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

Ich bin ein Bibliotecario

   November 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Babel Fish from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyLanguage is fascinating to me. I'm particularly interested in the idea that our brains are shaped by the language we use to interpret our environments and communicate - and therefore, people of different cultures do perceive the world differently.

So, apropos of absolutely nothing, here are the translations for a few library-related words, according to the Babel Fish translator.

English library librarian book reading information reference
Dutch bibliotheek bibliothecaris boek lezing informatie verwijzing
French bibliothèque bibliothécaire livre lecture l'information référence
German Bibliothek Bibliothekar Buch Messwert Informationen Hinweis
Greek βιβλιοθήκη βιβλιοθηκάριος βιβλίο ανάγνωση πληροφορίες αναφορά
Italian biblioteca bibliotecario libro lettura informazioni riferimento
Portuguese biblioteca bibliotecário livro leitura informação referência
Russian архив библиотекарь книга чтение информация справка
Spanish biblioteca bibliotecario libro lectura información referencia

Something else neat is that other language can be clever sources of product names - who among us wouldn't buy into a chat reference product called "Referencia?" But my favorite is the word for librarian - "bibliotecario" - I think I might change my business cards.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/9/10

   May 15th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Aleksandr Nikolayevich OstrovskyThis question was both fun and frustrating - fun in that it was a series of challenges, but frustrating in that, in the end, I don't know if the patron got what she wanted.

One quiet afternoon, the phone rings, and I have the following conversation with a patron with a thick Russian accent:

Patron: I am looking for Russian play by 19th Century famous Russian Nikolia Ostrovsky [she spelled it for me]
Me: Okay, what is the title of the play?
Patron: I don't know in English, but Russian title is something about girl and gift of marriage.

I started with a search of our catalog for just the author's last name, hoping I'd be able to pick out the title of the play, but it seemed like we didn't have anything by this author. I then tried this same strategy with the state-wide Virtual Catalog. It was much more promising, but I noticed no "Nikolia Ostrovsky" was listed - instead there was a "Aleksandr Nikolaevich Ostrovsky."

I asked the patron if that was the same person as the author she was looking for, and she said no, his name was just "Nikolia Ostrovsky."

While she was talking (which, because English is not her first language, was sort of forced and slow), I did a quick online search, which added to the confusion. I did see mentions of an author named "Nikolai Alexeevich Ostrovsky." The patron said that was the right name, but when I described his life and work, the patron said it was the wrong person.

I then described the life and works of Aleksandr Nikolayevich Ostrovsky, which the patron said must be the right person, even though she was convinced the name was wrong. In any case, we moved on to finding the right play.

I skimmed through the list from the Virtual Catalog, but many of the titles where in Russian, and none of those in English had anything to do with a girl or a wedding. I asked her if she knew anything else about the title of the play, and while she was talking it eventually dawned on me that "gift of marriage" probably referred to "dowry."

The patron said she liked the word, so I searched online for Ostrovsky dowry, and found many pages referring to a play called "The Girl Without a Dowry." Perfect.

Next I translated that from English to Russian, copy/paste the result into a Virtual Catalog search, and... get zero hits because the search does not support Cyrillic characters.

Hmm. Now I realize I need to find the English spelling of the play's Russian title using Latin characters, and the patron has no idea what it might be. I go back to the search results that told us what the English title was (Firefox tabs must have specifically been designed for reference librarians, by the way), and saw an Open Library record for Bespridannitsa / the Girl Without Dowry* - that must be it, right?

I go back to the Firefox tab with the Virtual Catalog results for the author's last name, and search the page (CTRL+F) for the word "Bespridannitsa." Nothing. Just on a hunch, I start backspacing through the letters of Bespridannitsa, thinking that the spelling might be different in the Virtual Catalog (I like that Firefox searches the page in realtime, rather than having to do a new search each time). I get down to "Bespridanni" and Firefox highlights a record titled "Bespridanniëtìsa" which is a videorecording**.

The patron asks me to request that, but she really wants to read the play. I'm running out of ideas, so I search the Virtual Catalog for "Bespridanniëtìsa" and all that comes up are videorecordings. Just for the heck of it, I also search for "Bespridannitsa," and surprisingly, there are a few matches for this author. Even more surprisingly, none of the matches for print items actually include the word "Bespridannitsa" in the visible record.

I read (as best I can) the titles to the patron ("Izbrannye p§esy," "Izbrannye sochineniëiìa"), and we decide these might be collections of of plays, of which "Bespridannitsa" might be one, so I request them for her.

The patron is happy (well, hopeful), and hangs up. I couldn't tell if she thanked me because she thought I found what she wanted, or was just thanking me for the effort. I suppose I'll only find out if it was the right thing if the patron calls back and asks to keep searching - and hopefully she doesn't ask for the play in English.

With questions like this, I'd really be curious to see the whole flow mapped out visually. Using tabbed browsing makes me realize how many times I repeatedly consult the same source (for different information), and I think it would be interesting to illustrate how different search strategies lead to blind alleys, doubling back, and most importantly, an answer.


*Open Library has a direct link to WorldCat, which shows which nearby OCLC member libraries have this item. No Massachusetts libraries had it, and we use out-of-state requests only as a last resort.

**As an aside, I thought I could verify the Authority library spelling of Bespridannitsa by searching WorldCat for Bespridannitsa Ostrovsky. There were lots of matches, but sadly, most of them had different spellings and accents.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/7

   January 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Arabic Phrase Book CoverThe "reference" part of this question would have been fairly straightforward, had the patron been able to speak English...

I was sitting at the reference desk with one of my library's assistant directors (Chris, who often works with me at the desk). A circulation desk staffer came to the desk, disconcerted, and with a patron in tow.

She said that this patron had walked in the front door and come to the circ desk, and began speaking to them in Spanish. No matter what they said, he would not speak English. She said they didn't know what he wanted or what to do with him, and that frankly, he was making them nervous. However, knowing that Chris spoke some Spanish (and some French, and some Portuguese - it's nice having someone on staff with a Masters in Linguistics from Harvard), she hoped he could figure out what he wanted.

Chris addressed the patron in Spanish, and the patron spoke back - but not in Spanish. It didn't even sound close. Neither Chris nor I could identify the language, but our best guess (based on its sound and the patron's appearance) was that he was speaking Arabic.

Chris immediately went into the 400s to find an Arabic-English dictionary. Having studied languages, Chris thought he'd be able to find out how he could help him.

But, after a few attempts, Chris realized that the differences between English and Arabic were just to great to overcome in a couple minutes. So, he thought of something else - he called Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, thinking that someone there might be able to translate for him.

As luck would have it, the Center's secretary answered the phone, and she herself was able (and willing) to serve as a translator. Chris gave the patron the phone, and after his initial puzzled look, he proceeded to speak with her for a good ten minutes. When Chris got back on the phone, the secretary told him that the patron recently moved here from Egypt, worked in our town 9-5pm M-F, and was interested in learning English.

Well, now at least Chris knew how to help him. Chris managed to explain that we offer an English Conversation Circle for people learning English - but those meetings conflicted with his work schedule.

Then, Chris started looking for other Arabic-language resources in our area. After a bit of searching our Community Information Database and the internet in general, he found the Islamic Society of Greater Lowell. Chris contacted them and explained the situation, and thought it was a place the patron could at least start with to find what he was looking for.

Now, this is a great story, but also one of those perfect-timing reference questions. If we didn't have someone with Chris' linguistics background on staff, this patron may have left empty-handed and lost. I am always happy when I'm able to find the information someone needs, but it feels so much better (for whatever reason) when the help you provide comes from your own personal interests or history, rather than just your searching skills. It gives you a chance to really connect with the patron as a person, rather than just answering a question.

It also shows that, regardless of what kind of pre-library background someone has, the specialized interests of the staff (be it Irish history, scrapbooking, geocaching, dogs, etc.) can be just as valuable as any coursework or on-the-job training.

arabic, english, languages, libaries, library, reference question

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