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

Reference Question of the Week – 11/2/14

   November 8th, 2014 Brian Herzog

wall street journal signI like reference interactions where the initial question really just ends up being an ice-breaker for a series of bonus tangents. Well, sometimes I like those.

In this case, a patron came up to the desk carrying a back issue of the Wall Street Journal and asked,

Can I check this out? I want to take it home to compare it to the online version, because I think they're not giving me everything online that they are in the newspaper. I cancelled my newspaper subscription and just do the online now, but an online subscription is the same price as the newspaper and I don't think they include all the articles that are in the real paper.

I don't know the specifics of the WSJ's pricing structure, but I suspect that this patron is correct. I noticed this years ago with our online subscription the Lowell Sun database - articles people swore they saw in the print paper were not coming up in the database (and it wasn't hard for me to verify).

At the time, I called Newsbank to ask them about it, and they said that yes, that is correct. They only have the rights to put Lowell Sun-generated content into their database - so, any syndicated content like AP articles, comics, puzzles, etc, will not appear online. This was a few years ago and in a different context, but the Newsbank person said we'd never see an online version of anything that has everything the print edition has.

I relayed this to the patron, and he appeared to feel vindicated.

He also was extremely interested in the previously-unknown-to-him fact that we had online access to the Lowell Sun - and the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. I showed him how to log in from home with his library card, so that was a happy little tangent. Then he had another tangent for me:

Well, that's okay anyway about the Wall Street Journal articles. Sometimes what I can do is look at the headlines on the Wall Street Journal website, and if an article I want to read is one you have to pay for, then I just search for that headline in Google and usually it links to the full article for free. I don't know why, and it's not all the time, but usually.

So then we had a little talk about paywalls and Google access, for which I had no good answer. But while listening to him, I suspect that some of the articles he links to from Google weren't actually on the WSJ website, just news articles from other sources that had very similar headlines.

What I did not tell him about was the Element Inspector trick - a method for editing a website's code to remove the "sign in to read the full article" blocking mechanism. However, after the patron left I did try out both that trick and his search-for-the-headline-on-Google technique, and I couldn't get either of them to work for WSJ.com articles. Which isn't too surprising - if anyone is going to put a lot of effort into making sure casual circumvention can't be used to access their content, it'll be online newspapers.

Anyway, so instead of taking the back issue of the newspaper home, he just sat down at one of our computers and spent some time comparing the print headlines to the articles available on WSJ.com. I didn't talk to him again though, so I don't know what he discovered.

But another delightful bonus from this question is the idea of letting patrons take home old issues of newspapers. We don't catalog them at all, so all our newspapers are in-library only. I've never been asked this before, but it's certainly a good one for our No Log, to see if we get to yes on it. We already use the honor system for our collection of Cliff Notes, so it might work for old newspapers too.

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Ebooks in General, Ebooks in Specific

   August 13th, 2014 Brian Herzog

library ebooksIn case you missed it, be sure to at least skim the recent Wall Street Journal article comparing Amazon's new subscription ebook service to other options, including libraries. For me, the big take-away was:

Of the Journal's 20 most recent best-selling e-books in fiction and nonfiction, Amazon's Kindle Unlimited has none—no "Fifty Shades of Grey," no "The Fault in Our Stars." Scribd and Oyster each have a paltry three. But the San Francisco library has 15, and my South Carolina library has 11.

That is great. But you know what libraries don't have? Wamesit: Life in Colonial Massachusetts in the area known today as Chelmsford, by Bill "Doc" Roberts.

Here's how I know this: a little while ago, Bill Roberts called (from Texas!) to let us know he wrote a local history book about Chelmsford. Neat. I wasn't sure if he wanted to donate a copy or have us buy one, but local history is local history, and I'm sure we would have worked something out.

However, when I went online to learn more about it, it turns out it's a Kindle-only ebook - so we basically can do nothing with it. I don't know what his connection to Chelmsford is, and it's a novel rather than non-fiction, but still - being locked out of this because of format is annoying.

So, even though the WSJ article (very rightly) shows that libraries are doing okay when it comes to ebooks, the nature of the still-growing environment still has plenty of room for improvement.

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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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