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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/11/12

   March 17th, 2012

This isn't so much a reference question as it is just me venting about two different reference interactions that ended up having the same answer.

Consumer Reports OnlineSituation 1:

A patron comes up to the desk and asks to see Consumer Reports. In my library, we get two copies of the magazine - one to circulate, and one to keep behind the reference desk (otherwise, it would only circulate in one direction*). Generally this works well. Our circulating versions are usually checked out, so often people using the reference copies just photocopy the article or ratings or whatever they want.

Such was the case with this patron - except, when I suggested photocopying, I also offered the fact that we have online access to Consumer Reports (through EBSCO). The patron got excited about that, so I showed him how to find it and log in from home. By this time we had found the article he was looking for in the reference copy of the issue, but he said instead of photocopy it he would look it up tonight online, as well as spend more time researching the ratings.

But the next day, he called and said he couldn't find in the database the article that he saw in the magazine. I thought it just must have been his searching skills, so I grabbed the issue to get the title, and then searched the database myself - and I couldn't find it either. And then I noticed that none of the articles seemed to be in the database - the ratings and reviews were, but not the magazine articles.

I apologized to the patron, and told him I'd contact the database vendor to see why those were missing from our account. He said he got enough information from the ratings, so that was good, at least. But I emailed EBSCO anyway, and then got a call later in the day from our sales person (new sales person actually, so he was calling to answer my question and to introduce himself).

He said that our experience was correct - the Consumer Reports database we purchased through them was limited (by the publisher Consumer Union, as EBSCO is just the distributor) to the ratings and reviews only. The full magazine is only available for customers of MasterFILE, which has the full text of each issue.

So, that sucked, and was not something I realized when I originally subscribed to the database (which was probably an oversight on my part, even though it might be a natural assumption to think buying the magazine database would give you full access to the magazine).


Ancestry.comSituation 2:

The day after I first spoke with the Consumer Reports patron, another patron asked for help with our Ancestry database. She said she was in the library the week prior doing genealogy work, had printed a page of search results, and now she couldn't figure out how to get back to it.

That seemed simple enough - she was in the family tree section, so I helped her drill back into the family tree search for the name she was researching - and nothing. Not only was there no matches for that name, but the family tree screens didn't look like what she had printed out.

When I realized the menus were all different from our library interface, it occurred to me that perhaps she had gone directly to the ancestry.com website, instead of through our subscription database. So I switched to their website, drilled into that family tree search (called Public Member Trees) - and sure enough, we found the page she had seen before.

But when we clicked the name to see more information (which of course is what she wanted), we were prompted to purchase Ancestry. We were both puzzled as to why something behind the website's paywall wasn't available in the subscription the library was already paying for, so I told her I'd contact the vendor to find out.

I emailed ProQuest, who we buy Ancestry Library Edition from, but they wrote back in a few hours saying that since my question was about the Ancestry.com website, I'd have to contact them directly (and provided the contact information). I did, and a few days later I got this reply from them:

Thank you for contacting Ancestry Library Edition support.

Unfortunately, the Ancestry Library Edition does not have access to the Member Trees that a personal account does. While there is a "Family Trees" section of the library edition, it is limited to the databases listed on the following URL:


The answer to your question is that the databases available to the library edition do not contain a match for the person being searched for when limiting to the "Family Trees" category.

If there is anything else with which we might assist you, please let us know.

Also in looking around the Ancestry.com website, I found this:

About Public Member Trees

This database contains family trees submitted to Ancestry by users who have indicated that their tree can be viewed by all Ancestry members. These trees can change over time as users edit, remove, or otherwise modify the data in their trees. You can contact the owner of the tree to get more information.

Perhaps I can understand that, since the family tree information is uploaded by users, there is some licensing reason it cannot be resold to libraries. At any rate, I informed the patron, and she was disappointed, but okay - in fact, she thought she knew which Ancestry.com member posted that family tree, so she was going to try to contact her directly.

The Resolution

But the bottom line was, in both situations, the library version of the subscription database didn't have the information in it that the patron was looking for - even though it was available through other (not free) sources. And probably in both cases, it was me being a bad librarian for not having known this beforehand, or evaluated the library editions more thoroughly when I signed us up for them.

I'm sorry for concluding such a long post without some great insight or happy ending. It was just a odd coincidence that these two situations happened at the same time, and with the same (unsatisfying) resolution.


*By which I mean, get stolen.

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8 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/11/12”

  1. Sara G. Says:

    Thanks for the Ancestry piece here. I recently found out the two editions had some content differences and am trying to wrap my head around the specifics in preparation for a presentation to my local genealogy group. Love your blog – esp. the Question of the Week!

  2. Roberta Says:

    This seems to be an emerging theme; the Lesser Library Edition. Lexis Nexis is another example. One of our staff is a former attorney, who pointed out key content is missing from the LN she knew in her previous life. Our database librarian laments this practice often, but I see it in other ways, like the “rental” copies of DVDs we purchase not having all the extras that patrons like and expect. I hope that this is the year of us acting like a customer, and not just taking what we get. I saw a lot of librarians at PLA lining up at Overdrive to tell them how they could improve their product, or insistently waving their hands at the hapless Penguin rep.

    Thanks for your summaries of some PLA programs! so many talks I wish I could have attended.

  3. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Sara: You’re welcome – and if you don’t mind sharing, I’d be curious to see the notes from your presentation. We have a very active genealogy group too, and I try to pass along to them as much information as I can.

    @Roberta: I think you’re right – and the rental DVDs is a good analogy. And you’re welcome for the PLA posts – I’m glad they helped.

  4. Matthew Says:

    I, too, find it frustrating that not only do we have to have a good sense of what’s in DB’s, but also what gaps exist in which particular form. And of course, the fine print of contracts with vendors is confusing and will likely get more-so, as we have more formats to consider.

    When I drive home from work and am reminded of how EbscoHost ‘helps’ libraries, I am reminded of the good and the bad of our electronic library world.

  5. Jen Says:

    May I also add the online version of Vogue as a problem subscription? We get the full text version online – because we all just read that one for the articles, right? No pictures for the fashion students in the online version. I think of the online version as a complete waste of money.

  6. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Matthew: it also makes me laugh to hear library vendors (or any non-direct-to-consumer vendor) mentioned on NPR – but I’m glad they’re supporting public radio!

    @Jen: yeah, sometimes the text-only just doesn’t make sense (also, this is a huge complaint in the newspaper databases). Something you might look into, if you’re interested, is Zinio, available to libraries through Recorded Books. It’s a magazine database, but the interface shows the full magazine pages, so using it is like flipping through an actual magazine. I can’t remember their pricing model, but it might be worth it for certain titles.

  7. madeline kelly Says:

    FWIW I requested specifics from Proquest about what our Ancestry Library Edition subscription does not include that individuals’ personal subscriptions do. I linked that Proquest document to the “Ancestry spot” on our Online Databases page so at least it gives our staff something to consult/ reference when handling patron inquiries about this issue. http://www.pittsfieldlibrary.org/Ancestry.pdf

  8. Cari Says:

    Ugh, these are both situations I’ve run into. We have MasterFile, so the Consumer Reports thing isn’t a huge problem. We pay for the subscription for the extra ratings because there are a lot of things on there that aren’t covered in the magazine – but it’s a shame it’s not all included for non-MasterFile customers. The Ancestry thing is a giant bummer, though. I did a 14-day trial of the consumer edition, and it’s so much better than the library version. The whole trend of “lesser library editions” that people have mentioned in the comments bothers me, too.