Medieval Cookbooks and Magic Bags

September 18, 2007

I’ve been getting lots of interesting requests and being witness to some very odd assumptions about how searching for information in a library setting works. I’m always fascinated by user search behavior and why we look for things the way we look for them, but in a very practical, at-the-reference-desk sense, it can be extremely frustrating, both for me and for the patron, when I have to explain that the search engine or the OPAC they’re using can’t process information that way, or simply that the information they need does not exist on any one web page or database or secret book I keep behind the counter.

I had a patron (admittedly, one who is regularly difficult) become deeply disturbed that he could not return any useful results when he searched in Yahoo for what the cost would be of a specific number of bottles of spring water. We talked about how search engines search, how keywords work, and how he might try another search engine that searches whole questions, but he still didn’t understand why the answer to his question wasn’t just out there where he could find it.

Another patron couldn’t understand why all the plays weren’t all together (they were, in the Dewey way that things are “together”) but what she meant was that she wanted to look for the plays alphabetically and for collected plays not to be included in that section. She did, however, wonder why a copy of the play she was looking, which was already checked out, wasn’t also included in the publication, ‘Best Plays of Insert Year.’

I had one irate patron give up on our search because I, as a librarian, did not have the extremely specific map of Idaho he needed (at the New Hampshire library – I’d be a little more sympathetic if we had actually been in Idaho.) The part that cracked me up was that he kept saying, “You, as a librarian,” as though the first day on the job they handed me a magic bag from which I could pull out anything anyone needed. I assured him that my search skills were quite good and that I could find this map for him if he was patient, if it in fact was available for public access online, if he was willing to call or have me call the state of Idaho, and if he gave me more details about what he needed in a map so I could determine if the maps I was finding actually met his needs. He was not interested in this. What he wanted was for me to pull open one of the library databases (or, seriously, my magic bag) and produce for him this topographical map of this river basin area in under five minutes. I’m good, but I am not that good.

When a mother came in with her son to find a book for his class and he couldn’t remember the title, I pulled up both Amazon and Books in Print to see if we could find it. The son had obviously forgotten some key part of the title, because I found no results that were even close, and mother suggested we should just Google it. I explained that Google would return a wider, less specific result, and also, Google would not find it if nether amazon nor Books in Print could find it. I run into the belief that Google has all the answers all the time, but it surprised me to think that this patron didn’t understand the value of specific sources and why a broader source would not necessarily produce the desired result.

And yesterday, someone came in and asked for a medieval cookbook. Sure, we keep the first editions and their illuminated texts with all the other cookbooks. I explained to the patron why we, a modest public library in the United States, did not have an original medieval cookbook (nor was any other public library nearby likely to have a recent reprint which included the original formatting) and I tried to send her to a library that might be able to get a hold of such a resource. While it was great on some level that the patron saw no distinction between an academic library and a public library concerning what information we could provide her, when I explained a little bit about why we’re different, she still seem stunned that I didn’t have what she wanted. I’m a librarian, after all. With a magic bag.

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One Response to “Medieval Cookbooks and Magic Bags”

  1. Sam Says:

    I am shocked and dismayed that you do not have a medieval cookbook at hand. I mean really? What’s wrong with you–as a librarian!


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