This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, February 13, 1991

February 13, 1991 - How to find a book

Almost twenty years ago, the University of Chicago conducted a study to answer what would seem to be a simple question: what do people remember about the books they read?

This study recorded the responses of people interviewed one week, one month, six months, and one year after they'd read a test group of books. The interviewers asked questions like this: who wrote the book? What was the title? What was the book's subject? How long was it? What color was it? What did the cover look like? How big was the book?

You might stop and think about the last book you read, and see if your answers match what clearly emerged from the study.

Fact number one: after a month, often after just a week, and occasionally right after finishing a book, most people don't have a clue who wrote it. The exception, naturally enough, is when they deliberately sought the book because of the author.

Fact number two: people usually do remember titles, but not ALL of the words, or in the right order.

Fact number three: if you ask someone for the subject of a book, they'll be able to tell you SOMETHING. But it rarely has much to do with library subject headings. People remember stories, not categories. For example, they don't remember that the book was about the Lakota Tribe in 1859, they remember that it's about a white girl who is raised by an Indian tribe, and she meets this Chinese railroad worker, and they ... You get the idea.

Fact number four: the overwhelming majority of people remember the color and size of the book much better than the author, title, or subject.

If you've ever used a library at all, you've probably had to work with a card catalog at least one time. For over a hundred years, card catalogs have been organized -- in strict alphabetical order -- by author, by title, and by subject. Computer catalogs, at least until recently, followed the same logic.

In other words, librarians have spent millions of dollars and over a hundred years indexing their collections by author, title, and subject when these are precisely the things that NO ONE CAN REMEMBER.

Since computers have come along, things have gotten a little better. Most library systems now let you search by subject or title "keyword" -- that means ANY WORD that appears in the title or subject. So, based on academic research and personal experience, I strongly urge people to search our computer catalog by TITLE keyword or words -- it's faster and usually more fruitful. You can type "wind gone" and GET "Gone with the Wind." You can type "goldfish" and get the call number of at least one book on the subject, and then you can go to the shelf and see what's in.

Sometimes I think -- and one of these days I'm actually going to do this -- we should add a new data field that contains just two words: the color of the book (and I'd post a list of no more than 6 or 8 colors), plus one more word to describe the size or shape of the book (paperback, small, medium, large, skinny, fat). Then, you could sit down in front of a terminal and type "skinny red." You'd get a list of maybe 100 books. Then you could type the one or two words that you remembered from the title, and narrow it down to 2 or 3.

Or you can do what most people do: don't mess with the catalog at all. Just browse the new books section.

Sometimes, of course, that isn't good enough. Sometimes we do have to set some rules for organizing information.

But I'll talk about that next week, when I tell you about our Community Information Referral Service, a computerized introduction to Douglas County social service agencies.

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