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

Reference Question of the Week – 7/27/14

   August 2nd, 2014

Out of My Mind book coverThis is a question from when my website is down - I only mention that because of the postscript at the end.

I haven't gotten this type of question in awhile, and finding the answer has never come this easily.

A young girl came up to me at the desk asked for "a blue book with fish bowl on cover." She couldn't remember the title except thought it was something like "one at a time." I asked her if she knew the author, and she said it was a blue book with fish bowl on cover. I asked her what the book was about, and she didn't know - she said her teacher was reading it to the class and she liked it.

So, I did a web search for blue book with fish bowl on cover, and the very first image in the results was exactly what she was looking for. Incredible.

I searched our catalog for Out of My Mind, only to find our copy was checked out. I offered to request it for her, but she declined. I hate that.

So the postscript is that this question is from May, apparently when this book (or at least, searches for this book) was more popular. It really was the first search result, and that's what shocked me and made me think it was a post-worthy reference question. I mean, how often does that happen?

While typing up this post though, I had to really look for the cover image in the results, as it had been bumped way down. Maybe I just got lucky, or that library serendipity was strong with me that day. Or maybe Google's search algorithms really are effective in making zeitgeisty things more prominent.

In any case, I could just have easily been asked this question this week, and the process of finding the answer would have been different - which I find interesting.


Update 8/27/14: A reader sent in this tip, which had not occurred to me: instead of including the word "blue" as a search term, try leaving it out and using Google color search tool. Much better results - thanks, Jessica!

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6 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 7/27/14”

  1. Heather Says:

    It could be that it was more popular in May when school was in session, so kids were exposed to it in school.

  2. Alan Samry Says:

    Our library didn’t have it either, so I requested it from another branch.

  3. Lisa Says:

    As a children’s lib at a very busy branch, I can attest that I do this type of searching very often. It’s not rare for a child to only know what the cover looks like and not know anything else about the book but still really want it (thank you book fairs!). I know it’s probably sacrilege, but when I have this spotty of information and no leads of my own, Google image search is my go to for answering these reference questions.

  4. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Heather: that was my guess too – I was just surprised with Google reflecting that.

    @Alan: I should start keeping a tally of the number of patrons who request items versus those that decline (as well as those that are willing to go pick it up at another library if it means getting it today) – I’m really not sure which would win.

    @Lisa: that’s not sacrilege, just a practical application of your available tools. I also use Amazon for questions like this (if I have more to go on), because their search is more flexible than my library’s catalog, and their cover images are usually more reliable too.

  5. Michelle Says:

    Google Image Search also lets you limit results by color (mentioning in case anyone doesn’t know about that exceptionally useful feature).

  6. Lesli M Says:

    Google could rock the library world if they could manage a successful image search for just book covers by color. “I want the book with the blue cover” would no longer make reference staff want to *headdesk* while searching. Maybe.