25 April 2013

Ask Better Questions and Tell Shorter Stories: The Secrets to Productive Encounters with Information Professionals

Last week I revealed that genealogists who visit libraries are well known for telling long, rambling stories instead of asking pointed questions. I've been on the long-suffering listener's end of those exchanges, so when I interact with librarians and other information professionals, I try to ask better questions and tell shorter stories. While I was in hot pursuit of the obituary I mentioned in yesterday's post, I deviated from my usual fend-for-myself strategy and decided to talk to a librarian first. I wasn't admitting defeat, just saving myself a lot of time.

Ever noticed how many newspapers have similar names? Tribune, Journal, Sun, Dispatch . . . you get the picture. When the name of the city isn't part of the newspaper's title, trying to find the correct bibliographic record in a huge library's catalog is often an exercise in frustration. And since my favorite library in the whole world has an entire room dedicated to newspapers and periodicals, going there and talking to someone who knows the collections just seemed like a no-brainer.

I don't have a verbatim transcript of what I said when I approached the reference desk, but it went something like this. Again, I've replaced the specific details with descriptions in square brackets, same as I did in yesterday's post.

Hi, I'm looking for an obituary for a woman who died on [month, day, and year of death] in [name of town], which is close to [name of nearby metropolitan area]. I've looked for [the major newspaper in that nearby metropolitan area] on ProQuest Historical Newspapers and on ProQuest Newsstand, but neither database covers [that major newspaper] at the time this woman died . . .

Okay, I told her a story, but it was mercifully short! Also, the story I told was about my search efforts, not about a person. I mentioned a specific item (the obituary) and the resources I'd already consulted (the two ProQuest databases). I didn't ramble on about the woman in the obituary, didn't say a word about her life or her family. I didn't even mention her name. Why would I? The name of the newspaper was relevant; the name of the woman in the obituary was not.

Once I'd finished my short story, the librarian told me that the newspaper I'd mentioned was available on microfilm. Woo hoo! I thought. She pointed out the self-serve cabinets, offered to come up with some alternative newspapers if I didn't find what I was looking for, then let me do my thing. Is that good service or what? She anticipated my information needs so quickly that I didn't even have to ask a question!

I could've cut to the chase and asked, "Do you have [this newspaper] on microfilm?" That's all I really needed to know. However, I truly believe that demonstrating initiative and self-sufficiency goes a long way with information professionals. I wanted to show the librarian that I knew what I was looking for and I'd already tried to use their tools (the ProQuest databases) to find it. If I'd decided to bore her with a long story instead--a story she didn't even need to hear--do you think she would've offered to show me alternative newspapers? I don't think so!

Next time you go to a library with a genealogical problem, ask better questions, tell shorter stories, and see what happens. I'd love to hear about your experiences with this technique!

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

24 April 2013

Me v. Free: Why I Trust My Own Search Efforts Above Anyone Else's

Some libraries still offer "free" research assistance to people seeking genealogical information. Sounds like a good deal, right? Letting someone else do the legwork saves travel time and gas money, so paying for photocopies seems fair enough. The problem with "free" services, at least in my experience, is that I usually get what I pay for.

Last month I contacted a public library in a neighboring state about an obituary. This library conducts free searches, but if something is found, there's a small fee that covers up to seven photocopied pages. Okay, that's close enough to free, I thought. According to a page on the library's website, an exact date is preferred when "appropriate newspapers" are searched for death notices and obituaries, along with "the place of death or last known residence." I have that information! I thought. I'm in good shape.

This is how I worded the request I sent through the library's web form. For privacy reasons, I've replaced the real name, date, and location from my original request with descriptions of that information in square brackets.

Greetings,
I'm seeking an obituary for [a woman's first name, middle name, maiden surname, and married surname], who died on [a month, day, and year in the next-to-the-last decade of the 20th century]. According to the Social Security Death Index, her last residence was [a town less than 15 miles from the large city where the library is located]. Would it be possible for me to get a digital copy of her obituary, if one exists? Thanks in advance for any assistance you're able to provide!
Sincerely,
[my name and snail mail address]

My request was polite and detailed. I'd supplied a full name, an exact date, and a place that would be familiar to anyone who worked at the library. Here's the response I received. Again, the information in square brackets is just a description of the information in the original email response.

Hello Ms. Laird,
We found nothing on the person cited in your request. We checked from [one day before the date of death] to [seven days after the date of death]. Thank you.
[name and contact info of the librarian who responded]

Would you be satisfied with that response? I wasn't! I had no idea which resources had been "checked" or if the librarian who sent me the email response was the person who'd actually performed the search. I could have followed up, but I didn't. Instead, I found the obituary myself.

It was exactly where I thought it would be, in one of the "appropriate newspapers" listed on the library's website. Surely someone at that library had "checked" that newspaper, since it covers the metropolitan area where the "person cited" had died. The obituary was published the day after the woman's death, and the librarian's response indicates that someone "checked" something from that date. The obituary was on microfilm, not in the usual newspaper databases. Did my request for a "digital copy" cause someone to ignore the microfilm and focus only on newspaper databases, none of which cover the date in question?

I have no idea why the first library didn't find the obituary I requested. It existed, and I found it at a different library. Getting to and from that library cost $6.65 on the Metro. Printing the section of the microfilmed newspaper page containing the obituary cost a whopping $0.25. That's over three times what the other library would have charged for its "free" research service . . . if they'd managed to find anything. I'll take me over "free" any day of the week. When I go after information that's important to me, I get what I pay for.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

18 April 2013

Long, Rambling Stories: What Librarians Wish Genealogists Knew

The subtitle of this post is a play on the title of one of the presentations I attended at yesterday's Librarians' and Teachers' Day, part of the New England Regional Genealogical Conference (NERGC) being held in Manchester, New Hampshire, this week. I've attended similar events at other conferences, but for some reason this one was especially eye-opening.

I've written before about my experiences as a library patron during childhood and adulthood. I've also worked in public and academic libraries and taken graduate-level Information Studies courses, a background that continues to serve me well in genealogical search and research.[1]

My biggest takeaway from yesterday's event? Brace yourselves, genealogists. This might be hard to hear, but it really needs to be said:

Genealogists are notorious for telling long, rambling stories, and librarians don't need to hear them!

I got a little taste of what librarians who serve genealogists go through while working for one of the genealogy subscription sites. A woman dropped by our booth at a conference, then went on and on about her search for an ancestor's wife. I honestly don't remember all the details, but the refrain went something like, "She was the love of his life, and I can't find her!"

It would have been rude to point out that no subscription site will ever include a database called The Loves of Their Lives, so we had to prompt the woman for relevant details: Where did her ancestor and his wife get married? Unfortunately, our site didn't offer an index of marriage records for that state. Had she tried contacting that state to locate a marriage record?

That was just one genealogist at one conference, telling one long, rambling story. At that conference and a couple of others, I had the opportunity to hear many long, rambling stories told by many genealogists. I tried hard to listen, and so do librarians who interact with genealogists. They get to hear a lot more long, rambling stories than I ever did, and they are very patient. In fact, none of the librarians at yesterday's event used the words "long" and "rambling" to describe the stories genealogists tell. I'm the one who chose those words.

Librarians who go to events like the one I attended yesterday are trying hard to meet the information needs of genealogists. They will continue to listen politely to those long, rambling stories, because librarians are good at figuring out questions, even if their patrons never actually get around to asking.

You know what? I think genealogists need to meet librarians halfway. In yesterday's post I pointed out that using library lingo and tools can really benefit genealogists. Today I'll up the ante. Let's stop boring the librarians of the world with long, rambling stories and start asking relevant questions!

NOTES

[1] The words "search" and "research" are often used interchangeably in genealogical literature. I believe a distinction should be made between the two, but that's another topic for another post.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

17 April 2013

My Favorite Part of the Library? The Catalog!

It's mid-April, and that means it's time to celebrate National Library Week. I've written about libraries a couple of times before, once about the origins of my "lone unicorn" approach to information seeking and once about my first experience with interlibrary loan. The one thing every library has that really allows my lone unicorn tendencies to flourish--and also facilitates the interlibrary loan experience--is the catalog.

Back in the early days, it was called a dictionary catalog. That's when it was in book form. Many of us grew up calling it the card catalog, because that's what it was. Cards. In drawers. Some library patrons still call it the card catalog, because that's the term they're used to. You're probably aware that those card-filled drawers became databases around twenty years ago, but most people who work in libraries these days will probably know what you mean if you still fall back on the term you've always used.

Want to update your terminology? Try OPAC. It's pronounced OH-pack, and it's an acronym for online public access catalog. If you prefer to call it "the online catalog," that works too, as does plain old "catalog." I recommend adding OPAC to your vocabulary, though, and here's why.

If you use the term OPAC with people who work at libraries, they will know a couple of things about you. One, they will realize that you know of its existence and have tried to use it. This will make them happy. Two, they will know that you've set foot inside a library since the card-filled drawers went by the wayside. This will also make them happy. Use their lingo. Use their tools. They will be eager to help you.

I love that I don't even have to leave home to use an OPAC. I can submit requests online for things I want to look at, then sit back and wait while those things are sent to my local branch of the library. I can renew the items I've checked out online. It's so convenient!

Subject headings are my favorite aspect of library catalogs, though. You may have missed the footnote in a previous post in which I mentioned that "information has to be about something. In the process of assigning subject headings to books and other items, cataloging librarians perform subject analysis to determine what those items are about." Determining an item's aboutness can be an interesting intellectual exercise. It's not always a simple and straightforward process, but the end result is quite useful. Here's an example.

Last month my friend Gena Philibert-Ortega tweeted this question:

I suggested using the following subject heading in an OPAC to search for library books: Children--United States--Societies and clubs. The first word is the main subject heading, and it represents a group of people. The main heading is then subdivided geographically, and further subdivided by topic. Change the terms in each part of the heading, and you'll get different results: Women--England--Societies and clubs.

I could go on and on about subject headings, but today I have an exciting event to look forward to, and I don't want to be late! Check in tomorrow for some thoughts on Librarians' and Teachers' Day at the New England Regional Genealogical Conference, also known as NERGC. I may attempt some live-tweeting too, if it seems appropriate, so keep an eye out for @kinfolit. In the meantime, Gena's been blogging about why she loves libraries over at Gena's Genealogy, so go check out her post as well. Later!

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

04 April 2013

A Week in Topeka: The Countdown Begins!

I've always loved road trips, and I'm especially excited about the one I'll be taking later this month. Why? Well, for one thing, I won't be footing the bill! Not entirely, anyway.

It was around this time last year that I applied for the Edward N. Tihen Historical Research Grant, an annual award given to "non-academic" or "amateur" historical researchers by the Kansas Historical Foundation. This year's application deadline is coming up on April 15th, so if you think you could make good use of the collections at the Kansas Historical Society in Topeka, I strongly encourage you to apply!

I honestly had no idea what my chances were when I sent in my application. Had I talked myself out of applying, I wouldn't be looking forward to this trip.

The working title for my research project is Piecing Together a Kansas Woman's Community: The Regina Mills Chambers Signature Quilt as Historical Record. There's a picture of the quilt in the Kansas Memory collection, and if you enlarge the picture, you can see some faint handwriting on the white diamonds that make up part of the quilt's repeating Tumbling Blocks pattern.

Those are handwritten names, about 180 of them, and only two were recorded by the quilt's cataloger. In addition to all the names, some of the inscribed diamonds also have places, occupations, and years. Just think about all the genealogical information that could be gleaned from this artifact . . . are you getting goosebumps? If not, take some of mine!

Thirty days 'til I leave for Topeka . . . I can hardly wait.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.

01 April 2013

Paraphrasing Bill Clinton: It Depends on What You Mean by "Online"

In this post I mentioned Erica Dakin Voolich and her wonderful family heirloom, which she first wrote about here. Erica's followed up with another post about the beautiful scrapbook made from a bound volume of the Congressional Record, and she was kind enough to count me among the people who contributed to figuring out why her ancestor might have possessed a copy of the Congressional Record.

Because a picture pasted into the scrapbook had come unglued, we could see that the volume contained a transcript of a House [of Representatives] discussion from "December 14" of an unknown year. The month and day were visible in the top right corner of the page on the left side, but the year on the opposing page was still hidden. Erica had already given some thought to what that year might be, basing her estimate on the pictures inside the scrapbook and a footnote on the page that revealed the partial date.

Erica had also tried to locate an electronic copy of the Congressional Record. The Library of Congress has made digitized issues from the 43rd Congress available online through American Memory, and more recent issues can be found through THOMAS (another Library of Congress site) and the Government Printing Office. This volume was not part of the American Memory collection.

I thought that even the one page we could see held a lot of potential clues for narrowing down the date, so I encouraged Erica to consider what genealogical information[1] is about: people, places, and events in context. The event that had the most potential, in my opinion, was the discussion itself, which occurred on December 14. We had the surnames of several people who'd been present at that discussion, and one of them, a Mr. Frye, was kind enough to refer to the states his colleagues represented. That information alone was enough to convince me that we could figure out which year(s) all four men had served together in the U.S. House of Representatives.

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774-Present that once existed only in print is now a searchable database. Using only surnames and placenames, Erica and I were able to determine that the four representatives involved in that discussion could only have served together during the 45th Congress. Erica then contacted a librarian, who sent her digital copies of the page from the scrapbook and the opposing page with the year on the top left corner, which turned out to be 1878.

The librarian who provided Erica with those digital copies also mentioned two electronic resources, HeinOnline and ProQuest Congressional, both of which contain digitized versions of less recent issues of the Congressional Record. This is a good reminder that so much material is available online, as long as our definition of "online" includes proprietary databases we can access through libraries. All the Googling in the world wouldn't have turned up those specific pages of that particular issue of the Congressional Record, but Erica still got them, and they were free for the asking.

NOTES

[1] In scholarly genealogical circles, information is either primary or secondary, but information has to be about something. In the process of assigning subject headings to books and other items, cataloging librarians perform subject analysis to determine what those items are about. As far as I can tell, genealogical information is about people, places, and events in context. These are the essential elements of a genealogical narrative.

Copyright © 2013, Madaleine J. Laird. All rights reserved.