From the catalogs of babes

Once upon a time, about 2 weeks ago, a friend of mine posted an interesting link on Facebook to a post from the Illinois Poison Control Center blog. It’s called “A Day in the Life of a Poison Center,” and the entry is simply a chronicle of every single call and inquiry the center received on a given day: February 10, 2010. The center received 282 calls and abbreviated each one to a 1-2 sentence anonymized summary which was listed in the blog as it occurred.

The day-in-the-life blogathon was motivated by state funding cuts to the poison control center (surprise, surprise). By listing tangible, concrete examples of the services they provide, the poison control center effectively demonstrates value and return on investment to the community–I mean, isn’t saving a life worth a little bit of state financial aid?

But whether or not they intended to, the poison control bloggers demonstrated more that just why the center needs funding–they also clearly demonstrated exactly what their staff do all day and why it’s important to have trained, specialty professionals handling those tasks.

Let’s say your child just drank some drain cleaner. Who do you want answering your questions: a professionally certified poison specialist with training in toxicology, or some random, minimum-wage worker hired off of Craig’s List?* Sure, we can save money by hiring less qualified staff–and we might need to after being subjected to drastic funding cuts. But is it worth it?

Reading through the summaries, I learned lots of things I never knew or realized about poison control centers before. I had no idea that EMTs and ER doctors and nurses consulted poison control centers for information and advice–or that such a high percentage of calls to the poison control center were from those sources. I guess I always just assumed poison control centers were designed for end-consumer, average individual use. It certainly makes sense, though–I can’t expect an EMT or ER staff or general physician to be familiar with highly detailed, in-depth specialty knowledge about the immense amounts and varieties of poisonous substances that exist in the world. It’s critical that they call someone with specialty knowledge of the subject–people’s lives depend on it.

Now, I might be biased and it might be a stretch to say that librarians save lives,** especially in the same direct ways and methods as poison control specialists. But the two situations seem to me to have much more similarities than differences: they both fulfill information needs from reliable sources.They both require specialized knowledge and training to perform this task. Their job duties are both often misunderstood by the general public and they both suffer from funding cuts–from tax money that comes from that same public. The Illinois Poison Control Center publically documented every single question they received in a given day in a direct attempt to  change the former in order to change the latter. What if we did the same thing with library reference questions? Could it help show exactly how we help unite people with the critical information they need and answer that annoying age-old question: “why do you need a master’s degree to be a librarian?”

*(Now, I realize that’s a bit blunter and more cut-and-dried than the real world, where often times people without degrees and certifications can still hold expert knowledge, and people who hold those qualification can still be ignorant. But in general, there’s a reason such degrees and qualifications and standards exist, and the poison control center is an excellent example.)

**Just for the record, I totally and utterly do believe that librarians save lives. It’s not as hands-on direct as doctors and EMTs, but getting the right information to people is just as critical and often has the power to affect life decisions of all levels of significance. If I didn’t truly believe that, I probably wouldn’t be a librarian.



That’s right. I found the mystery Tony Duquette book.

See, what I had failed to mention in the earlier parable was that while I found the book in the OPAC after the patron left, I couldn’t find it on the shelf, despite its checked-in status. I’m generally pretty diligent, and I’m no stranger to these sorts of situations. I looked for it not just on the shelf where it belongs, but the shelf above, the shelf below, the shelf to the right and to the left. I looked on the book carts, in the book drop, and in the workroom, and I never found it. I even requested that the colletions librarian order another copy.

Until today. Until I was randomly covering the reference desk, letting my eyes graze the room, and lo and behold, I just happened to glace upon a book with huge letters on the spine reading “TONY DUQUETTE.” Of course, I snatched it up right away and sent a note to the instructor who had been interested in it, apologising for the delay but informing her that we did in fact have a copy.

So, where was it? It was safely tucked between 749.092 D716 and 749.092 Ea62. The problem?

(For those that can’t read the blurry impromptu photo, that call number is 747.092…)

This book was essentially missing for 2 months, would have been longer if I hadn’t happened upon it. A patron wanted this book and was denied fulfillment of her information needs because it was simply in the incorrect location.

The moral of the story? Shelving properly is important. Shelfreading is important. Understanding the order of the DDC numbers is important. You know how librarians always whine that “if a book isn’t in the right place, it’s as good as lost”? Yeah, that.

Once upon a time, late one night in the library, an instructor came in asking for “that book by Tony Duquette.”

Being the diligent reference desk staffer that I am, I dutifully type “Duquette, Tony,” into the author search field of our online catalog. The search returns one result, and so I answer affrimatively that indeed we do have a book by Tony Duquette, and write down the call number.

We walk to the section together and I pull the book for her. “No,” she says, “that’s not it. It’s a bigger book, and it’s sort of reddish, and it’s all about his life and work. It’s new. He just died, you know.”

Well, no, I didn’t know. Nor did I have any idea who Tony Duquette was, only that she asked me for a book by Tony Duquette. Since she had said it was a new book, I told her that we would of course look into ordering it and aquiring it as soon as possible.

Back at the desk, I look up Tony Duquette on Amazon. After reading the description of the first result, I learn that a) Tony Duquette died in 1999; and b) this retrospective was published in 2007; and c) despite those facts, it looks and sounds like the book the instructor was after.

The other interesting thing I learn is that the book is not in fact by Tony Duquette (not surprising, since he’s been dead for 10 years), but rather by a Wendy Goodman. It suddenly clicks, and I type “Tony Duquette” into the title search field of our OPAC, and lo and behold, there it is, it comes right up. Unfortunately, the instructor had already left the building.

So what’s the moral of this story? If our OPAC search fields were not limited to indexing specific fields like title, author, etc.–if the user didn’t know the difference between a book by Tony Duquette and about Tony Duquette (as was definitely the case here and certainly not limited to this example)–if the user could simply type in “Tony Duquette” and find books both by and about the artist–then maybe this debacle of unfulfillment wouldn’t have happened, and the instructor could have left with the book she wanted, instead of empty-handed.

{February 14, 2009}   parable #13

Once upon a time, there was a girl (who you may have already surmised is me) who needed to buy a new cell phone. I was nearing the end of my two-year ball-and-chain contract and my phone had ceased to be useful months earlier.

However, I was on a family share phone plan. This meant that not only would I need a new phone, but my parents, with whom I shared the plan, would need new phones as well.

So the three of us went down to the local phone store, where my mother proceeded to sample every phone in a 5 mile radius and then some. (It’s not polite to tell a lady’s age, but let’s just say that my mom is the sort of person that grew up with technology.) Her main criteria for the new phone included not having any buttons on the sides (so as not to push them by mistake when grabbing it from her purse) as well as large, easy-to-read buttons. So you can imagine how blown away I was when my mother picked up an iPhone on her own and immediately logged in and navigated to Google.

I’ve had my new iPhone for about 24 hours now and I’m still amazed at how easy and intutive it is to use.* It made me wonder: why aren’t library catalogs more like iPhones?

Actually, my first thought was about  the possibility of building iPhone applications for library catalogs. Which was immediately followed by the thought that such a possibility would likely be impossible, at least for our library’s catalog, just due to constraints of the software that we use. Maybe other software systems could support the building of a catalog iPhone app, I don’t know. WorldCat has an iPhone app, but I haven’t tried it yet, and I confess I’m slightly skeptical, since  itself doesn’t seem all that functional and user-friendly to me (and I’m a librarian–I can’t imagine what the everyday patron user thinks of it).

But I can’t help but think: wouldn’t it be cool if I could use my library’s catalog the same way I use my iPhone? Not an application on my phone, but the actual library catalog, designed to function the way the iPhone does. Not just the customization and those bells and whistles, but the sheer, simple, user-friendly, intuitive interface that allows someone like my mom to pick it up and instantly be able to use it, without training or instruction or a thick reference book or user’s manual. Without needing to know any specialized vocabulary–you push “email” to get to your email, and “phone” to use your phone. Without any special search training, bibliographic instruction, Boolean operators, MARC indicators… heaven forbid if that usability extended to the back-end for catalogers!

I did my research and testing and I consider my purchase to not only buy me a new phone, but also voting with my dollar in favor of good, user-friendly design. I would do the same for my library in a heartbeat if I knew of a product out there along these lines worth supporting.

What do you think it would take to convince Apple to start designing library software…?


*author’s note: this post is in no way meant to advertise iPhones or any other products, despite how much the author thoroughly enjoys playing with her new toy.

Once upon a time, a woman was graduating from a master’s degree program in library and information science. As is generally traditional, she thought it might be nice to purchase a small thank-you gift for the person in her life who had inspired, enouraged and convinced her to pursue and complete such an educational endeavor. Being a graduate of library studies, she thought a book might be a nice gift. After a bit of thought and some research, she settled on a book that she thought would suit the recipient’s well-known architectural interests as well as offer some symbolism of the graduation “opening new doors” in life: The Language of Doors.

Being a graduate student completing all the final program work, as well as working full-time at a local library, she didn’t have a lot of spare time to go from bookstore to bookstore looking for the title, so she took advantage of the ability to search store inventory on the Borders website. What luck! It said that one copy was in stock at her local store, and so she placed it on hold, only to receive the conformation email a few hours later indicating that the title could not be held. Store inventory is updated every 24 hours, the email read, and so the title may have sold between the prior evening’s update and the time she placed the hold.

Not to be deterred, she went back to the website the next day to check the possibility of purchasing the book at another location. No dice. On a whim, she decided to re-check her local store, to see if the inventory had been updated to reflect the purchase. Lo and behold, the inventory still claimed that same single copy of the title was on the shelf.

Strange, she thought. Having formerly worked at a very similar bookstore, she knew that often, when the inventory reflected one copy of an item and it could not be found, it was simply misplaced. She was the one who often found these missing books when others could not.

The store was not far, so she decided to take matters into her own hands and head over to try her luck and some of the tactics she used to employ in her bookslinging days to find the missing title. The first thing she did when she got to the store was to double check the shelf where the book was supposed to be. Sometimes, when people are working quickly, it is easy to overlook a small book or skinny spine. No luck. She then tried the shelf below, scanning across all the titles, but it wasn’t there, either. She then looked at the shelf immediately above when the book should have been.

And there it was! The book was right there the whole time, just on the wrong shelf, either sheved incorrectly originally, or perhaps pulled out by a customer upon browsing and placed back in the in correct spot. The reason why it was in the wrong place didn’t really matter–what matters was that she found it. This woman found the title when the bookstore employees didn’t.

And why didn’t they find it? Because they didn’t take the time to bother to look for it aside from the one place it was stipulated to be. 5 more minutes of thought, of effort, of going that little extra difference to be helpful and make a sale, would have made all the difference in the world.

I know a bookstore is not a library, but some of the same problems illustrated here occur in both places: the mis-shelving, either by staff or by patrons, the automated holds/reserve mechanisms that eliminate the human aspect, the customer service angle of going that little extra bit to help someone fulfill their information needs, the ability to look beyond the strict rote rules and figure out a new solution to the problem, and the idea that if a book (or other material) isn’t in the right place, it is essentially lost–and so is the circulation or the sale, and–maybe not that day, but if it happens again, and again–the customer/patron.

All the correct classification in thenworld doesn’t matter if people can’t use it. Our systems are not only as good as the humans who design them, but also as the humans who use them. Let’s remember the impact of the human aspect, both for its flaws (so we can work to overcome them) and its benefits (so we can reap them).

{January 7, 2009}   parable #4

Once upon a time (i.e., yesterday), I went to the Pollack Library at California State University Fullerton. I needed to do research for a book chapter proposal. Before making the trip, I checked the library’s catalog to make sure they had Cataloging and Classification Quarterly and Art Documentation, the two journals I needed.

CSUF classifies their collection using Library of Congress Classification. Knowing that library and information science is classed under “Z,” I headed toward that section of the periodical stacks. I found Cataloging and Classification Quarterly nearly immediately, but did not see Art Documentation after a cursory browse. I decided to check the call number in the catalog, in case it was perhaps classed in a more arts-related section. The call number was Z5937 .A19. Thinking I must have simply overlooked it, I returned to the “Z” section and stared at the empty shelves between Z119 and Z671. What was I missing?

After consulting with the very nice reference librarian on duty, I learned exactly what the problem was: 5937 is a bigger number than 119 and 671, and therefore comes later in the shelf order. Art Documentation was exactly where it was supposed to be, between Z5704 and Z6151. Seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it?

But at our library, with both DDC and our Cutter system, numbers are shelved from the first digit forward, which means that 5704 would indeed fall between 119 and 671, Just as 1190 and 1191 would follow 119 and 67 would precede 671.

What’s the moral of this parable? Despite classification system standards, knowledge of library classification at one library does not translate to knowledge at another. The fact that I’m a trained cataloger only makes this more evident–while I’m not as familiar with LCC since I don’t use it on a daily basis like I do DDC, if a catalog librarian can’t figure it out, how can we expect the library patrons?

et cetera