Saturday, November 15, 2008

Can I go home now? (Case #3)

There's no use pretending. I HATE science project questions!!!

Aside from the usual issues, like it's the kid's Mom doing the research, while the kid is (a) not there (b) playing on the computers (c) playing one of those hand held idiot boxes (d) staring off into space (e) all of the above,...

...and like the fact that teachers who assign these projects don't seem to do any preparatory instruction about (a) what a science project is (b) how to pick a doable topic (c) what constitutes useable research literature (d) how to go about finding it (e) whether the public library has anything on the topic to begin with (f) all of the above,... main gripe is that the customers ALWAYS start at the wrong end.

Daikon radishThe voice on the phone says: "My daughter is doing a science project on daikon radishes. We need five books on daikon radishes."

*biting my tongue*

"I suppose you need books on growing daikon, not cookbooks?"


"Well, I know we won't have books just on daikon, but let me do a catalog search."

daikon ---> no results
daikon and gardening ---> no results
chinese cabbage and gardening ---> no results
chinese vegetables and gardening ---> 2 books at another branch, both checked out
"As I suspected, I'm not finding you useful sources with this search. Tell me a bit more about the project topic."

"Well, she's doing something on organic versus inorganic fertilizer."

AHA! Now I know that the actual science project is (of course) a comparison of different methods of growing daikon. It doesn't matter if we find anything at all on daikon.


This is one of the points I wish teachers would explain to their students:

A science project is a matter of comparing different processes, methods, variables. The supporting literature you need has to do with what is already known about those variables, not about your particular combination of variables.
"Okay, let me try a subject search on 'organic fertilizers'."

Below are the results of a Browse Search based on your topic: "organic fertilizer"

See related headings for: ORGANIC FERTILIZERS

"Okay, Ma'am. Maybe you can use full text articles from our online science databases. I'll tell you how you can get to those through our website. But first, I'm going to try 'organic gardening'."

Ah! That gets several dozen hits. I tell her.

"Do they have those at my local branch?"

"Let me see [limiting search by SU organic gardening and branch name]. Yes, they have at least 13 titles there."

"Can I use the databases there?"

"Yes, ma'am. I'd recommend you go in and ask a librarian to help you find materials on 'organic gardening'."

"Okay. Thank you very much."

I mutter to myself: "They should have had a course on 'science project questions' in library school!"

Of course, the real point here is that science project questions are among the greatest challenges with regard to doing a really comes that horrible phrase...reference interview.

When I listen to all the whining in the media about "the end of librarianship," I know that it's ridiculous. To me, the primary characteristic of trained librarians is that we are Professional Searchers.

And the key to being a professional searcher is being able to help the customer figure out what she actually wants.

So...I should stop complaining already. When someone comes to me with a science project question, I should welcome it as the best sort of challenge for me as a professional. Right?




Anonymous said...

You're exactly right, you weenie. You should be delighted by a question where you actually get to use some professional interviewing and searching skills! What if they already knew exactly how to word the question ... and how to find the resources available? Why WOULD they need us?

Richard Mott

Mike Shell said...

Well...there is that.


But my basic philosophy of librarianship is: Teach them how to do it themselves so they won't bother me again.

I know it's sort of self-defeating if I want to keep a job...but, hey, read my subtitle:

Being professionally nice to people as a karmic lesson

Oh, well....