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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A Few Important News Stories

   July 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

NEWSOne problem with busy days like yesterday is that I am focused just on what's in front of me, and miss out on what's happening elsewhere. After work yesterday I was catching up on news and blogs, and found a few stories I thought were significant and wanted to share (you know, besides that whole leak thing):

An odd conflux of issues yesterday.

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