Assorted bookworms

Bookworm (reader)When I googled “bookworm,” almost the entire first page of hits concerned an online word game. The lone exception was for a long-running radio program about books. I suppose a fair amount of book clubs, book stores, book review newspaper columns, etc. have the name bookworm or bookworms. I even came across Bookworm Socks!

And why not? Bookworm is a long establish idiom for someone who spends a lot of time reading or studying. I take it the term is not entirely complimentary, as in this illustration: ” The girl who would rather stay inside and read than go out and play is an example of a bookworm.”

I could easily open a can of different worms by wondering, “why girl?” Oh well. It could be even worse. The example could have been a girl who would rather stay inside and read than go out on a date.

Bookish boys don’t come out any better. “Bookworm” may be an early way of saying “nerd.” (Although, as Bill Gates famously said, be nice to them, ’cause one of them will probably be your boss.)

Bookworm damage

Bookworm damage

An even older usage is more literal: insect larvae that eat books. As it turns out, some of them maintain their enjoyment of books as adults. There is no one species of bug known as a bookworm. In fact, there are numerous culprits that eat through page after page, leaving small (or if left unchecked, large) holes.

The first librarian I ever worked for, who taught me a lot about book preservation, was quite paranoid about food in the library. The staff were allowed to have snacks or even lunch at our desks, but we had to make sure that no crumb remained there. Crumbs attract roaches, and when they finish that meal, what they like best is the paste that keeps books together.

Imagine my shock and surprise, when I started to library school, that the library closed one night a year to host a banquet. That’s right. In the library.

Since then, patrons have demanded relaxation of many traditional library rules. More and more libraries allow them to consume at least some food or drinks in the library. I hope the two legged bookworms and those who clean up after them are careful with their food so as not to give too much encouragement to the less iterate variety!

Here’s a nineteenth-century poem too much fun not to share:

The Bookworm

THERE is a sort of busy worm

That will the fairest books deform,

By gnawing holes throughout them;

Alike, through every leaf they go,

Yet of its merits naught they know,

Nor care they aught about them.

Their tasteless tooth will tear and taint

The Poet, Patriot, Sage or Saint,

Not sparing wit nor learning.

Now, if you’d know the reason why,

The best of reasons I’ll supply;

‘Tis bread to the poor vermin.

Of pepper, snuff, or ‘bacca smoke,

And Russia-calf they make a joke.

Yet, why should sons of science

These puny rankling reptiles dread?

‘Tis but to let their books be read,

And bid the worms defiance.

J. Doraston

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Photo credits:
Bookworm damage. Some rights reserved by janetmck.
Others, source unknown

Two pees in a pot: students’ misused pears

misused pears

Mismatched pear of shoes?

The Internet is full of bad writing by people who ought to take more pride in their work. In this series of posts, I have enjoyed publishing the results of careless writers who choose the wrong word from a set of homonyms.

Now I find that teachers also enjoy posting excerpts from their students’ tests and papers. Some of those kids have a lot more serious problems than simply choosing the right word! Here are a few beauties:

  • We were as close as two pees in a pot.
  • He urines to be accepted.
  • Steinbeck always wrote with a porpoise.
  • Sex is contact between male and female gentiles.
  • Non governmental organizations are not for prophet.
  • The main problem with global warming is, that many orgasms will go extinct.
  • Society is a living orgasm.
  • Before Europeans even entered the Americas, Native Americans had established a way to life shadowing those of pheasants in Europe.
  • Miss Minnie Cooper used to be an attractive old woman but she has become an old sphincter.
  • This source was actually used by someone doing their doctoral destitution.
  • I would also like to add that the term illiterate is mean and hateful. People cannot help that they don’t have a father!
  • [And I would like to add that the student teacher in my 9th-grade health told us about an article he had read in the previous day’s paper about sterilizing the parents of illiterate children so they wouldn’t have any more! It’s sad to think that barely literate people can get teaching jobs, but alas he was not much worse than my English(!) teacher that same year.]
  • Gynecologists treat conditions of the cul de sac.
  • I’m quoting from the ancient Greek philosopher Aeropostale.
  • I am not going to be in class today I have slipped a dick in my back and it is very painful. I can hardly get out of bed.
  • The booty of Helen of Troy was legendary.
  • Norman is an island. That is so true. That is what the bells told.

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Some rights reserved by gadl.
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Presenting library book cart drill teams (!?!)

Library book cart drill team

Library book cart drill team

Library Book Cart Drill Team in the Westhampton Beach (New York) St. Patrick’s Day Parade

A couple of months ago I posted some videos of librarians doing parodies of popular songs. In the process of looking for them, I found some that featured library book cart drill teams.

That’s right. Beginning in 2004, the American Library Association and DEMCO, one of the major library vendors, have sponsored a Book Cart Drill Team competition. Teams of librarians choreograph routines that involve pushing or pulling library book carts to music. The idea has caught on! Enjoy.

The Cart Wheels (Des Plaines Public Library) rehearse for the 2007 Fourth of July parade in Des Plaines, Illinois.

2011 California School Library Association and DEMCO Book Cart Drill Team Competition, won by the Black Swan Book Cart Drill Team from San Bernardino (with no apologies to Tchaikowski’s Swan Lake!)

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A team from the Daniel Boone Regional Library took second place at the 2007 Missouri Library Association conference. They called themselves the Dewey Decimators–surely first place among all drill team names anywhere!

And the 2010 winners of the competition that started it all, the American Library Association itself. Enjoy “The Night of the Living Librarians.”

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Photo source: Some rights reserved by Joe Shlabotnik.

Research for ordinary people

Scientific research

Scientific researchScientists in their labs or historians poring over manuscript collections and archives are researchers.

Many of them become well known in their profession, and maybe even with the general public.

People who search the web for sites that they then pass on to a writer are also researchers, very likely making $2 an hour somewhere in Asia.

They are at the low end of status and responsibility for Internet work. What does either kind of research have to do with most people?

Everyone does research. Not everyone does it professionally. For most people, that research is not likely to result in a book, journal article, or interview on a TV talk show. For most people, on the other hand, research is not merely someone else’s grunt work.

So what is research for ordinary people, and how do they go about it? The range of answers is every bit as wide as it is for people who get paid for doing research.

Research means gathering information about some subject of interest, analyzing it, and eventually doing something about it.

Consider the person compiling a family history, a genealogy. It’s a hobby for most people, but one that requires many of the same skills and resources as a professional historian. They comb census records. It’s about as tedious as it sounds, but that’s the easy part.

Once they find where an ancestor lived and when they lived there, many genealogists want to visit the place. Perhaps there are local records that will flesh out the ancestor’s life, making him or her more substantial than a name with dates on a chart. Perhaps they’ll find a gravestone, or perhaps a house or business is still standing.

On the other hand, consider someone who has lots of cabbage and is tired of coleslaw. Looking for cabbage recipes, either in a cookbook or online, is the lower end of research, but it results in a meal that uses the cabbage in a tasty new dish.

Somewhere between those two examples, a student writing a paper for class must also perform research. Nearly all of us have graduated from high school, where we wrote papers. Almost as many of us went to college where we wrote more papers, whether we graduated or not. Does that mean that everyone knows how to do research? No.

How to do research badly

I remember very well a young man, a high school graduate, wanting to buy his first car. He didn’t know where to start. The World Wide Web was just getting started, and Internet connections were not nearly as common as they have become. I suggested that he could find the information he needed by asking at the library. He sort of froze.

So we got in my car and went into the local public library. He followed me to the reference desk. I asked the reference librarian for resources about buying used cars. Having heard the same question very frequently, she reached over and grabbed four books from ready reference and handed them to me. I gave them to him and showed him the copier.

After a while, he had copies of pages that interested him and gave to books back to me. I returned them to the reference desk. As we left the library, he said, “Thanks, man. I never could have done that without you.” His mother, by the way, was a teacher who had at one time run the media center in her school.

So much for the notion that people learn how to do research (or for that matter, much of anything else in particular) in high school. College, alas, isn’t much more successful.

A reference librarian told this story on a librarians’ email list. A student sitting very close to the reference desk asked friends for help finding things as they walked by. After a while, he started phoning other friends elsewhere in the library to come and help him. Meanwhile, whenever the reference librarian or anyone else on the staff offered to help, he always turned them away.

In another library, a reference librarian noted that she had talked to both a first year masters student and a doctoral student in the writing phase of preparing a dissertation. Neither one of them knew that they could look up books in the online catalog or articles in any of the databases. They had been to the library for orientation, but not since.

It’s easy to do research badly.

  • Pay no attention to anyone who wants to demonstrate how to do it well.
  • Remain totally oblivious to anything that won’t be on a multiple-choice exam.
  • Consider anything not narrowly connected to the subject matter at hand to be irrelevant.
  • Don’t ask questions of the people most likely to know the answers.
  • Refuse help when someone offers.

How to do research well

Research using a laptop

Research using a laptop

Research begins with a question, a gap in knowledge.

  • How many generations back can I trace my ancestry?
  • How do I identify the best and most suitable car for my budget?
  • What can I do with this cabbage before it spoils and I have to throw it out?


Your first question will probably bring up a number of other questions.

  • What do I need to know to answer the question? And what do I not need to know? A flood of information exists. The researcher must therefore have a tightly focused question to avoid being buried in possibly interesting facts and ideas that do not lead to the answer.
  • Where is the best place to look for the information I need?
  • How will I recognize sources that have the right kind of information when I come across them?
  • How do I know if the information I find is reliable?
  • How do I know when I have found enough information, at least for now?
  • Can I find a simple answer to my question, or will I have to put together an answer from partial answers I find in multiple sources?

Most people nowadays probably begin their search for information with a browser. A young man buying a car today might not think to go to the library any more than my friend did many years ago. But today, a reference librarian would probably show him web sites instead of printed books. He would probably turn up the same sites himself if he put the right terms in the search box.

The right terms. That’s where searching the Internet gets tricky. A search engine is likely to turn up hundreds of thousands or even a million pages for a query. If the results on the first page don’t look like they have anything to do with the question, you haven’t found the right terms.

On the other hand, the results on the first page may not be the most useful results for your question. They got to the top of the results because someone at that website knew techniques of what’s called search engine optimization. Perhaps an article on the tenth page of results, written by someone who didn’t know how to get his page to rank higher, will be more useful for you.

If your question is at all technical, the best information might not be free on the Internet at all. It might be contained in a scholarly article accessible only through a database that requires an expensive subscription. Only libraries can afford to pay the subscription costs, and they can only afford it because they have many people who will use it.

On the other hand, some really good information might not even be online at all. It might be available only in print. Less and less recent information is unavailable online, but particularly in the arts and humanities, there are many subjects that you simply can’t study without touching paper.

So besides the questions posed above, there is one more every researcher needs to keep in mind: Can I find what I need by myself or do I need help?

From clarifying the research question itself to evaluating the quality of information, help is always available at the library. And I don’t mean sitting six feet from the reference desk and phoning a friend!

Photo credits:
Scientific research. Some rights reserved by IRRI Images.
Research using a laptop. Some rights reserved by Nicola since 1972.

Changing libraries, changing catalogers

library catalogers

library catalogers

Catalogers at work

Shortly after I graduated from library school, I met with a library director who told me that librarianship had changed a lot since I was in library school. I pointed out that I had only graduated two weeks earlier. She repeated that librarianship had changed a lot since I was in library school. I doubt that it really changed much in two weeks, but it didn’t take long for me to begin to see big changes.

Until the late 1800s, library catalogs were contained in books. Whenever the library acquired anything new, the cataloger had to make note of it in the margin of the book. After a while, the catalog became illegible and it was necessary to start a new one from scratch. Then someone invented the card catalog, probably the biggest change in cataloging since the invention of movable type more than three hundred years earlier.

That was then

Card catalog

Card catalog, an old but very sophisticated technology

After that, changes started to come thick and fast. For example:

  • The Library of Congress began to sell sets of library cards to other libraries, the beginning of shared cataloging.
  • That, in turn, required shared standards among libraries. Cataloging no longer depended on the erudition of individual catalogers. For some of them, cataloging became much less fun!
  • Various sets of cataloging rules developed over the course of the twentieth century. British and American librarians discussed rules a lot, but never came to agreement until late in the century.
  • Henriette Avram of the Library of Congress devised a method of using a computer to print catalog cards, called MAchine Readable Cataloging (MARC), in the late 1960s. MARC was eventually recognized as the earliest metadata standard. By 1970, other large libraries started to do it.
  • Once shared cataloging happened on computers, a new kind of shared standard became necessary. With the various International Standard Bibliographic Descriptions (ISBDs, slightly different ones for each format libraries collected), it became possible for people to recognize where the author, title, publisher, etc. was printed on the card even if it was in a foreign language.
  • The Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR) were published in 1967. Despite the title, British and American librarians maintained separate interpretations until 1978. Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, Second Edition actually amounted to new rules that ended the transatlantic disagreements.
  • Libraries began to look to computers as a means of replacing card catalogs, which had come to seem cumbersome and awkward wastes of space, time, and effort. The public hated computerized catalogs at first, but eventually the Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC) proved its usefulness. Despite the fact that the library world has not attempted to replace the now obsolete ISBDs with a new display standard, OPACs eventually won public approval. They are searchable in greater depth and even tell patrons which books are currently circulating.
  • Libraries began to subscribe to large utilities so they could obtain original records from other source besides the Library of Congress. One called OCLC eventually took over all the others. With all of these records available on a computer terminal and easily transferred to the OPAC, copy cataloging became much more common than original cataloging. Paraprofessionals began to take over more and more tasks once reserved for professional catalogers.
  • The earliest OPACs were delivered on dedicated terminals, that is, computers that couldn’t be used for anything else. Once personal computers became commonplace, libraries began to use them instead of the older terminals. By that time, more libraries than not had gotten rid of their card catalogs.
  • The Internet, developed in the 1960s for national defense and at first used only among major computer centers, became available to the public beginning in the late 1980s. It was opened up to commercial use in 1995.

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This is now, for a while

WorldCat search screen

I graduated from library school in 1996. I kept my first cataloging job until 2002. Google was incorporated in 1998. How many readers even remember what a hassle searching the web was before then?

Google has probably had more impact on reference librarians than catalogers. Here are some of the ways cataloging and the catalog have changed:

  • Library holdings have shifted from mostly print materials and other physical formats to mostly electronic formats—at least in terms of new acquisitions and cataloging records. These include ebooks, PDF files, electronic databases that have superseded many older print reference materials, and streaming music and video.
  • Many public domain books (basically, those published before 1923) have been digitized. Some are available for free through the OPAC. Others are available only by subscription. These latter must be in the OPAC even though only people with the appropriate library card can actually read them.
  • Instead of a single OPAC, libraries are likely to make various other catalogs available on their computer networks. Nearly all of them have OCLC’s WorldCat, which enables people to see the holdings of other libraries.
  • Although catalogers still write or edit individual records, more and more they must work with batches of records, including mass editing.
  • Where once cataloging records came only from the Library of Congress, and then eventually only from OCLC, now publishers and vendors also supply records.
  • Many more metadata schema besides MARC exist. Increasingly, catalogers must be familiar with at least some of the others. For example, many libraries also include archives. MARC has never been suitable for the very different needs of archivists. While not everything in the archives needs to be in the catalog, much of it does. Understanding how to move data back and forth among various metadata schema has become increasingly important.

Some basic principles remain the same. Someone has to write each bibliographic description and all the other aspects of cataloging that the public never sees. A collection of records does not constitute a catalog. Someone has to make sure that the catalog remains a coherent whole.

While those basic principles are likely to remain the same as long as there are libraries, the division of labor and the skills and technology necessary to do the work will continue to change rapidly.

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Photo credits:
Catalogers at work. Some rights reserved by sundaykofax.
Card catalog. Some rights reserved by candyschwartz.
WorldCat: Screen shot