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Google, Shmoogle. Reference Librarians Are Busier Than Ever

17 November 2017

From The Wall Street Journal:

PITTSBURGH—Sherry Yadlosky, a staff member at the Carnegie Library in this city’s Oakland district, answered the phone in her cubicle late in the afternoon of Nov. 1. A woman wanted to know who would be pitching for the Dodgers that night in the final game of the World Series.

Ms. Yadlosky consulted a sports website. “It looks like they’re going to be starting Yu Darvish, ” she said. The caller asked whether Mr. Darvish was a good pitcher. Ms. Yadlosky thought about it for a moment, then said: “It depends on your definition of good.”

After taking the call, Ms. Yadlosky, 28 years old, recalled a library patron who once asked her whether bar codes on store merchandise contained the Mark of the Beast, a symbol discussed in the Book of Revelation. “Um, no,” she said.

Carved in stone over the library’s arched entrance is the motto “Free to the People.” That applies not just to books but to answers for almost any question posed to librarians.

Even in the internet age, reference librarians still dig up answers that require extra effort, searching old books, microfilm and paper files, looking for everything from owners of long-defunct firms to 19th-century weather reports.

Though online searches are now at the fingertips of most people, many still prefer to call or visit a library. Some can’t or don’t use computers; others recognize librarians have search skills and access to databases that search engines can’t match.

. . . .

Librarians generally are happy to receive questions, partly because serving lots of people helps them justify taxpayer funding. The Hennepin County public libraries in Minnesota calculate that they answer about 1.3 million questions a year. The county’s population is about 1.2 million.

Privacy is respected. When someone asked the Pittsburgh library how to build a guillotine, a librarian emailed diagrams from a German website without asking questions.

. . . .

James Scott, a Sacramento librarian, said one woman woke up with a red blotch on her skin and wanted to know if it was in the shape of any meaningful symbol. He offered books on symbology.

“We’ll get folks that call up and say I woke up this morning and I had this trippy dream and I wonder if you have anything that can help me,” Mr. Scott said. He recommends books on the interpretation of dreams.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

The OP reminded PG of more than one time in the distant past when a law librarian was enormously helpful to him.

On more recent occasions, PG has become aggravated with Google because its search engine is not sufficiently precise. Having spent a lot of time with Lexis and Westlaw (two online legal research services), PG knows how to structure a detailed query calculated to pull a particular needle from the right haystack.

Unfortunately, Google always wants to please a visitor, so it’s programmed to provide more than the searcher may really want to see. On occasion, a researcher may want to confirm that nothing exists within the search parameters, e.g. no murder trials were held in Henry County, Iowa, during August, 1939. Google’s search engine really hates to admit nothing exists that responds to a search so it will return a lot of information about murders, real and fictional, ancient and modern, that mention Iowa anwhere.

Google Scholar is a step in the right direction and includes some useful filters, but, in PG’s experience, it won’t ruthlessly abide by a carefully-structured query.


6 Comments to “Google, Shmoogle. Reference Librarians Are Busier Than Ever”

  1. Reference librarians are more valuable than pearls. One librarian who’s a friend, told this story: a patron came in asking for photos of the Milky Way. She provided him the photographs. Some of them, particularly those taken from high mountains, which give the best view, are beyond beautiful.

    “No, no,” he said, handing them back to her. “I want photos of the galaxy from OUTSIDE it.”

  2. The dirty secret is that Google doesn’t know the difference between a murder trial that happened in Henry county Iowa in 1939 and a marathon that has been run since 1939, was a murderous trial this year and won by a guy named Henry.

  3. The problem is google stopped allowing quotes to frame exact phrases some time ago. When I want exact phrasing, I use duckduckgo. Not only to they adhere to Boolean rules, they don’t retain search records, which ensures privacy.

  4. For Google web searches, you can use the “Verbatim” option to achieve much more specific matches. It requires exact matching of everything in the query, sometimes excepting some small variations. The verbatim option is found under the Tools/Results dropdown menu.

    • Thanks, Mr. Shaw… but wow, it’s annoying that we have to go so far, when it used to be a matter of typing some quotation marks.

      Re: reference librarians, the blogger who used to run the MCJ was a reference librarian in St. Louis. They “let him retire” from his branch, at about the same time they got rid of almost all the books in it. Ridiculous, since he was knowledgeable with computers, Internet, and just about everything else knowledge-related.

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