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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/10

   December 16th, 2006

Wikipedia quicksearch for 'alpine flowers' from within FirefoxWhy is it that so many of the doozey questions come in over the phone?

Phone: [ring]
Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Patron: I need to find an alpine flower. Can you hold your book and call James at the florist to come pick it up?
Me: Well, first, let me make sure we have a book with the flower you're looking for - do you know its name?
Patron: No.
Me: Oh... okay... do you know what it looks like?
Patron: No. But it has to match the embroidery.
Me: Where did you see this flower?
Patron: Look, it's an alpine flower, like they have in Switzerland. And it has to match the embroidery exactly.
Me: Um, would you recognize it if you saw it? Perhaps I could find a book with pictures and hold it at the desk, and you could come in and look through it.
Patron: No, I can't come in, because this has to happen today. It has red and blue little flowers, and some berries, and green leaves.
Me: Well, okay, I'll look and see what we have - can I give you a call back to let you know what I find?
Patron: Okay. [gives me her name and number]

Okay, so the patron is looking for an alpine flower, and she doesn't know its name or what it looks like. But then she gives me a description. And she wants me to give the information to James the florist when I find a flower that matches the embroidery. What does all this mean? I don't know.

So, I check our catalog for some kind of "flowers of the world" book, and, surprisingly, we have nothing. Not even in reference, nor in either of our sets o encyclopedias. Lots of North American flower field guides, but not a single book that covers alpine flowers. Even the Switzerland and Alps travel books don't show many pictures of flowers (at least, none with red and blue flowers with berries).

So, I try the internet. A general search pulls in way too many florist websites (people selling flowers) to be useful, so I go over to Wikipedia. I first search on "alpine plants," which leads me to an entry on the Alpine pasque flower, which in turn lead me to a more general entry for Alpine plant.

That entry had an external link to the website http://www.thealpinegarden.com, which, while somewhat annoying, had a bunch of image galleries. Great - now I had something to give the patron.

But, I decided to go back to Wikipedia and try another search. I went back and just searched on the Alps, and that entry had a section on Flora that also had a gallery of photographs of alpine flowers.

I called the patron, explained that I couldn't find any books in the library that would help, but gave her the urls I found. She was happy, and was going to call James herself to give him the urls and talk about her flower.

So, although Wikipedia was not my first choice, it did turn out helping me more than any other source I could consult. We have both the Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book, and neither of them had as complete and useful an entry as did Wikipedia. And, even though I think I'm fairly sophisticated when it comes to search techniques, I wasn't able to form a concise enough search to find the one useful website that Wikipedia already had neatly listed for me. So, although Wikipedia make contain malicious information, it also does contain a great deal of truthiness - and is therefore a useful and appropriate tool for the reference librarian's repertoire.

libraries, library, reference question, wikipedia

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7 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 12/10”

  1. Chris Says:

    Wikipedia rocks. Although I find their search algorithm to being pretty substandard… So thank Bob for Google. Google for “site:en.wikipedia.org alpine flower” (no quotes.) That alps entry is the first one. Word up.

  2. herzogbr Says:

    You know, it’s funny you would say that. Last year at the reference desk, I figured out that it was much easier to use Google for locating IRS tax forms than the IRS website directly. Even for something as common as the 1040 form, the IRS method requires at least four clicks (plus digging through long scrolling menus), whereas “form 1040 site:irs.gov” puts the pdf version of the form as the first result (and their “I’m Feeling Lucky” button launches it). Froody.

  3. Kate Says:

    I like (and use) Wikipedia a lot. It’s great for all that new techie stuff that I don’t understand. The regular encyclopedias just don’t cover that well. So despite the occasional malicious content and all the random errors, I think it really can be quite useful. It also make a good jumping off point for research – a good place to get a very basic idea and then go from there. 🙂

  4. Jodi Says:

    Your “reference question of the week” is great… I’m not the only one who gets asked crazy questions at the reference desk and of course is not ashamed or embarrased anymore to utlize the wonders of Google and Wikipedia for quick and dirty info (despite what those slis profs. told me)

  5. herzogbr Says:

    Thanks – I’m glad you’re enjoying them. And what I’m finding at the desk is that any resource that helps is a good one. I like Google and Wikipedia because they’re quick – which is essential when an impatient patron with three kids is standing at the desk expecting an answer. Plus, as Kate pointed out, they’re a great place to start – often what I find on Wikipedia helps me narrow down the places where I’ll find more information, or give me keywords to use. So yes, I think they do play a role in public libraries.

  6. pyrethrum Says:

    Hi,very colorful article in this nice website. I will come here usaually to support you.So beautiful photoes of these lovely flowers. So is this article here,and. I will often come. Pls keep it.

  7. Flowers Says:

    Love and peace, man! Hippie flowers. I dig.