Ex Libris: an E-Zine for Librarians

#85, January 26, 2001


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Guru Interviews

  1. Tara Calishain
  2. Jenny Levine, part I
  3. Jenny Levine, Part II
  4. Reva Basch
  5. Sue Feldman
  6. Jessamyn West
  7. Debbie Abilock
  8. Kathy Schrock
  9. Greg Notess
  10. William Hann
  11. Chris Sherman
  12. Gary Price
  13. Barbara Quint

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Wanna See Your Name in Lights?

Or at least on this page, anyway? I'd like to print here your contributions as well as mine. As you've noticed, articles are brief, somewhere between 200 and 500 words -- something to jog people's minds and get their own good ideas flowing. I'd also be happy to run other people's contributions to the regular features like Favorite Sites on _____. I'll pay you the same rate I pay me: nothing.

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PRIVACY POLICY: I don't collect or reveal information about subscribers.

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Drop me a Line

Want to comment, ask questions, submit articles, or invite me to speak or do some training? Contact me at: marylaine at

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Talk Back

Where I will post any comments you want to make public. E-mail me and use the words "talk back" in your subject line.

Visit My Other Sites

My page on all things book-related. NEW STUFF ADDED in August

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Best Information on the Net
The directory I built for O'Keefe Library, St. Ambrose University, still my favorite pit stop on the information highway.

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My Word's Worth
a weekly column on books, words, libraries, American culture, and whatever happens to interest me.

Subject Index to My Word's Worth at

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My personal page

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SUBJECT INDEX to Past Issues

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Neat New Stuff I Found This Week
January 26: computer manuals, graphic novels, art lessons, how to buy gifts for women, and more.

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My resume
Or why you might want to hire me for speaking engagements or workshops.

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What IS Ex Libris?

The purpose and intended scope of this e-zine -- always keeping in mind that in response to readers, I may add, subtract, and change features.

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Highlights from Previous Issues:

My Rules of Information

  1. Go where it is
  2. The answer depends on the question
  3. Research is a multi-stage process
  4. Ask a Librarian
  5. Information is meaningless until queried by human intelligence


Librarians were the first people who understood that it wasn't enough to have a library collection if nobody knew what was in it. Over the centuries we've developed ever more elaborate rules for full description of the subject, contents, and physical appearance of books, recordings, and films.

So how come Amazon developed a better electronic catalog than we did?

I used to be pretty pleased with our electronic catalog. I was glad we insisted on full MARC records, which increased the chances that users would find something, if not in the title, subtitle or subject headings, in the contents notes. Compared with the card catalogs, I thought this was as good as it got.

And maybe that's the problem. We were always comparing what we were able to do now in electronic format, with what we'd always done before. Perhaps it didn't occur to us to think that we could do something far better than what we'd always done.

I stopped being satisfied with our MARC records when I first saw Amazon, and the more I use Amazon, the lamer our system looks to me. If I misspell an author's name, or have the book title wrong, my catalog doesn't help me out. Amazon apologizes for not finding it and suggests some authors or titles that are close to what I typed in. Often they're exactly what I was looking for.

Why didn't we do that? It's not like we didn't know that people (including us) can't spell and don't remember exact titles! Fuzzy knowledge systems came along after we went electronic, but we never added that capability after the fact.

What do we tell our users about the books in our catalog? Where to find them, which is a good start. The author, publication date, subject headings, maybe a list of contents, whether it has illustrations, and how tall it is. Much of that information is more useful to librarians than to users. THEY don't care how tall it is. It might matter to some of them that the book is a recent publication with a 26 page bibliography, but most of our users don't care and aren't paying attention to those descriptive notes anyway. It will matter to people looking for art reproductions that a book is listed as having color plates, but most of our users don't notice the illustration statement. For the depressingly large number of students who don't want to read long books, the fact that the book is only 96 pages long is a valuable piece of information, but only if they notice it in the cataloging record.

What WOULD our users like to know about the books?

A nice start would be: Are they any good? Now, the fact that we've bought the book is kind of a recommendation, but not a terribly helpful one -- we might have bought it simply because one of our professors insists we buy every single book published by a particular author or publisher. Reviews would be more helpful, and many of us have compensated for their absence in our catalogs by pasting reviews into the books themselves. But since we know how to find reviews for people, and indeed, consider this a basic part of reference, it seems not to have occurred to us that we could add the reviews to the catalog record, as Amazon has done.

A synopsis of the book would also be helpful. We don't do that. Much of the time, Amazon does.

It's also true that many of our users are looking not just for one book but for a TYPE of book. They're looking for Marian Babson's Murder at the Cat Show, but they'd like to get any other cat mysteries we own while they're at it. Unfortunately, we don't describe that book as a cat mystery, nor do we categorize any of the steadily increasing number of murder mysteries centered around recipes as a "cooking mystery." IF our users do an "all categories" search rather than a subject search, "cat mystery" will in fact bring up any number of books that have CAT in the title, and the words "a ___ mystery" in the subtitle or contents note. (Granted the search will also bring up all your Cat Marsala mysteries as well.)

Amazon doesn't assign those kinds of categories either, but they do suggest related titles for every book: People who bought this book also bought these books. As we click on each recommended title, we are led to other recommended titles, in an ever-expanding daisy chain.

That's called Readers' Advisory. We are probably the world's original readers' advisory service, but for us, it's a separate function. IF somebody thinks to ask us for more cat mysteries, we'll find them for her, but if it doesn't occur to her to ask us, she's on her own. IF she saw our little brochures scattered around the library -- "if you like Midnight Louie, try these books" -- she'll find more titles, but if not, she'll flounder. Amazon, though, puts all the information in one package -- the book, a synopsis, the reviews, and related titles.

I understand why we didn't do any of that in our original print catalogs, when cards were hand-typed and painstakingly filed, and multi-card entries were tied together with thread. And I understand that even when we moved into electronic space, we were still hampered by the limited memory and storage capacity of earlier computers. Even now, when servers have greatly enlarged storage and retrieval capabilities, that storage still costs us money. We have to make tradeoffs.

But tradeoffs implies we've considered an idea and rejected it for some sound reason. I'm not convinced that happened. I suspect we had a failure of vision. WE knew we provided all those services for users separately, so it never occurred to us that we might put our specialized knowledge about the books right into the catalog -- it's called push technology.

Amazon totally re-envisioned the catalog for one simple reason: they only made money when people found the books they wanted. Thus, Amazon added fuzzy logic to make sure customers found those books even when they screwed up author and title -- my search on "Buckskin Girl" yields the book I actually wanted, Dorothy Gilman's Girl in Buckskin. Amazon added an out-of-print book search service for the same reason. Since customers might buy even more books if they were enticed by synopses, book reviews, and related titles, Amazon had an economic incentive to attach readers' advisory functions to its catalog records.

All of this explains why my favorite source for book information these days is Amazon, not my libraries. Librarians may not have a direct economic stake in helping our customers find exactly what they set out to get and more, but we do have a stake in their satisfaction. Dauntingly complicated and expensive as the technological task would be, I think we need to re-envision what our catalogs would look like if they were genuinely built to make sure our customers find what they want.

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Whenever I look over my subscription list I am always startled at what an incredibly varied lot you are. The libraries you work in serve k-12, hospitals, law offices, government agencies, publishers, manufacturers, professional associations, the army, universities, etc. Some of you aren't librarians at all, but techies and internet buffs.

Which means that if you were asked to name the top internet resources for your subject specialty, you'd all name different things, and we'd learn a lot from each other -- I, for instance, have no idea what good military information sites are out there. So, that's your assignment. Tell me what kinds of information you need on a regular basis and the one or two or three Internet sites in your specialty that meet those needs for you. I'll pool your results here.

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Obviously, in doing research I cannot read all of every important book, but I have made myself adept at reading indexes, a skill I recommend to would-be writers; I see in the indexes reminders of topics . . . of equal value. I see notations about ramifications that had not occurred to me.

James Michener. The World Is My Home. Random House, 1992.

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You are welcome to copy and distribute or e-mail any of my own articles for noncommercial purposes (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, 2000.

Publishers may license the content for reasonable fee.