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

Reference Question of the Week – 6/14/09

   June 20th, 2009 Brian Herzog

BPL e-Journals linkThis week's question itself isn't very exciting, but it does have two interesting features:

  1. a useful reference tool
  2. an example of a patron being absolutely positive about something, and still being wrong

When I got into work one morning, there was a note from the previous night's staff. It said a patron came in just before closing, and since they didn't have time to research her question, could I please do it and call the patron.

No problem. The patron had an exact quote (three sentences long!) from an April 2006 issue of USA Today, and wanted to read the entire article. The note also said the patron was absolutely sure the quotation was correct.

We don't have USA Today in print back to 2006, so we rely on databases for this type of research. And I can never remember which databases index which journals and newspapers, so I reply on the Boston Public Library's e-Journals By Title search*.

It told me which database(s) had USA Today as full-text for 2006, so I logged into that database through my library's website (so our stats get credited for the use). In this case, it was Gale's General Reference Center, and used their advanced search to narrow to the publication and timeframe.

I searched for a couple of the keywords in the quote, and got zero hits. I tried a few different keywords, and got zero hits. I tried the most general keyword in the quote, and got three articles having nothing to do with that quotation.


So I kept the timeframe but removed the publication limitation, re-ran the search for the first set of keywords, and this time it found four articles - none of them from USA Today, but all of them relevant to the quotation.

I called the patron and explained that I couldn't find the quote in USA Today, but I did find articles in other newspapers that had to do with that same topic. She insisted that she had the quote exactly right.

I tried to diplomatically say that I wasn't disputing she had the quote right, but just that I couldn't find it. Perhaps, I suggested, it was printed in part of the newspaper that isn't indexed in the database, such as the Letters to the Editor or a supplement. The patron considers this, then said,

Oh, that could be. [pause] Or, you know, maybe I read that one in the The New York Times. I bet that's why I wrote "NYT" after it - I wondered what that meant.

One of the articles I found was from The New York Times. Not that it really matters - in fact, the patron got four articles instead of one, so she was happy. And the e-Journals By Title from BPL led me right to the database I needed, so I was happy.

So yay for efficiency, and yay for exceeding the patron's expectation.


*in case you missed it, this was the useful reference tool - really, I love this search

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SchoolRooms at BPL

   January 30th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Boston Public Library - SchoolRooms - Explore.Discover.Learn. Today I attended a demo for the content portal/federated search product called SchoolRooms. The short of it is that this is a SirsiDynix product designed to be the only information tool K-12 kids need when doing homework or looking for curriculum-related information.

The long of it is that this tool has, as I count it, two primary functions. First, it is a browseable portal of selected web resources. "Selected" is emphasized here for two reasons. First is that these resources were selected because they were relevant to schools' curriculum, browseable by elementary school, middle school, etc (these are call "guides," and there are also guides for parents, educators and librarians, which focus on the curriculum, but from a "how to I help the kids" standpoint).

All of these resources are websites freely available on the internet - which leads to the second meaning of "selected." To build this product, SirsiDynix worked with INFOhio and Kent State University's School of Library and Information Science (where I earned my MLIS) to bring together students, teachers, librarians and programmers. As a development team, these groups conducted exhaustive usability testing (read the report of their findings [pdf], lead by Jason Holmes) to make sure the product would be useful, useable and functional (for instance, they realized that the product would need to have a graphics-based K-2 interface, since kids that age can't read yet).

Further, paired teacher/librarian contributor teams hand-select websites that are both reliable and relevant. These websites form the bulk of the content within the browseable section.

If the browseable section isn't enough, SchoolRooms also functions as a federated search interface. From one search box (on every page within SchoolRooms), patrons can search the library's catalog, all the library's subscription databases, all of the hand-selected websites, and lastly, the internet in general using Google (although this last one could be done by anyone, SchoolRooms has a nice built-in feature that helps people search better than they might if they were to go to Google themselves. For instance, if you were on the SchoolRooms page for "Elementary School > Geography > Maps > Africa," SchoolRooms will incorporate those keywords in the Google Search, which will yield better results than a freehand search, as a patron might not think to include all of those words).

This demo session was lead by Kenneth J. Peterson of the Boston Regional Library System and the Boston Public Library. He point out that BPL is the first to roll this product out city-wide (although San Diego is not far behind, and Ohio is looking into state-wide implementation. Also, libraries in Canada and Denmark are interested). He was very excited about this product, especially coupled with BPL's eCard program. And to encourage use, there is a large link on the BPL homepage to their SchoolRooms portal.

Boston Public Library - SchoolRooms - Explore.Discover.Learn.

The bottom line seemed to be that this is a great product for K-12 homework help. In the usability study, it was found that 88% of students said they'd use it again, and 51% said it was more helpful than Google or Yahoo. That's a tool to keep an eye on - although I can't even imagine what the price tag would be.

boston public library, bpl, databases, federated, federated searches, federated searching, homework help, INFOhio, jason holmes, ken peterson, kenneth j. peterson, kent state university, ksu, libraries, library, public libraries, schoolrooms, sirsidynix

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