Friday, October 1, 2010

Come, and take choice of all my library

I've been getting most of my books from the Calgary Public Library, and am a big supporter of the library in general. However, that isn't to say there aren't problems with the institution. Now, understanding that although Calgary's library is the second most used system in Canada, it is also one of the most poorly funded. And the evidence of this is everywhere.

To begin with, many of the libraries are, for lack of a better word, dumps. And the crown jewel of the system, downtown, is the biggest dump of them all. From the outside it looks like either a drop-in center for the homeless or the building that houses the Ministry of Truth in Nineteen Eighty-Four. It isn't inviting, it's run down, and needs to be replaced. Add to that, it is usually full of tramps and hobos, who I'm pretty sure are pretending to be reading so they can sit down in climate controlled comfort. I say this because there will be three or four tramps sitting at one table, each with giant books on their laps open right to the middle page. In two hours there earlier this week, I'm pretty sure not one page was turned at the table next to me. But, I digress, as these problems are not necessarily the library's fault, and have more to do with City Hall.

What is the library's fault and my main beef, is the catalogue search. Going to the library's website, the catalogue search is on the home page and is easy to access. It is the results that are the problem. Obviously the books from The List are well known, highly regarded books, but finding them is a gigantic pain in the ass. When I searched for The Great Gatsby, perhaps the most famous American novel of the past hundred years, it is the 20th result returned. Searching for Deliverance, the catalogue returned 36 results and the actual book was the last one. Titles that came up before Deliverance included The Deliverance of Dancing Bears and I Walk in Dread: The Diary of Deliverance Trembley, Witness to the Salem Witch Trials (Massachusetts Bay Colony 1691). While I'm sure both are fine works they should not be appearing before the book that's title exactly matches the search query. I'm thinking if somebody was looking for a book on the Salem Witch Trials, they'd type in more than 'deliverance' in their query.

The reason this happens is because their catalogue returns results newest to oldest and the novel is of course older than the 'study guide to' or the DVD or the audio recording. But this frustrates me to no end, because I think a library should return books before non-books. In an attempt to have this fixed, I began contacting the library, first via Twitter:

TheRevBW: I search for The Great Gatsby @calgarylibrary but the book is the 20th result. Shouldn't it be ahead of DVD's, audio recordings and essays?

The library responded a couple days later with this:

calgarylibrary: the results are automatically reverse chronological, can change this by selecting "sort by Old to New" once search has happened.

So, the library freely admits the search gives me the opposite of what I'm looking for. Perfect. Oh, and this didn't work for On the Road, which was the 203rd of over 500 results. Either way, it's going to be in the middle and I'll be stuck sifting through pages and pages of results.  While I hate to admit this, Toronto's public library returned On the Road 1st and Edmonton's returned it 2nd.

Not satisfied with my Twitter attempts I wrote an email to the library, outlining my problem with searching for great books. They responded telling me to use their "power search" feature, which allows the user to enter more detailed search criteria. I have used this feature, but when searching for multiple books, it can be very time consuming. Instead of one click shopping from the home page, you must go through about 300 steps to use power search. First off, you have to fail at your initial search before you have the option of using the power search and from there, you can enter more crucial data than just the title, such as the author, the publication date, or the ISBN (which I'm sure is great for Rain Man, but not for me). However, even all these options don't usually help.

The real key to the power search is to change the 'sort' of the returned results from 'new to old' to 'relevance.' Ah ha! And this is my point, why aren't all search results sorted by relevance, as I'm sure people are more interested in relevant answers opposed to newer answers. When I go to the grocery store looking for aged cheddar cheese, I don't want to be told where 'New and Improved' cheddar cheese soup is, despite it being 'newer.'  I've replied to the library yet again, explaining that I understand this process, but the point I am trying to make is that it needs to be changed. We'll see if I make any progress, but I vow to continue the fight for as long as I can!

End Rant.

As an aside, while at the Central library, I picked up a bunch of books, as my local branch doesn't have near the selection. I already had Housekeeping (which I'm reading), Deliverance (which I had delivered to my local branch), and Gravity's Rainbow (which I'm delaying, because I'm intimidated by its' 750 pages). I've now added Portnoy's Complaint, Herzog, Ragtime, Snow Crash, and On the Road to my loan collection.  My thought was they can be renewed several times and they can be returned to any branch, so while I'm downtown, why not grab a bunch...just in case. Only time will tell if this is a move so shrewd it's worthy of an Arab spice trader, or if this is a quick path to increasing my fine total.

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