Sometimes a Catalog is Just a Catalog

Sometimes a Catalog is Just a Catalog :

Question: What is the fundamental difference between e-commerce catalog websites such as – HomeDepot, Sears, Amazon, Target, and Walmart and online library catalogs using Horizon, SirsiDynix, Evergreen or III? 
Answer: Librarians don’t create HomeDepot, Sears, Amazon, Target, and Walmart catalogs (but they should).


One of my friends on Publib recently asked me if I thought there were employment opportunities for Librarians in e-commerce and what training would be needed to get a job. 

I think that is a good question to address here with all of the PubLib people.   I am a librarian and I have worked in e-commerce – web design, product development, training, data base management and SEO.  My former employment (after being a public library director) was as a corporate e-commerce manager. I redesigned a 6,000 product e-commerce website, created blogs and alternate websites for its products and within a year had moved it’s US rank in Alexa from about 60,000 up to around 7,000.  I took a year off to complete graduate studies in digital forensics (which I consider directly related to cybrarianship) and recently returned to e-commerce again to manage the databases and organic SEO for an international company with tens of thousands of products specializing in medical equipment and medical supplies.

Almost every college, University and technical school has some sort of a degree program now called something like New Media.  The New Media curriculum teaches things like web design, and SEO, and htm*, and programming languages, and social media construction – basically all of this stuff that makes up the web.   But, when all is said and done, what we create in e-commerce is a catalog – a catalog broken down into relevant, related categories with multiple access points and meaningful descriptions – so that the end-user can find what they want and we can get it to them efficiently.  There is a back-end tie to inventory, prices, features, descriptions, shipping, and various temporal factors.
traditional librarian

Traditional Librarian

How does that differ in concept from traditional library cataloging?  The argument could be made that traditional libraries do not charge their patrons and the cost / price feature of e-commerce products creates a completely different dynamic.  But, it really doesn’t.  Every professional librarian knows that nothing is free and although there is no direct charge to the patron finding a book in a catalog – the expenses are paid for up-front through Taxes and Tariffs and Fees (oh my!), Taxes and Tariffs and Fees (oh my!), Taxes and Tariffs and Fees (OH MY!).  Every library book has a tangible cost and there is a small markup that accounts for salaries paid to librarians.  The back-end is tied to inventory, prices, features, descriptions, shipping and various temporal factors.

The marketing dynamics of library catalogs and e-commerce catalogs may differ since there is no apparent immediacy to having a library catalog pay for itself.  E-commerce is result driven – the only reason to have a catalog is to facilitate sales and educate the consumer.  But, I believe the every librarian now sees how truly dynamic e-commerce web sites that sell books such as Amazon – by the very fact that they do need to see immediate results – have drastically outpaced the big Library catalogs.  So, although the marketing approach may differ, it really, really should not.
Soap Box

Soap Box

So, are there employment opportunities for librarians in e-commerce?  Obviously, there is for at least one.  The problem is Corporate America does not know what librarians can do for them. It has been left to me to explain to the company presidents I have  worked with that Libraries are, in fact,  sophisticated and dynamic inventory control systems – that work just like their supply chains.

Library Schools do not even know that they are training people to create catalogs for e-commerce.   But, they should and given the employment growth outlook for traditional librarianship, Library Schools should be touting the ability of their cataloguers to catalog, organize and describe everything.


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Best of PubLib at ALA-Midwinter Update

American Library Association Mid-Winter Meeting

We  consumed the Boston Convention Center exhibit hall today.  Boston is nearly 50 degrees farenheit!  We will feature some of the most interesting  exhibitors and products that we found in a special edition of Best of Publib on January 20th – we have pictures of them all.  But tonight, we dine with Canadians!

There’s No Such Thing as a Dumb Question but …

From the Humor Pages

The following gems are courtesy of the collective mind of the PubLib Listserve 2008


Patron:  What’s the correct spelling,  “Steven” or “Stephen?”

Me: Both are correct.  It depends on the person.

Patron: It’s the guy who mows my lawn.  


I have told this one before but I really liked the kid who asked me for information on the “Webdee Boys”  I thought it was a musical group or something given his age. I should have kept in mind that it was February. He needed information on “W.E.B. DuBois.” 


When we first received our color copier, we had a call from a lady to ask us if it was true.  We assured her that it was, & told her the price.

She told us she had some B&W photos from the ’40’s that she wanted in color. We had to explain about the limits of color copy technology! 


I once had someone ask me for a biography of an African military leader – she couldn’t remember the person’s name, but she was sure we’d own a biography.  I spent quite a while trying to find it.  Turned out she was thinking of Che Guevara!  I would never have guessed that myself, but luckily a colleague suggested it as a joke. 


From 1997:  “Why was Pavarotti chasing Princess Di?”


A young woman, very well dressed, comes into the library and, acting very cool, sort of drawls, “I’m looking for a play called “Tight As a Drum.”  I look it up and can’t find it on our database and probe a little deeper.  “Do you know the author?”  She replies, “I think it’s maybe Shakespeare.”  Aha, I think.   “Could it be Titus Andronicus?”   Sheepishly she looks at me and says yeah.  I liked her better after she lost her cool. 


Older gentleman. “Just where is the Internet? My grandkids keep going there.” 

Child “Where’s Frank’s dairy?” Anne Frank’s Diary  

Middle-aged guy. “How can I find a copy of the poster I had on my wall = when I was a teenager? I don’t remember what it looked like.” After a deep breath I asked many questions and amazed myself by figuring out it was = psychedelic  poster of Jimi Hendrix that he was so nostalgic about. 

Pre-Internet: A man pouring over stacks of newspapers for over an hour (and  turning aside my offer of help) finally told me that not ONE of them had a list of the correctional facilities in Wisconsin.  I was able to hand him a WI business directory that had just what he wanted. Then he asked me why I hadn’t told him earlier! 

An athletic looking young man carrying a very frilly purse asked me for a book on why sisters don’t get along. I did find something and restrained myself from asking about the purse. 

An older woman asked “When did George Washington visit the United States”? I never did get at a more clear understanding of what she meant. 


During my first month working the Reference Desk in a Public Library after receiving my MLS, a gentleman called asking if we had a list of upcoming book burnings in the area as he had a number of books at home that he felt that no one should read and he wanted to add them to the fire.  I explained that libraries do not approve of book burning and so people generally did not inform us before holding them. 


Someone asked for a certain title.  I asked if the book was fiction or non-fiction.  After a pause I explained the difference.

She said it couldn’t be non-fiction because it was a real book. 


I had a patron who called with the most bizarre questions, always prefacing her request with “my company is looking for this information”. My favorite was when she called looking for the 3 most significant events in history. The conversation went as follows: 

Patron:  We are looking for the 3 most significant events in history after 1861. 

Me:  Are you looking for in the world or the United States? I should mention that this will be subjective depending on what the focus is. 

P:  Oh, in the world, you know, like 9-11 was a significant event in the world (I am now thinking to myself – perhaps not so much in

Africa) or, you know, the Statue of Liberty was a significant event. 

M: Again, that would be subjective to your focus, for example, communication was not what it is today so some parts of the world did not hear about events as soon as they happened so the significance would depend on a lot of things. For example, there was a war going on in the United States between 1861 and 1865. 

P:  Yes, I know, the War of 1812. 

Needless to say, silence – what can you say? 


Several years ago, when I was working at the reference desk, a teen told me that he needed information on a king.  When I asked which king, he responded “Malcolm the Tenth”.  It took me a few minutes to compose myself but it turned out that he needed information on Malcolm X. 


I was working reference many years ago and got a call from a woman who announced, “Can you help me?  My nipples are burning!”  I’m afraid that my reference interview consisted of some sputtering.  That elicited clarification from the customer: “I was sterilizing them and the pan boiled dry.” 


Where do you keep the miss-shelved books? 

Is the beef stroganoff in my refrigerator safe to eat? 

I can’t believe you don’t have any books by David Copperfield. 

Is Martha’s Vineyard named after Martha Stewart? 


“Can you give me a map that tells where I can find caves that haven’t been discovered yet?” 


This reminds me of a question I got a few years ago by phone: “What’s the street price for marijuana in Baltimore?” Just for the heck of it, I typed into Google’s search box: street price marijuana baltimore. You could have knocked me over with a feather when the first result was a website where people could record the going rate for marijuana in their town!

Other favorites:

“I need some books on the Industrial Revolution; you know, during the Renaissance?”

An elderly woman on the phone: “Do you have a directory of nudist colonies?”

A teenage boy picking up the next book in a trilogy for his sister: “I think it’s called Pebbles on the Beach.” (It was Petals on the Wind by V.C. Andrews.)

“I need a book on the acrylic alphabet.” (Cyrillic alphabet)


Woman towing four little kids behind her, ages about 6 mos to 5 years old “Do you have any books on childbirth systems?”

Dumb me who has never done that: “You mean like Lamaze?”

Woman, with deep sigh: “No, that doesn’t work, do you have something better?”


From the deputy fire chief: “what’s the combustion point for paper?”  He was so impressed that I knew the answer right off the top of my head.


There are many stories, but one I like to tell is from a few years ago and began with “where are your books on dogs?” I showed them, smiled, and went on to other patrons. In a few minutes, the family returned and said that they particular breed of dog the daughter had to do a report on wasn’t in any of our books. I asked what it was and they replied, “It’s called a Darwin’s beagle.” So I looked … and looked… and I found nothing, either, until it dawned on me: she must have only half listened to the assignment. What she really had to do was read and report on The Voyage of the Beagle, written by Charles Darwin. Thank God, we had a copy of the book on the shelf, so I could show them and get them to believe me.


I work in the Literature/Media division of our library, which includes religion and the occult.  I had a call from a young lady asking me for a spell that would make a young man she likes fall in love with her.  She said she wanted to control his mind because so far, he hadn’t shown much interest.

Previous to this assignment, I also worked in local history/genealogy.  I had an older patron call and ask me how the cave men  (and women) learned to have sex since there wasn’t anyone before them to teach them. 


The first – Do you have the book with all the answers?  After resisting the impulse to answer “the Bible”, I discovered that she wanted the answer guide that her professor had left on reserve for the class. 
Second – What is the exact date that the UFO landed in Roswell, New Mexico?  He wanted to confirm that he was the progeny of the alien.  The dates matched.


oo!  That reminds me of the mother who came in wanting books about President Bush.  I said, “certainly!  Which one?”  Her response …

“There is more than one?”  This was made even more strange when it turned out she wanted daddy Bush, not CURRENT PRESIDENT Bush. 


My favorite reference question ever was when I was asked, “How long did they burn Joan of Arc at the stake?”  

I answered, “Medium rare.” 


A lady asked me to find the photo of a missing woman who had been featured the previous night on America’s Most Wanted, or some such show.

She wanted a copy of the photo to take to her beautician so that she could have her hair styled the same as the missing woman.


My favorite has always been the child who wanted to write a report on “pirates in New Mexico”. 


“Did the pilgrims have a horn of plenty on their table at the first Thanksgiving?” But this did get me thinking about the wonderful, burgeoning world of cornucopia….


A teenager told me he what to do a report on the “importance of inventions in the American Revolution.”  I told him that I was unsure that there were any technological innovations that played any significant role in the Revolution besides musket rifling. 

He paused and then asked, “What about trains?” 

I said, “Well, we’re about sixty years off for that.” 

He mentally groped for a moment and then said, “well, they had to have new inventions to put all those girls to work in those factories.” 

I said, “Would you be talking about the *Industrial* Revolution by any chance?”  

His face lit up: “Yeah! That’s it!” 


1.  I was recently asked where we keep our copies of the “jell-o pages”.

I had to think a moment before I realized the patron’s native language was one which interprets the letter “y” with the sound for “j” as in “juice”. 

2.  None of the public computers in our new library came equipped with built-in floppy disc drives, so we have had to keep a couple portables at the Reference Desk.  Patrons can borrow one in exchange for some security (library card, driver’s license, etc.).  I had to try really hard to keep a straight face when a male patron asked for a “floppy adaptor”.  For some reason visions of Viagra commercials popped into my head. 


Most self-explanatory reference question: “Is this a book?” 

Best question (from a nine-year-old, natch): “Are mummies real?”


I had just started to work here, right out of library school and was eager to do the best job ever.  I was really stumped by the request for information on the “Sultana Indians”  I finally had the sense to ask the question I’ve never neglected since:  Where did you find this term?”  The answer – “I dreamed it


I think that my favorite reference question was Muammar al-Gaddafi’s phone number.  I knew that we wouldn’t have the phone number, so I told the person that they should try Tripoli information.  I found out later that the patron did call. 

I thought that this would be al-Gaddafi’s message on his answering machine.

“Hi, this is Muammar.  I’m not in at the moment, but if you leave your name and target at the sound of the explosion, I will get back to you”.


I think my favorite question, asked recently, was for a video on dinosaurs. But not Jurassic Park or cartoons–a documentary with real footage.


It was at the end of one of those long days in February when a student asked if he could Xerox Lincoln?  I said, “He’s been dead for quite a few years, Would a picture of him do?”


I once had a teen ask me for a photo of the “Big Bang”   I looked at her and said, “Think about what you just asked me!”  Her reply, “oh”.


I just had a patron ask me for a list of all our informational books.  I giggled.


We once had someone ask our reference librarian for a list of all the places on the internet! 


My second day on the job brought this: “What would you do if you thought your husband was having an affair?”

More recently :” Could you get me the phone number of a prophet?”


1.  Is it true that you can get rid of hemorrhoids with a lit cigar?


2.  Do you have a map of the underground cannibal network?  My husband is a butcher and he says there is one.  (One what?  A network or a map?)


3.  Patron rolling up a shirtsleeve and showing me her arm, “is this herpes?”


4.  Can you give me a list of restaurants in Detroit and Dallas?  And, can you tell me if they’re serving turkey this Thanksgiving?


Over the years I have been asked for photographs of the Pilgrim arrival, Jesus, Catherine the Great, when the letter “J” was invented ( seems straight forward but the patron argued with my response, taken from the OED because “the people who originally wrote the Bible could not have spelled Jerusalem” if “J” had not been invented then”)”where is the yellow book I was reading last week?” “Do you have any books by the famous American author, Hemingstein?”


A patron asked if we could show her how to use her computer.  I explained that we can provide help, depending on how busy we are, and that we have free computer classes.  As we talked, surrounded by computers in use, she stated that she would need help bringing in her computer as “it’s kind of large”.   


the librarian told me that a patron had come up and asked for a book that explained  the masturbation of a minor. She finally figured out that he wanted a legal book about the emancipation of a minor.


When I was a GovDoc librarian at St. Louis Public Library, I had a young man come in and ask for a photo or drawing of the USDA choice stamp. Something about the way he blushed made me ask, “Is this for a tattoo?” To which he replied “yes, I want it on my butt.”

Being the good librarian I am, I found him several representations of both USDA Choice & Prime stamps, with explanations of the grading system.

Still makes me smile.


A man who called me at the reference desk wanting the number to the local Petsmart because he was in the woods and he lost his gerbil. (He also warned me never to get married because it ruined the other reference librarian)

A man who wanted the phone numbers to escort services in Amsterdam, Miami and San Antonio. (I got them, although I feared for days afterwards that I’d have a hell of a lot of explaining to do if IT looked at the website visited logs)

A woman looking for the “Masturbator’s Singing Club” (Master Butcher’s Singing Club) – she didn’t want it when I corrected her on the title!


And, in a final “kooky title” entry, a patron looking for “Killing Babies at the Piggly Wiggly” (Kissing Babies at the Piggly Wiggly) – who also decided she didn’t want the book after being corrected on the title.


I still like this one from 20 years ago –   

“I need “How to satisfy a woman everytime” and I need it by tonight.”


I had one last night with a guy asking if he could buy a cigarette from the people at the reference desk. I told him no and he said “gee, I’m sure I’ve bought cigarettes here before…” 

My old favorite is the ADULT who asked for photographs of Jesus. 


“I know you have this book.  The name of the girl in the book is Julie.”  

“I know you’ve read it.  You’ve read all of these books, haven’t you?”  

And nothing beats the ill, dripping sweaty guy leaning over the desk asking “Can you get me information on Hepatitis C?”


A young man approached me at the reference desk several years ago and asked if I could help identify a gun and locate ammunition for it. It was already loaded


A patron approached me to announce that she was doing her daughter’s report.  I was new enough at this that it startled me, although it no longer does. I smiled supportively. 

She said it was a history report on Kent State.  This startled me again, since to me, Kent State was a current event.  I asked how I could help. 

“I have looked in 4 atlases,” this clearly locally born woman, of approximately my age, grumped.  “There is no state called Kent.”