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

Reference Question of the Week – 11/29/09

   December 5th, 2009 Brian Herzog

stepstoolA little elderly woman walked up to the desk. She handed me a call number written on a piece of paper and said,

I need a librarian's assistance in getting this book.

This happens. Sometimes a book isn't on the shelf where it's supposed to be because it got misshelved, or a patron left it at a table, or it was recently returned and hasn't been put back on the shelf yet, or someone just took it without checking it out.

Being a librarian not only means you spend a lot of time creating organization, but you also quickly pick up skills necessary to maintain organization.

Finding missing books is almost like being a CSI - you have to reconstruct the situation, to figure out where it ended up. Does it seem like a page misshelved it, perhaps by transposing the dewey numbers? Could a patron have picked it up, forgot where they got it from, and then just slipped it back wherever was easiest? Did a staff person pull it for a book display and forget to mark it in the system? Could a child have pulled it off a low shelf, and then left it on an even lower one?

I bet every library has that one person who seems able to find any missing book. At my first library, that person taught me "The Book Search" song to find missing books:

One Shelf to the left,
One shelf to the right;
Higher shelf,
Lower shelf,
Fight fight fight!

I still sing this whenever I'm looking for a missing book, but the last line sometimes unnerves any patrons who happen to be in the stacks near me.

So anyway, I walked with this little elderly woman down to where the book should be, and I was thinking about the most likely scenario that caused this book to go missing. When we got to the right aisle, I checked the call number on the paper again to start looking, when she said,

I can see the book on the top shelf, I just can't reach it.

I'm happy she asked me for help, instead of trying to climb up on one of our step stools to get it herself. My name is Brian; I am a librarian, and I am tall.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/19/09

   July 25th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Dictionary Missing PagesHere's something you never expect. A patron calls in and asks:

I want to get a cat, but I don't know what some of the words mean that they're using to describe this breed. Can you tell me what docile, placid and amicable mean?

I knew the general sentiment of these words, but whenever someone asks me the meaning of a word, I like to look it up in a dictionary to give them the real meaning. In this case, I looked up docile and placid with no problem, reading the patron the definitions.

However, when I went for amicable, I got a surprise - our (newly purchased this year) dictionary skipped from aggressive to baby. That seemed like a bit of an omission, so I checked the page numbers - sure enough, our dictionary was missing pages 25-88. Wow.

I quickly switched to the internets to finish answering the patron's question, and since he was on the phone, he never knew the difference.

One of the criteria I use when evaluating books for the reference collection is, "can we answer patrons' questions even if our internet connection is down?" But when it comes to resource redundancy, I've never asked myself, "will I still be able to provide definitions even if 60+ pages are missing from a book?"

I sure hope Merriam-Webster gives us a new dictionary.

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ALA’s New 404 Page

   October 2nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

ALA's new 404 page screencaptureMost of the talk about ALA's new website redesign has died down, but I noticed something this week I want to comment on.

On the whole, I think the new site is a vast improvement over the old one. And with any new site, I understand they're still shaking out the bugs, and dealing with lots of dead links.

But: for my previous post, I wanted to find information from the ALA about library activity rising in time of economic trouble. A search on Google linked to something sounding exactly like what I was looking for on the ALA site. However, the link was broken.

By searching the ALA site itself for the title displayed in the Google results, I ultimately found the article's new location. Which is fine, but I have to say I am disappointed with the new website's 404 page.

When the 404 "Page Not Found" page loads, the most dominate thing on the page is the search box right in the center. So of course I clicked on this to search for the page I wanted. But - surprise - it's not a functioning search box. It's just an image of what the search box at the top of the page looks like. Of course the text above this image tells you to use the one at the top, but who reads? I don't - especially when a dominate image draws my attention away from the text.

So ALA, how about making the search box in the center a functioning search box, instead of just teasing us? It would add utility to the page, and make the 404 page incrementally just that much more user-friendly.

But otherwise, I think this is a pretty good 404 page, as far as they go. It customized and nice-looking, and gives some tips for finding what you're looking for. It also includes an email address to contact a person for help, which is great. I think I only noticed this because I talked about library website 404 pages before, and gave my library a fancy-pants 404 page.

I don't understand why it doesn't show up all the time, but maybe that's in the works, too.

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