TALKING POINTS FOR YOUR LIBRARY
I admit to taking the librarians' equivalent of the busman's holiday -- whenever I travel, I always visit local libraries. I usually don't have a whole lot of time to devote to it, though, so what I do is go up to the reference desk, introduce myself, and ask the librarians what's the niftiest thing about their library, that I absolutely shouldn't miss?
Often what I get is a puzzled, "Huh?" sort of look, so I elaborate a little: "Is there anything unique about your library, or anything you're especially proud of? Are there projects you've been working on a long time that you've just completed or are near completing? If you were going to brag to somebody about your library, what would you brag about?"
That's how I found out about the New York Public Library's original stuffed Pooh and Tigger and friends (that the British are trying to claim, as if they were stolen archaeological treasures) that I otherwise would have missed entirely. It's how I found out that the Madison, WI, Public Library, in a city-wide survey of satisfaction with public services, ranked second, right up there with police and fire protection. I'm sure the Davenport Public Library and the Rock Island Public Library staffs would talk about their outstanding local history collections, though I didn't need to ask them the question -- I already knew that.
Any library in the Quad Cities would be bound to mention the River Bend system, whose online catalog includes the holdings of public, academic, school, hospital and corporate libraries on both sides of the Mississippi River, and which allows patrons to check out books from any of those libraries, and runs a daily shuttle between all the libraries delivering books and other items to other libraries.
But asking this question is how I found out that a lot of librarians have never worked out in their minds what it is their libraries do really, really well.
I wonder if coming up with answers to these questions wouldn't be a good exercise to go through in a library staff meeting? One that the entire staff is involved in, that is, because circulation staff, who spend a lot of time chatting with patrons while they check stuff out to them, should have plenty of good ideas to contribute. You could re-examine the last several years' worth of annual reports to see what changes have occurred -- new systems added, increased circulation, more bibliographic instruction sessions, whatever. You could talk to your board members, too, and maybe ask some of your regular users what they like most about your library.
Once you have some answers, you could use them for publicity and promotion. You could print up your talking points, or post them on a "Fun Facts about ____ Library" page on your web site.
Then, when people like me (or like local reporters) come up and ask you what's special about your library, you could hand us a copy of your Fun Facts page, point me in the direction of the special exhibit of hand-carved puppets in the children's room, show me the 17th century Bible in Special Collections, or brag about all the honors your web page has won. Or you could turn me over to your library directors and let them give me a tour and show me all the wonderful things you have and do.
We're at the "beginning of history." Everything created before the year 2000 will be inaccessible by 21st century technologies. Specialists will be needed to retrieve this prehistorical information. The Internet makes the human race smarter, not wiser.
Vernor Vinge, at the ALA Conference, July, 1999
REVIEW: FIND IT ONLINE
Alan M. Schlein. Find It Online: The Complete Guide to Online Research. Facts on Demand Press, 1999. 1-889150-06-1. $19.95
Alan Schlein, a working reporter most of his life, runs Deadline Online, where he trains journalists, business people, educators, and law enforcement officials in using the internet and online databases to find facts, reports, statistics, public documents, articles, and answers to their questions. This book distills much of that training.
Many similar sorts of books skip the preliminaries and just tell you what web sites to go to. Schlein usefully begins by telling you how to formulate the question. Among the many sidebars from other expert searchers, is an excellent set of questions offered by Nora Paul to help you in "Framing the Question" and "Framing the Search Strategy."
He explains what search engines are, and the different ways in which they retrieve materials, and compares the special abilities of the various search engines (one of the expert essays is by search engine guru Greg Notess). But he also recommends the use of search directories, and recommends some of the better ones.
In pointing out key resources in business, news, government, and public documents, he makes clear exactly what kinds of information can be expected to be available online -- invaluable, since inexperienced researchers, with no idea whether the information is likely to exist, give up easily. But he also points out the limitations of those resources. Especially interesting is the sidebar by Don Ray comparing what you can find out online tracking O.J. Simpson's legal footsteps -- his divorces, deeds, voter registration, liens, etc. -- with how much more you can learn if you examine the documents themselves.
One of the most useful chapters offers guidance on evaluating the credibility of sources, including how to find experts (obviously important for journalists on deadline) and verify how well they are thought of in their fields.
Of particular use are examples of how knowledgeable researchers conduct real searches, for example, tracking down the present whereabouts of the batboy of the 1959 Dodgers team. You get to see how they frame the question, how and why they choose their sources, how they find clues and follow them up.
Like any book on this fast-changing topic, it was outdated the moment it appeared in print; some web sites have relocated, but he has given tips on how to find them in their new incarnation.
This is one of the best books I've seen for inexperienced researchers -- it includes definitions of basic terms, tips on downloading data, and other mechanics of searching that many such books just assume you know already. But even professional searchers will find something of use here -- the section on public documents was a revelation to me.
You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles (but not those by my guest writers) as long as you retain this copyright statement:
Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians and Other Information Junkies.
Copyright, Marylaine Block, 1999.