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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/8/11

   May 14th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Amber HagermanI'm using this question because, well, it's not funny, but I did find it remarkable.

One afternoon, a high school girl walked up to the desk and said she has to do a report on the girl that started the Amber Alert.

She wasn't sure what that Amber's full name was, and I didn't know either, but a quick internet search for just amber alert led to the Wikipedia article that gave the little girl's full name: Amber Hagerman.

I searched our catalog for her name, but got no results. Before I took the girl to our biography encyclopedias to just start flipping through the indexes, I wanted to check our Gale biography database. I logged in from our website, searched for her name, and saw this:

Screen capture from Gale Biography in Context database

Occupation: Victim? Really? I'm sure that's just the name of the field, and they had to put something in there, and for 99% of the biographies, the person's occupation is why they are famous. But my gosh, how sad.

It didn't phase my patron one bit, but the articles from the database didn't actually help much. We checked a couple other databases, and between that and resources and references on the Wikipedia articles, she felt we found enough. She left happy, but that "Victim" listing really bothered me.

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New Biography Selection Criteria

   April 22nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

BiographiesMy library's ever-shrinking book budget has made me be more discerning when it comes to selection. However, one area that is always difficult for me is biographies.

It seems like every troubled athlete, aging celebrity, recovering musician, reality television personality, unfaithful politician (and their wives), have all signed book deals. I don't pay much attention to pop culture personalities, so it's hard for me to tell if the person is someone significant.

So I was joking with a coworker about a new selection criteria for all of these celebrity memoirs. Since the importance of many of these people is based on social zeitgeist, I thought I could use Google to help me decide. I figure that if a person is important, a Google search for that person's name should return at least one million webpages. If they're above that (arbitrary) threshold, I'll buy their biography - if not, then I'll check again when the paperback comes out.

Granted, not all my ideas are practical, but here's how some current biographies fare with this "hive mind" selection criteria:

Obviously, not flawless, but this Google criteria might help tell me who I should pay attention to. And in addition to traditional reviews and ratings, another one of my tactics is to wait until requests for a book reach a certain number before ordering it, but that method only addresses demand after the fact, and leaves out the patrons who didn't think to request it.

Selection is a fine art, but when it comes to biographies, most my crayons are dull.

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