I have a few simple rules of thumb and arcane tricks that can make use of the library and its resources both more pleasant and more effective. I’ll cover three of them today.
The first truly is a rule of thumb. When you look at the small white label on a book that shows the call number (the spine label), it will often have a prefix to indicate a physical location in the library. For instance, if it says REF, then the physical home for the book will be in the Reference Collection near the Reference Desk, while ALASKA means the book will be in the Alaskana Collection on the second floor. If you only see the call number itself without a prefix, then that book belongs in the General Collection. That’s all fine, but what if you find a book you really like in the Reference Collection, for example, and you’d like to find similar books that you could check out? Place your thumb over the part of the spine label that says REF and make note of the call number underneath it. Go find that call number in the General Collection, and while you probably won’t find the exact same book (it’s too expensive for us to purchase multiple copies), you will find other books on the same and similar subjects. It’s an easy way to find an interesting area to browse without having to stop at a computer and use the catalog.
Another rule to keep in mind is 15 minutes tops. If you come to the library and are having trouble finding what you need or where it’s located, or a database just isn’t working for you, then come see us at the Reference Desk after spending 15 minutes tops. As simple as we try to make the library, it’s still a very complex place. We understand the organization of the library and of information, we know how the databases work, and we have a lot of experience in answering research questions and addressing other concerns. In fact, the real reason for having a reference librarian at the Reference Desk is not to clear printer jams, but to interpret the library to you and to help you find the information you need. I once had a student come to the Reference Desk who was vibrating half a foot off the floor from sheer stress. She had been searching for something for three hours without success, and she finally came to me. She never deserved to have that much frustration, but at the same time, her accumulated frustration made it all the more difficult for me to help her. So honestly, 15 minutes tops — after that, please come and talk to us, and we’ll do our best to connect you with what you need and get things straightened out.
Last is what I call the passive-aggressive nature of publishers, because they did something really wonderful and then never told anyone how to use it. Many books have gilt lettering on the spines, which quite often makes the titles and authors of the books as illegible as if they had been printed with invisible ink. This happens most frequently on the bottom shelves, which can be especially frustrating since it’s so much harder to get near the floor to get a good look at them; add bifocals for Those Of A Certain Age and it’s a recipe for disaster. Well. I happened to discover one day that if you take a scrap of white paper and hold it against the book spine just below the gilt lettering, the light reflected from the white paper will make the gilt lettering glow; it’s literally revelatory! Not only can you actually see what the darned book is, you no longer need a three-year-old to help you with the bottom shelves. You can use the palm of your hand for this, too, but it won’t reflect light quite as well as paper does. A great set to try it out on is the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography at REF E176 .N27, a set of green books that occupies two bottom shelves near the Reference reshelving cart. Give it a try; this one trick alone, simple as it is, can make your library life so much easier!