YOU CAN LOOK IT UP
by Rob Lopresti
I have just spent the better part of a week in distant and mysterious parts (mostly L.A.) doing research on what I sincerely hope will be my next novel. It occurred to me that since most of us maker-uppers occasionally have to ferret out some facts to make things up about, it might be appropriate to talk a little about my day job.
I’m a reference librarian, and, while I do a lot of different things, the essence of the job is helping people with research.
When I was in library school, thirty years ago, they said that you could answer half the questions with a dictionary, an almanac, and an encyclopedia. Add an atlas and good biographical dictionary and you were up to seventy percent.
Like a lot of professional sayings there was truth and exaggeration there. A big chunk of what we did then was what we called “ready reference,” providing quick facts like the capital of Bolivia, the name of the twenty-third president, and so on.
Getting on board the Heidelberg Express
More than a decade ago I was at the reference desk one evening when a gentleman strolled up and asked if by any chance we had the current German railroad timetables. Now, a university in the Pacific northwest didn’t have much call for such a thing and I was about to give him the phone number and address for the German consulate, which I figured was his best bet. But I remembered something I had just heard about.
“There’s something brand new,” I told him, “and we have access to it on this computer. It’s called the World Wide Web.”
I’m not sure what search engine I was using then. Google didn’t exist yet. It may have been Altavista. In any case I cranked it up and asked the patron if he could type in the words “German railroad timetable” In German.
He could. He did. Pow! There was the listing for every train from Wiesbaden to Homburg and all around, in your choice of English or Deutsch. “Whoa,” he said.
“You know what?” I told him. “At this moment my job just changed radically.”
And of course it had. Because as more and more people discovered the Web ready reference requests began to dry up. You want to know the capital of Bolivia? Google will tell you in two seconds flat. Who needs the library?
The more things change
So, have reference questions dropped off by seventy percent? No. They have dropped dramatically in just about every library I know, but nowhere near that much. First of all, research questions are always with us. In the last week I have helped one student find primary sources on the creation of the North Cascades National Park, another seeking journal articles on the effects of exercise on certain neurological diseases, and so on.
And second, because every technological solution brings a new set of problems, we spend a lot of time helping people use the web. Not only the simple tricks like using quotation marks in a Google search to turn random words into phrases (you knew that one, right?) but the vital problem of reliability.
Because somewhere on the web there is probably a website claiming that Elvis was the twenty-third president. So reference librarians have become masters of separating the dubious sites from the authoritative ones. And the fact is that when someone says Google told them something, as I deliberately did above, it is as if they said they bought their lovely new coat from FedEx. Fed Ex and Google just deliver. They aren’t responsible for the quality.
The shifting horizon
You might think that the web has made it easier to do long research projects. Well, yes and no. It’s kind of like saying that because of interstate highways and jets people reach their vacation destinations faster than they did sixty years ago. In reality these improvements mean that people travel farther than they did before.
And the same is true of research. The Web (and the rest of the digital revolution) dramatically increases the number of places you can search.
Remember that student researching North Cascades National Park? Instead of looking for primary sources about its origin, let’s say she wanted all the scholarly articles she could find about the park. Our library has access to perhaps two hundred periodical databases, indexing (or in some cases providing full-text) of articles from thousands of magazines, journals, and newspapers. A research university would have many more.
So where do you start? Well, databases that cover American history journals, obviously. And biology. Environmental science? Of course. Poli sci? Right. How about geology? Hmm. Could be.
Education? Chemistry? Music? East Asian Studies? Where do you stop?
Obviously the Law of Diminishing Returns applies. At some point the effort is not worth the result. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a terrific article about, say, Japanese visitors to the Park which you will miss if you quit before you try that Asian Studies database.
This explains the old saying: you never finish research. At some point you just give up.
Librarians try to help researchers make better choices about where to look and how to look. Which is why I haven’t been forced into early retirement yet. But I can hope.
Another thread from the web
I actually have another blog besides this one. I started it over the summer as part of a project at work in which we were encouraged to try some of the mysterious activities that make up “Web 2.0,” in the hopes that we will have some vague understanding of what every incoming freshman knows better than multiplication tables. My blog is called Fifteen Iguana and it is very irregular. Sometimes I do two entries a day, and then nothing for weeks. The subjects so far have included the mushrooms growing in my yard, unconferences, and the reason we hired a German band to play in the library.
If one dose of Lopresti a week is not enough for you, this is your big chance.