Stick with me, here:
Recently, I went looking for a book. I was looking for it to use for a book chapter proposal, but I treated this as an opportunity to closely observe how this kind of thing might work from the point of view of someone using the library. Being still fairly new in my current job, I still have this kind of authentic perspective, for a little while longer anyway.
The book is Indiana University Libraries, 1829-1942, and it isn’t a book. Properly, it’s a dissertation by a woman named Mildred Hawksworth Lowell who was completing her degree in the Graduate Library School of University of Chicago. One assumes that there was no library school at IU at the time of her dissertation – 1957 – but I haven’t been able to confirm this yet.
I started with our federated search and, in performing a little voodoo (title search, limit: dissertations), I returned a list of 11 items for the exact thing I was looking for. Five of those were books in the physical collections somewhere in the IU system. The other six were Google Books and HathiTrust (inaccessible, copyright reasons), some bare records that seem to indicate that maybe ALA had published it in 1961 (but also maybe not, because the description states: published or submitted for publication), and a few other records whose reason for existence is opaque, even to me.
Those five records represented 10 copies. From a searcher perspective, I’m not sure why so many records are needed. From a librarian perspective, I guess it has something to do with the various subjects tagged differently for each. Of those 10 books, three are at the medical library located in Indianapolis, two are missing, one is checked out, one is in the special collections, one is in the music library “frontlog,” and one was located at “Well Libray – Reference Coll. – Reference Desk.” Thinking the last one was my easiest access point, I asked my colleague where I might find that particular collection.
Ladies and gentlemen, his response was, “I’ve never seen that designation before.”
Momentarily stymied, I tried again at the actual reference desk.
“Huh. Never seen that before.”
Twenty minutes later we had checked and double-checked the likely places, went through all the cupboards at the reference desk, and called two separate people in technical services about the designation. No one was able to explain the designation, or, it should be said, find the book.
Next I went after the book in the music library’s “frontlog.” I knew about the frontlog from a tour I’d had this summer. You know how a backlog is stuff that’s backed up and hasn’t been processed yet? In this case frontlog is a collection that’s been processed just enough to be findable but does not live on the shelves. The books have a numerical designation but are not classified. It’s accessible only by search and requires a special request to access. I called up my colleague in the music library, she went into the basement to see if it did exist, found it, gave it to the circulation desk, and I walked over at the end of the day and picked it up.
All this for one, single book.
My point here is that search is HARD. Even when you know what you’re looking for. (Especially if you know what you’re looking for? After all, I needed the exact item and could not be satisfied with anything else.) I had everything going for me – specialized knowledge and extraordinary persistence – and still it took me hours of active search time to locate this book. And I haven’t even read it yet.
I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir, here. All I can wonder is what a student would do in this situation. Would they find what they needed? What would they do first? Last? Maybe it’s good for search to take effort? Challenge is the source of growth, after all. But maybe (probably) they’d just give up and move on to Google or another “easier” topic.
And why does search have to be so hard and complicated through the library? It’s hard and complicated because there’s no money attached to the outcome and, therefore, no incentive for techies to take it on. From a library perspective it would take an extraordinary amount of money to pay the going rate to do it right.
I talked to some colleagues about this process and the general consensus is that this was an edge case and not representative of most library searches. Probably true. And yet search is still not easy, even for those of us who are professional searchers.