switch to personalized searching - really, check it out, because it will impact patrons using public computers.

But it also reminded me of how much more prevalent Google's autocomplete feature has seemed lately. I know it's been around for awhile, but I've noticed it more for some reason, and have also been seeing it in Google's ads on Hulu.com (which I oddly could not find to link to), failblog, YouTube* and elsewhere.

So I got curious about what the Google zeitgeist would say about library-related phrases - here's what I found:

Libraries are

Librarians are

The library is
(a band)

My Librarian is
(a children's book)

Librarians never
(They just check out? They get weeded? They become overdue?)

And I had to try this too:
Brian is
(I think most of these are Family Guy references.)

Update 1/11/10: Using Google suggestions, check out the difference between what girlfriends and boyfriends are thinking.


*The one at 2:39 is my favorite. Actually, a lot of them are probably song lyrics, but how often do you come across a Dead Milkmen reference?

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Edelweiss Interactive Publisher Catalogs

   October 6th, 2009 Brian Herzog

EdelweissI don't think this is a new thing, but my Director recently showed me Edelweiss Interactive Publisher Catalogs.

It appears to be geared more towards bookstores than libraries, but Edelweiss is a free product from Above the Treeline for searching book vendors' catalogs. The goal seems to be to avoid wasting the paper of printed publisher catalogs, which I am all for. Searching can be filtered to limit to certain publishers or topics, and that is useful, but sometimes, flipping through a printed catalog is just better.

More features and explanation from their homepage:

Why edelweiss?

  • Paper catalogs are out of date and inaccurate before the ink is dry.
  • Reduce expenses and environmental costs by eliminating wasteful catalog printing and reaching more, and more targeted customers.
  • The American Booksellers Association has endorsed edelweiss as the preferred solution for its membership.
  • Search keywords, authors, excerpts, and more across all participating publishers and catalogs.
  • Easily tag, filter, sort, view, and export title lists in custom formats.
  • Exchange notes, comments, and suggested order quantities between peers, publisher sales reps, and retailers.

So what's the difference between searching this and searching Amazon? The filtering for one, but the last point could make collaborative ordering easier. However, we use an entirely different system at my library, and are unlikely to change.

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