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

Reference Question of the Week – 5/20/12

   May 26th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Kindness of Strangers signIt's been a very slow week in the library (school winding down + beautiful weather), so this week's question isn't an actual reference question - but it is something I recently learned.

Did you know Wikipedia has a reference desk?

The Wikipedia reference desk works like a library reference desk. Users leave questions on the reference desk and Wikipedia volunteers work to help you find the information you need.

Questions/answers are broken up into categories, and are both interesting and sophisticated. I also like the format of crowdsourcing answers - even when someone had given what I thought was a great answer, subsequent responders added new information or aspects that were useful.

Actually, it reminded me of any other online forum, which I use all the time for answering questions (especially for coding problems or frustrating technology issues). No one response provides a complete answer, but putting all the bits and pieces together often solves the problem.

Not that using the internet as a big Help archive is anything new - I was just happy to find another source to search when I get a real stumper. But if nothing else, the Wikipedia Reference Desk Guidelines does make for interesting reading.

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Veropedia = Wikipedia 2.0?

   October 30th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Veropedia.com logoVeropedia, a new website based on the articles in Wikipedia, is Web 2.0 with a twist - it's all verified, approved, and non-editable (which means it is no longer "2.0").

It's a for-profit site using cleaned-up and locked-down Wikipedia articles. They do this to try to lend more credibility to online reference (more description on their faq).

Is that necessary? Do they automatically lose credibility themselves because it's an "experts control the information" profit deal? Or are they moving from 2.0 to $2.0? Time will tell. But with only 3700+ "verofied" articles, they've got a long way to go to become useful.

via slashdot

reference 2.0, veropedia, web 2.0, wikipedia, $2.0.0, reference 2.0, veropedia, web 2.0, wikipedia.0.0, reference 2.0, veropedia, web 2.0, wikipedia

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Accountability 2.0

   August 16th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Wikipedia logoGreat news (as I see it) this week for Wikipedia users: Virgil Griffith of CalTech created a search tool that can identify what computers were used to make changes to Wikipedia articles.

Others review some of the findings, but the importance of this is that Wikipedia has suddenly become much more trustworthy. Now that people who make changes can be more readily identified by the IP address of their computer, glaring falsifications and biased edits are easier to track and correct.

If fact, and ideally, it'll prevent this vandalism from taking place to begin with. Hopefully, if people in news organizations, political aides or anyone else know that they're no longer completely anonymous, the amount of this abuse will subside.

That, or the number of these changes coming from the IP ranges of public libraries will increase dramatically. Then, perhaps we'll have to sic the USA PATRIOT Act on them.

libraries, library, public libraries, public library, virgil griffith, wikipedia

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/10

   December 16th, 2006 Brian Herzog

Wikipedia quicksearch for 'alpine flowers' from within FirefoxWhy is it that so many of the doozey questions come in over the phone?

Phone: [ring]
Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Patron: I need to find an alpine flower. Can you hold your book and call James at the florist to come pick it up?
Me: Well, first, let me make sure we have a book with the flower you're looking for - do you know its name?
Patron: No.
Me: Oh... okay... do you know what it looks like?
Patron: No. But it has to match the embroidery.
Me: Where did you see this flower?
Patron: Look, it's an alpine flower, like they have in Switzerland. And it has to match the embroidery exactly.
Me: Um, would you recognize it if you saw it? Perhaps I could find a book with pictures and hold it at the desk, and you could come in and look through it.
Patron: No, I can't come in, because this has to happen today. It has red and blue little flowers, and some berries, and green leaves.
Me: Well, okay, I'll look and see what we have - can I give you a call back to let you know what I find?
Patron: Okay. [gives me her name and number]

Okay, so the patron is looking for an alpine flower, and she doesn't know its name or what it looks like. But then she gives me a description. And she wants me to give the information to James the florist when I find a flower that matches the embroidery. What does all this mean? I don't know.

So, I check our catalog for some kind of "flowers of the world" book, and, surprisingly, we have nothing. Not even in reference, nor in either of our sets o encyclopedias. Lots of North American flower field guides, but not a single book that covers alpine flowers. Even the Switzerland and Alps travel books don't show many pictures of flowers (at least, none with red and blue flowers with berries).

So, I try the internet. A general search pulls in way too many florist websites (people selling flowers) to be useful, so I go over to Wikipedia. I first search on "alpine plants," which leads me to an entry on the Alpine pasque flower, which in turn lead me to a more general entry for Alpine plant.

That entry had an external link to the website http://www.thealpinegarden.com, which, while somewhat annoying, had a bunch of image galleries. Great - now I had something to give the patron.

But, I decided to go back to Wikipedia and try another search. I went back and just searched on the Alps, and that entry had a section on Flora that also had a gallery of photographs of alpine flowers.

I called the patron, explained that I couldn't find any books in the library that would help, but gave her the urls I found. She was happy, and was going to call James herself to give him the urls and talk about her flower.

So, although Wikipedia was not my first choice, it did turn out helping me more than any other source I could consult. We have both the Encyclopedia Britannica and World Book, and neither of them had as complete and useful an entry as did Wikipedia. And, even though I think I'm fairly sophisticated when it comes to search techniques, I wasn't able to form a concise enough search to find the one useful website that Wikipedia already had neatly listed for me. So, although Wikipedia make contain malicious information, it also does contain a great deal of truthiness - and is therefore a useful and appropriate tool for the reference librarian's repertoire.

libraries, library, reference question, wikipedia

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