Ask your friendly librarian

In the early 1990s, my then 20-year-old step-son wanted to buy a used car. He found the choices and all of the questions he needed to answer overwhelming. I suggested he could get some good answers at the library, and he asked me to go with him.

We walked into the library and straight back to the reference desk. I asked the librarian what information they had on buying a used car, and she quickly handed me four books. I gave them to my son and showed him to the copier. He looked through them, copied several pages, and gave them back to me to return to the desk.

On the way back to the car, he said, “Thanks, man. I never could have done that by myself.” That was probably his first research project since his last high school paper. He had never visited the public library since he was a small child.

I thought it strange that the son of a school teacher who used the library a lot would not think of the library as a resource and would find the prospect of asking a question at the reference desk intimidating. I have since learned that his reluctance is not at all unusual.

Nowadays, of course, much information is online. Why go to the library when it’s so easy to get answers at home? But it’s not always easy to get answers at home. It’s not even easy to be sure what the question really is.

People need librarians just as much today as ever, and for the same reasons. Sometimes it takes a conversation to clarify just what our question is. Sometimes it takes someone with thorough understanding of a wide array of resources to find the best place to look for answers.

Nowadays, you don’t have to go to the library to talk with a librarian. Not only can you telephone, you can also chat online, or correspond by email or instant messaging.

If you do go to the library, and no one is talking with the librarian at the moment, he or she might be reading or doing some kind of paper work. Librarians do have other work besides answering patrons’ questions, but you are not interrupting if you go up and ask a question. They take work to the desk that can be quickly laid aside. Answering questions is their most important work while they’re at the desk.

So don’t be afraid. Most librarians are very friendly. They like answering questions. And if you’re wondering how to ask a librarian questions, help is just a click away.  

Online writing

Samuel Johnson wrote, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” Plenty of bloggers are quite happy being blockheads by that definition. For the rest of us, the keys to success include writing a lot and publishing it in multiple places.

Since I started this blog in August 2009, I have written about 225 posts for three blogs and dozens of articles on other sites. Some content sites pay a flat fee in advance. No matter how successful an article is on those sites, the authors will receive no more money for their work.

Others have some kind of formula for paying according to how many times people read the article. Authors can make money from articles on these sites for months or years after they first appear, but cannot count on much immediate payoff. Other sites offer some combination of up-front and performance pay.

I have no idea how long such content sites have existed, but the average internet business is much newer than the average brick-and-mortar business. New businesses take time to get established, and many fail within a few years. A high percentage of internet content sites are new businesses.

My first inkling that I could make money writing online came last July, when I saw a television news segment about a local housewife who made money from writing on eHow. I signed up for it and eventually published 22 articles there.

Then, apparently bought out by another company, they suspended their writers compensation program. They will continue to pay as before for existing articles, but will accept new submissions only from writers approved by the parent company.

One other site that I wrote for started and collapsed while I was writing for eHow. Therefore I understand the need to write for a variety of sites, some that offer up-front payment and others that share ad revenue or otherwise pay for older articles as people continue to read them.

It’s not easy submitting regularly to multiple sites, but if I remember to count what I have put on three blogs along with other content sites, I have produced a lot of work over the past nine months or so. As I learn more and more about the business aspects, I see that I have put myself in a good position to start making good money.

So besides a lot of articles in a lot of places, the other keys to success in online writing include study and patience.

Information literacy: the work of librarians past and present

Information literacy

As long as there have been public libraries, librarians have been involved in education. They have helped people choose what to read for leisure and helped with their information needs. The recent emphasis on information literacy is more of a new term than a new concept, but as technology has transformed everything in society, information literacy needs to be done differently.

For most of the twentieth century, the best way for most people to identify books on a particular subject was the card catalog in the library. Specialists could use various published bibliographies or the Cumulative Book Index among other tools.

Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, which began publication in 1905, helped the general public find information in magazines, etc. As the century progressed, publishers brought out more, and more specialized, indexes to periodical literature, including some of the major newspapers.

Encyclopedias have been around since the late eighteenth century. In the twentieth century, encyclopedia publishers aggressively marketed door to door. Many families owned a set, but the library always had up-to-date editions of several different encyclopedias.

The foregoing describes the kinds of tools available up until the Internet went public. In every case (except for the family encyclopedia), people who wanted to use them had to go to the library, and could easily ask librarians for help when they needed it. Librarians also excelled at helping people clarify just what kind of information they needed. And since not everything ever published is well written or reliable, librarians helped people learn how to distinguish good information from bad. Now, of course, people can look up all kinds of things online. What has changed for the librarian and information literacy now that we have computers? Lots. And not much.

The online library catalog has replaced the card catalog. That gives library patrons the same advantages as any other online searching, but it operates on different principles from search engines. Librarians love to explain how to get the best use of both,

New online databases have replaced the Reader’s Guide. Several serve the same kind of general purpose it used to. Many are much more specialized. They all work a little differently. Patrons who find them confusing can still ask a librarian for help. It is no longer necessary to visit the library personally in order to use them, but as they are prohibitively expensive for individuals, people can only access them through subscribing libraries. All of this new technology has changed people’s information-seeking habits. Not everyone today is even aware that the flood of print publications continues. Fewer people know about the databases or any other online information sources that are not free to the public except at libraries.

Generally speaking, finding information is now much easier than ever before. Finding particular information and knowing how to evaluate its reliability is as difficult as ever. People still need the help of trained experts–librarians–for that. So in a sense, information literacy means doing the same things libraries have done for generations, but the public no longer has to visit the library to find information. Therefore, librarians can no longer foster information literacy by passively waiting for patrons to come in the door. Librarians have recognized the need to adopt a more entrepreneurial approach–like blogging!

Image credit:

Reflect Learn Connect by Seattle Central Community College Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License

"85 reasons to be thankful for librarians," and counting

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I found a fun page I’d like to pass along. It’s a semi-serious list of reasons not only to be thankful for librarians, but to use the library. It also lists reasons to be grateful for all the print materials in the library, as well as the wealth of electronic information it offers.

I say semi-serious because of the tongue-in-cheek writing style and because while most of the reasons relate to the real services librarians offer, some don’t. No. 7, for example, is “‘Sexy Librarian’ is still a popular costume at Halloween.”

The list appears on a site devoted to college information, but most of the more serious points apply just as well to school libraries, public libraries, and probably at least some special libraries. As I write this post, the article has attracted 340 tweets and 32 comments. Some of the comments add more reasons, continuing the original numbering up to 101.

Perhaps one of the best things about the list is that whoever compiled it is clearly not a librarian. Some librarians expressed regret over entries mentioning spinsters or learning the Dewey Decimal system, but I think a vast majority of librarians appreciate the love more than they wince at some of the comments.

All in all, it’s great to see evidence that someone who is not a librarian loves libraries and librarians enough to take the effort to compile a list like this.

Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Manchester Library

How to find titles in an online library catalog

Some online library catalogs, trying to imitate Google, show only a single search box, which works as a general keyword search. If you want to look up a title, you need to switch to “advanced search,” which is actually less frustrating to use.

Google is a search engine, and the online library catalog is a database with multiple indexes. You need a screen that will let you choose which index to search. The better-designed catalogs offer a choice between “title” and “title keyword” search boxes.

For “title,” type the beginning of the title, omitting the initial article if any. In English, articles are “the,” “a,” and “an.” If any of these are the first word, leave it out. Omit initial articles from all other languages, too.

If the item you want has a long title, you do not need to type it all so long as you put in enough to get to distinctive words. For example, if you want to locate The trumpet & trombone in graphic arts, 1500-1800, you need go no farther than the “gr” in “graphic.” Simply searching “trumpet and trombone” will turn up more titles, but the one about graphic arts will still probably be on the first screen of results.

Don’t worry about whether the title has “and” or “&.” You can safely type “and” (or the equivalent in another language); a cataloger has (or should have) put the title in the record both ways. And don’t bother with capitalization. Nothing but the first word, proper names, or German nouns will be capitalized in the catalog. Search boxes, whether in Google or in an online library catalog, are not case sensitive.

“Title keyword” comes in handy for long titles where all the distinctive words are at the end or for when you don’t remember the title exactly but remember several important words. Enter only keywords from the title and separate them with “and.” For the title in the last paragraph, the search “trumpet and graphic” should suffice to get the record you want.

In my previous posts about finding names and subjects, I have had to explain the concept of controlled vocabulary. Generally speaking, titles are not controlled. If, for example, a book has one title on the title page, a different one on the cover, and something else again on the spine, the cataloger simply enters all of them in the record. Type in whatever you know, and if the library has the item, your search will turn it up.

But what if you want something that is available in more than one language? For example, English translations of Dostoyevsky’s novels may be available with different English titles. In that case, librarians regard the original language as the preferred title, subject to vocabulary control so everyone always uses the same one . You will recognize a preferred title in a cataloging record because it is a hot link.

Suppose for example, you find his A raw youth. The record also shows the preferred title Podrostok. English. It has been translated into English at least three times; the other titles are The adolescent and An accidental family. If your library owns all three titles, you can choose which you want to read. If someone else has its only copy of A raw youth and you have no need of a particular translation, you know that the other titles translate the same book.