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

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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Building Better Google Searches

   January 13th, 2009 Brian Herzog

google logo in legosSpeaking of learning things, Chris sent me a link that lists special strategies and syntax for searching Google more efficiently.

I use a couple of them all the time (especially site:), but I definitely spotted a few that will be extremely helpful:

  • +[stop word] - having the plus sign before a "stop word" (such as +not) forces the search to include that word, instead of ignoring it
  • inurl: and intitle: - similar to site:, but this limits the search to words just in the web address or title field. Very useful for increasing relevancy on obscure information
  • related: - lists websites that are "related" to the domain you search for (ie, related:swissarmylibrarian.net). This seems just oddly interesting, but there has got to be a very good application

The page also gives some great examples of how these can be combined. It's always good to learn how to search smarter, and it's certainly a conversation starter when patrons see me typing in these weird codes and getting better results than they do - always on the lookout for those teaching moments.

Thanks Chris, and to the faculty of the Valencia Community College for compiling the list. There are also other lists, too, but this one was very helpful.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/19/08

   October 25th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Jobs listings on Craigslist websiteBefore I get into this week's reference question, I want to point out that this is my 100th Reference Question of the Week - that's almost two years of weekly reference questions. My, my, doesn't the time just fly when you are giving patrons directions to the bathrooms?

In honor of such a momentous event, I thought I'd share one of the reference questions I just dread. I get variants of this question occasionally, but last week all the components came together in a perfect storm of reference question difficulty:

Patron: I've never used a computer before, so can you help me find a job on craigslist?

Sigh. For non-reference librarians, here's why this simple request is especially hard:

  1. Almost any kind of job-related request can be difficult
  2. Most of the job resources available in the library are online, so having no computer experience is automatically a setback
  3. Craigslist? It is certainly a valid job search tool, but there are other places I'd be more comfortable starting off a computer novice (she never did tell me how she got referred to craigslist)

Lots of people would jump on a question like this and consider it a golden teaching moment. Which I tried to do, but I was alone on a busy Thursday morning and I didn't have the amount of uninterrupted time it would take to teach the patron to use a mouse and then educate her enough about the internet and craigslist to find a job safely.

But happily, she was a fast learner, and really took to the mouse and using the browser. Since she asked for craigslists, I showed her how to get there and use it, and while doing so also told her about other job search websites she could try. We also have a handout for career resources, and pretty soon she sent me away so she could look on her own.

She left before I could talk to her again, but she stayed at least forty-five minutes on the computer. Which is not bad for a first timer. Even if nothing from her first search pans out, I hope at least she knows the library is a resource for job searching.

More About Online Job Searching
Something I've been noticing for awhile is that it seems that online job applications are becoming more and more complex. Lots of large companies are requiring applicants to fill out an online application instead of providing a resume.

The problem with this is, from my and the patron's point of view, many patrons have trouble with the website or application form itself. Some get so frustrated that they quit halfway through, cursing the company for not just taking their resume. I wonder if companies are doing this intentionally, because filling out these applications requires a certain level of computer skills, and so it weed out anyone who isn't computer savvy enough to finish it.

I've helped a few people complete what even I thought was a difficult form, and I wonder if I'm really helping them or not. If the job really does require that level of computer skill, and I spend a half an hour basically filling out the form for them, are they just wasting their time on a job they don't have a hope of getting?

Because of this need (and especially in the current economic climate), my library lately has been partnering with the local career center to hold series of job search workshops. These range from updating resumes to online searching to interviewing to networking to reentering the work force. They've been well attended, and all the library has had to do is provide the space - people from the Lowell Career Center plan and run the programs.

I feel like we can never do enough for patrons looking for jobs, but that this is one of the key roles a library plays in the community.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/22/08

   June 28th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Magic 8 Ball: Ask Again LaterThis isn't a reference question, but instead is a list of a few other places where reference questions (and answers) are being archived:

Help Build a Library Q&A Custom Search
A post on the Library 2.0 Ning group mentioned a project to create a Google custom search engine of just reference questions from libraries. If your library does this, be sure to add it to the list - the more data it can search, the more useful it will be.

"The Oracle Collective"
An article in this week's New York Times Magazine talks about asking questions on the internet, and a few services that provide answers (Yahoo Answers, Ask.com, etc). It's an interesting article, and the recommendations at the end are worth reading. Via LISNews.

I Get By With A Little Help From MeFi
No roundup of ask-a-question resources is complete with mentioning Ask MetaFilter. MetaFilter, a.k.a. MeFi, is a community blog to which interesting websites are posted (essentially "filtering" the internet for the rest of us). In Ask MeFi, volunteers from the community provide answers to questions asked by site visitors.

Internet Public Library Reference Desk
Staffed by librarians and library students, the Internet Public Library is always a reliable source for answers. Their list of frequently asked questions isn't as fancy as some, but it still gets the job done. (And in the interest full disclosure, I volunteered with the IPL when I was in library school.)

Surely There Is A Wiki...
Very similar to Yahoo Answers and Ask MeFi in principle is WikiAnswers. As a wiki, anyone can ask or answer a questions, and also edit existing answers. The format of a single answer can be easier that reading lots of individual replies from different people, but here you can also view the discussion of the answer. Part of Answers.com.

I know lots of individual libraries are doing this too, and some are twittering their reference questions. If you know of other good sources to ask questions online and search through answers, please share.

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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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Reference Question of the Week – 3/30/08

   April 5th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Ivy and Bean imageI enjoy working with little kids at the reference desk - especially kids who are enthusiastic about whatever it is they are doing.

A little girl (maybe a fifth grader) came to the reference desk and asked if I could help her find a picture on the internet. She said she had found it at home using Google image search, but their printer is broken. However, now that she's at the library and can print it, she can't find the same picture again.

She was looking for pictures of the characters from the Ivy and Bean books to put in a school report. She couldn't remember her exact search terms, so we first started searching Google with just "ivy and bean."

We looked through the first four or five pages, but she didn't see the pictures she was looking for (drawings of the characters from the stories, and not just the book covers). We then tried a variety of other phrases, like "ivy and bean" pictures, "ivy and bean" annie barrows, and even criss cross applesauce, which apparently is what the character says in one of the pictures she saw.

But after five or ten minutes of trying various keywords, we still had nothing, and my little patron was getting discouraged.

LibrarianInBlack often reminds people not to rely on just one search engine, so I switched over to AllTheWeb's image search. The patron was reluctant, because she knew she had seen them in Google images search, but she went along with it - and we were rewarded quickly.

On the first page of a search for "ivy and bean," we found one of the pictures she had seen. Every search results page after that had additional images, and she got more and more excited with each picture we found.

She wrote down the URL and raced back to the computer she was using - overjoyed to continue with her homework.

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