30 December 2009

Stuck in the Age of the Source

Reference service has always been about finding the exact information to answer a question. But since the advent of the Web and search engines, there's been a sea-change in the method for finding that information. Problem is, a lot of us (on both sides) are unaware of the change. Our unawareness is making our jobs harder, and making the library's resources more opague to patrons.

In the Olden Days, before the Web and search engines, the key to being a good reference librarian was to know your sources. Picking the right source was essential to getting the answer. (If you look very closely, you'll see that one of the behaviors correlated with reference success is still "finds answer in first source consulted.")

It's hard for librarians who have grown up with the Web to appreciate how important it was to be familiar with sources. Take a simple example: Which U.S. President was the first to speak on the radio? Now before you hit Google, let's pretend that there's a power failure and you have no internet access. I guarantee you, the answer is in your branch: what is it?

If you are aware of the reference book Famous First Facts, you will be able to find out that Warren G. Harding. If you aren't, you'll still be looking when the power comes back.

Another one (remember, no internet): When was Hurricane Agnes? You could scour the weather books, or you could look in Chase's Calendar and find it was June 14-23, 1972.

The point here is not that knowing the proper reference source can help when the power goes out. The point is that in the past, knowing the proper reference source was all there was. The source wasn't just the first thing, it was the only thing.

Today we don't need to worry about being familiar with sources. We have search engines, which keep up with the sources much better than we ever could. Today, the source isn't the first thing, second thing, or often even the tenth thing; the first thing is knowing how to structure your search terms.

We are no longer in the Age of Source; we are now in the Age of Search.

Trouble is, some folks who came up during the Age of Source have not made the adjustment. Some of them are not even aware that there's an adjustment to be made.

We still train our new people as if we were in the Age of Source. We have a Core Reference Collection of the "best sources," and our new folks spend incredible amounts of time familiarizing themselves with the Core Sources. Enormous amounts of time and effort go into updating and maintaining the Core Reference training assignments. I don't know who sits there correcting page numbers and writing new questions every time a print source is updated, but I have to wonder if their time couldn't be better spent.

We treat databases and websites as if Source was the only thing. First of all, on our website we separate paid databases from recommended websites...to enormous confusion among staff and patrons. Imagine that someone asks you which President was first to appear on television -- and your immediate response is to wonder whether the answer will be in a paid database or on a free website?

Second, click on our "databases" menu option. Go ahead, click on it. What do you get? An alphabetical listing of databases. Talk about putting the Source first! Before you can even start to find the answer, you have to know the bleeding name of the database.

Who arranges things that way? Those who are stuck in the Age of Source.

Is it any wonder that most patrons turn first to Google, or that they accept the first answer they find (usually in Wikipedia)? Reference librarians, be honest: except for the few databases you use all the time, don't you usually go to Google first?

So what would be better? For training, sure, review sources: but concentrate much more on search strategies. Stop quizzing people on print sources and endlessly updating those quizzes. If the power goes out, we're just going to have to muddle through.

One the website, let's eliminate the distinction between databases and recommended websites.

And if not an alphabetical listing of databases, then what? Ideally, we would have what patrons expect: a search box, which would use some kind of magical federated searching to select the right databases and websites for the questioner. I know that's beyond our means right now, but fortunately a second-best solution already exists: a subject index to databases and recommended websites. Staff and patrons shouldn't have to be intimately familiar with the sources; they should concentrate on the question.

Let's make a subject listing of databases and websites the default. The alphabetical index can still be there, just don't make it the first thing that comes up.

The Age of Source is over. Except for power failures...and during a power failure, you can't access the databases and recommended websites anyway.

The Age of Search is here. Has been here for a long time. It's a new millennium, a new century, and we're coming up on a new decade.

When will we give up the past and join the present?

23 December 2009


Here's one of the ornaments that I gave to staff here at BCY. These were designed & made by my husband Thomas Atkinson (@darthmarmalade on Twitter). They're acrylic, about 3 x 2 inches. You can't really make it out in the picture, but they are laser-etched with the inscription "BCY HAPPY HOLIDAYS 2009" (except they don't say "BCY," they have the real branch abbreviation).

Some were green, some were red. There's also a single black one, which I kept for myself.

12 December 2009

Jabberwabby or Something

I just found these notes that I jotted down following a staff-patron interaction from sometime in the 1990s. This was too good not to share.

(And yes, I do know who the "Clueless Wonder" was. The person is no longer associated with our system, but I'm not going to give the name.)


I set the scene. Don is standing at his station, placing holds for a large thousand-year-old woman ("Grandma") who wanted every book that Oprah had ever featured, discussed, or thought about. A staff member we will call “C.W.” (for “Clueless Wonder”) is at her station, to Don's left.

A teenage girl (let's call her Ashley) approaches C.W., with appropriate sound f/x of snapping gum and three "y'knows" for every two actual words.)

Ashley: My teacher said I had to read a poem called, um, Jabberwabby or something.

C.W.: (frowning) Uh...do you know how to spell it?

Ashley: Uh, hold on. (rummages through her backpack, pulls out a crumpled paper, squints) Uh, it's J...A...B...

C.W.: "B" like "Boy"?

Ashley: Uh, I guess. Here (hands C.W. the paper)

C.W.: (squinting at paper) Oh...kay. (types furiously. frowns. types again. frowns again. clicks the mouse a few times for good luck. types again. frowns and grunts.) Hmmm. I don't see it listed anywhere.

Don: (aside, to C.W., while holding a finger up to silence Grandma for a moment in the middle of The Deep End of the Ocean) C.W., it's in Alice in Wonderland. (returns attention to Grandma, knowing full well that it's actually in Through the Looking Glass, but figuring that anyone with at least a Bachelor's Degree would know what he meant.)

C.W.: Oh, okay. (types furiously, frowns, types, clicks, frowns, grunts, frowns, clicks, clicks, types, types, grunts, frowns) (to Don) Uh, I can't find it.

Don: (aside to C.W., while holding a finger up to silence Grandma in between Drowning Ruth and The House of Sand and Fog) Try "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

C.W.: Oh, okay, thanks. (types, clicks, frowns, grunts, and then executes the ever-difficult triple-click-and-frown with double grunt, earning a 9.3 from the Russians) Uh... (silent appeal to Don with deep, brown eyes that have never been tainted by the slightest trace of a clue)

Don: (aside to C.W., not even bothering to pause Grandma at We Were the Mulvaneys) C.W., just go check the shelves under "Lewis Carroll" and you'll find it.

C.W.: Oh, okay, thanks. (to Ashley) Come on. (Departs the desk, leading Ashley in the direction of Adult Fiction) [Alice, meanwhile, is on the Children's Fiction shelves.]

Don: (sighs and explains to Grandma that no, she doesn't want the Bible, she wants The Poisonwood Bible)

Ten minutes later, C.W. returns to the desk with Ashley in tow. C.W. is triumphantly clutching a tattered paperback of Alice. She quiveringly holds it in Don's direction.

C.W.: I finally found one in the Classics section. Uh...

Don: (face frozen in Professional Smile Number Six, the one that shows his venom-dripping canines to best advantage) Here, let me see. (flips through the book, gets to Through the Looking Glass, recognizes the White Knight and so knows he's in the right neighborhood, then opens to p. 134-136. Briefly considers pointing C.W. toward the mirror-image first verse, but then takes pity on her and indicates the start of "Jabberwocky" without a word.)

C.W.: Oh, okay, thanks. (hands the book to Ashley.) Does this look like it?

Don turns away, thinking that it was much pleasanter at home, when one wasn't always growing larger and smaller, and being ordered about by mice and rabbits.

04 December 2009

The More Things Change....

The More Things Change...

Did you know that our organization once practiced censorship? It's true. Just like the Vatican, we had a list of "forbidden books" that would not be purchased and could not be ordered through interlibrary loan.

Here's a quote from the January 1987 Newsletter, reporting on the November 1986 Board meeting:
Mr. Marshall replied to the Board's request for information on the list of books that will not be bought by the system, and may not be requested through MILO. A Board member questioned why these books were not available through Interlibrary Loan. Mr. Marshall explained that it was felt that the system should not give its problems to another system by offering this option, and that after making the decision not to buy these for our patrons we should stand by that decision. After discussion, the Board indicated that the list should remain.

Today we have no "forbidden" list of items that can't be ordered through interlibrary loan. And incidentally, the staff member who reported this was to succeed Mr. Marshall many years later. I'm just sayin'....

...The More Things Stay The Same.

From the Staff Newsletter March 1979:
The staff development meeting on merchandising techniques held in January received high marks from staff members in their overall impressions of the meeting...

Odenton arrived at an entirely new floor plan based on the techniques articulated at the meeting; moving of furniture and materials took place there on February 28. Most participants felt they would apply material presented directly to displays created in the branches -- using face-out stocking where possible and experimenting with vertical shelving techniques so that all sizes of patrons could reach materials easily. Most also agreed that the most serious obstacle to more effective merchandising of materials was the lack of appropriate display fixtures and shelving...