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


Reference Question of the Week – 12/12/10

   December 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Lead-Gold tattoosHere's a good example of why having some readers advisory background is very helpful when doing reference - and how not taking shortcuts can save the patron's time.

A young patron came to the desk and says,

I'm looking for a book - I borrowed it from a friend of mine, but only got like 25 pages into it, and then he took it back. Can you find it for me, because I want to finish it.

She couldn't remember the author, but she was sure the title was The Alchemist.

No problem, I thought, as I walked her down to Y/Fic/Coelho - but after skimming the first few pages, she said it wasn't the right book. Then I took her to Y/Fic/Scott, thinking she might have meant The Alchemyst instead of The Alchemist, but that wasn't the right one either. Nor was it Fullmetal Alchemist.

So we walked back up to the desk to search the catalog, and on the way she told me what she remembered from the story: a guy walks into a private detective's (or a psychiatrist?) office and tells her his life story, and that he has been alive for hundreds of years. Since she'd only gotten twenty pages into the book, the only real detail she could remember is that the guy was described has having very engaging colorful eyes, that changed color sometimes.

She texted her friend to ask him who the author was, while I searched our catalog for The Alchemist. However, she didn't recognize any of the covers and the book records didn't include descriptions.

Since she kept talking about the guy telling his life story in the office, I thought we might hit on it by searching the internet. We tried searching online for things like "the alchemist" detective "life story" and alchemist "life story" -Coelho -fullmetal and "life story" book eyes change color but weren't getting anywhere. She was interested and engaged in the search, so I probably continued with web searching longer than I should have.

Eventually, (finally) I switched to Novelist to just see a list of books called The Alchemist and read their descriptions. #26 on their list was one by Donna Boyd, with this description:

As Dr. Anne Kramer listens to Randolf Sontime, who is confessing to a horrific crime that has shocked the world, she is drawn into his story and transported back to the House of Ra, an isolated oasis in the Egyptian desert of an ancient time.

She said that sounded promising, so we looked it up on Amazon for additional description, and then she was sure it was the right one. Yay.

I then searched in our catalog for the author's name, and found that we did indeed own the book - but it was "Lost." Of course it was. I apologized, but she was happy with just requesting it from another library in the consortium.

I also apologized to her for taking so long to find this book - it was a good ten minutes from when she walked up to when we placed the request. I think this would have been cut down to about two minutes if I had just taken the time to search on Amazon for the books in our catalog that didn't have descriptions. I don't know what that didn't occur to me up front, so I subsequently took a very roundabout path to the answer. This girl didn't seem bothered in the least, but it really bugs me to make such a dumb and time-wasting mistake.

There are also two postscripts to this story:

  1. Quite literally the very second I clicked the "submit" button to request the book for her, she got a text back from her friends saying that author of the book he had was Donna Boyd. That even made her laugh.
  2. I know there's nothing to stop an author from titling their book the exact same thing as a very famous work, but it sure makes finding the less well-known works difficult. If I ever write a memoir, I think I shall call it, Harry Potter and the Three Cups of Tea of the Da Vinci Code.

    Actually, slightly related to this is that I've sort of considered writing a biography of the author Saul Bellow, but only because it could be published with the exact same cover as one of his novels:

    Herzog, by Saul Bellow book cover

    Aren't I clever?



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