A View from the Stacks: Your Librarian – the Original Natural Language Search Engine

Head of Reference, Mesa Public Library

Long, long ago, before the World Wide Web had matured and long before the miraculous search algorithm of Google was invented, finding the answer to your questions often involved consulting an encyclopedia – as well as a call or visit to your local library.

On one of those long ago days, a reference librarian was asked, “What are those little stringy things on the inside of banana peels called? You know, the ones that sometimes cling onto the banana after you’ve peeled it?” Well out came the botanical reference books and a search on the databases for the anatomy of banana fruits.

Patron using online resources. Courtesy/MPL

After much careful searching of these authoritative sources of information, the librarian then double-checked the facts and put in a call to Chiquita, the fruit company, and confirmed with an expert that the answer to the question was indeed threads.

Nowadays, we live in an increasingly digital world. Information practically flies at you off the computer screen or out of your mobile device. But is that information sound? Is it true and factual? Is the source of the information dependable or does that website you’re looking at have its own agenda, like selling you a product you don’t really need?

In a world that is information rich, the reference librarian is information smart. It is part of an idea called digital literacy and librarians are veritable experts. Not only do we know how to find information, we know how to make sure that information is trustworthy and authoritative.

Reference librarians are good at knowing their resources and we often have “secret resources” like the list of Best Free Reference Websites compiled every year by the Reference and User Services Association (a division of the American Library Association) website. These sources have been evaluated according to standards outlined by the association and as such are reliable and unbiased.

Here at the library we know information, but we also know how to find out what question is really being asked by a patron.  “I need information about daikon radishes.” Through our interactions with a patron we can narrow the focus of the question to the information the patron really wants. What exactly do you need to know about daikon radishes?  How to grow organic daikon radishes?  How to use daikon radishes in recipes?  Are daikon radishes really radishes?  The answers to those questions would result in the reference librarian consulting very different resources to find the answers.

For example, we were recently asked about the word “eclectic”. Specifically the patron wanted to know when the word first began to be used and whether the meaning or usage had changed over time.

We began by consulting one of the most authoritative sources on words, the Oxford English Dictionary (affectionately referred to as the OED.)

Not only did we review the print copy that we have on the reference shelves, we also consulted our online OED database which not only has the etymology of the word as well as the meaning, but has a timeline graphic of the usage and popularity of the word.  

Library patrons can access our OED database (or any of our databases) anytime from home by clicking on the Online Library 24/7 link on the library web page and then clicking the Research link on that page.

Another example of a rather interesting question involved determining the publishing run for a newspaper that is now defunct. The Library of Congress and the National Endowment for the Humanities have a special project titled Chronicling America where you can find all of the historic newspapers that were published in the United States as well as information on how long each was published.

This was a case in which the reference librarian simply knew which resources were available to find the information needed. As reference librarians, we are often called upon to be the liaison between the patron and the information they are seeking.

Some of the more interesting bits of research we do involves media that is not as widely used anymore. An example of this would be the obituary research we do on behalf of patrons.

This often involves not only looking for a digital copy of an archived newspaper, but using our microfilm machines to search a roll of microfilm carefully for an obituary that may or may not be there.

A reference librarian also needs to know when to call in assistance from colleagues. We may be able to find simple references to New Mexico State laws and statues, but at times we call on the expertise of our fellow reference librarians at the New Mexico Supreme Court Law Library and the law librarians at the UNM School of Law Library.

We can often help with gathering information for a research project, book or presentation by researching the topic in-depth. For example, on a recent research request, we located information on how many professions in the United States actually use the metric system on a daily basis while performing duties. It was a surprising and interesting answer.

 For that information, we consulted the Statistical Abstract of the United States as well as looking up additional information of the U.S. Department of Labor website, just to name a couple of the best resources.

So, whenever you are seeking answers or assistance with research think of your friendly neighborhood reference librarian. We are tenacious and enthusiastic about our work – regular information ninjas who often use creative and above all trustworthy sources to find the information patrons want and need.

Now for a final reference question: “Can you give me a map that tells where I can find caves that haven’t been discovered yet?”* Hmm … I might have to get back to you on that one.

However, our library is hosting a new exhibit, “Underground of Enchantment Traveling Exhibit: Lechuguilla Cave of Carlsbad Caverns National Park.” If you’re interested, it opens April 5.


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