Thursday, September 24, 2009

A good way to make searching our catalog easier

I feel like I'm overdosing on nonfiction a little bit -- I don't ordinarily read as much as I have in the past few weeks -- so I'm going to throw off the shackles of fact and history.

Vineland by Thomas Pynchon has precisely none of either. Pynchon's one of those authors that I've always kind of felt I should read at least once. His Gravity's Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49 come up fairly often in my conversations with fellow bibliomaniacs, so I figured that this was a good opportunity to give him a test drive with Vineland.

Vineland is the story of a woman named Frenesi Gates (no relation to our Diana) and her evolution from gorgeous radical to gorgeous filmmaker to gorgeous narc to gorgeous mother. You get the idea. The book is also about quite the handful of auxiliary characters: her hippie ex-husband, Valley Girl daughter, straight-arrow DEA lover, former ninja girlfriend, and her former ninja girlfriend's current ninja boyfriend. The smaller stories of Billy Barf and the Vomitones (a surfer-rock band), the Wayvone Mob family, a roving cult of ghosts suffering from severe karmic imbalances, a few visits from aliens and Godzilla, a television-addicted DEA agent with marvelous hair, and the Emerald Triangle's pot-growing underpinnings are interwoven throughout the larger plot, which takes the form of a series of reminiscences that hop all over the country and make it as far as Japan.

It's pretty outlandish, but the basic plot outline is this: Frenesi, having worked undercover for the DEA for 20 years, setting up drug stings, has vanished. Her lover, a high-ranking DEA agent under Reagan, has a slight insanity problem, and immediately reacts by invading the small town of Vineland, California, where Frenesi's ex-husband and daughter reside. This forces Frenesi's ex-husband, who hasn't seen her since their daughter Prairie (I told you he was a hippie) was a baby, to send Prairie away with the Vomitones until, quite by accident, she runs into her mother's former ninja girlfriend at a Wayvone Mob wedding. This sets off much of the story, as both women disappear into a commune of fighting Buddhist nuns somewhere in the Sierras and Prairie learns more and more about her mother's history and gets to know her through the stories her old friends tell about her. The book culminates in Frenesi's reappearance at a family reunion and the DEA agent's abduction by a deeply weird tribe of local Indians.

Could you follow any of that? I barely could. It's a super-entertaining read, though, which reminds me of a number of other writers I've enjoyed, like Tom Robbins, Neal Stephenson, Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace ... well, the list goes on. Pick it up sometime and enjoy the ride!

Now that I'm off that ride, let's talk a little bit about ALADIN Discovery, our new online catalog system.

I've had a few weeks to get used to it -- even librarians have to adjust to new things -- and I've developed a habit that seems to make things much, much easier to find.

Since we set up the new catalog, people have asked how they're supposed to make their search more specific. There's only one box to enter their keywords, and this leaves them with two choices:
  1. Figure out how to get the one box to include all the information they need to narrow the search down to the exact book they want, OR;
  2. Just throw what they can think of in there and then sit back, slightly stunned at the sheer number of books they'll have to search through.

As it turns out, there's a third choice, and it's one that I'm making increasingly often. Check out the example to the right.

You'll see it on the far right-hand side of the results page. It's swiftly becoming the first place I go when I encounter a long list of search results even after selecting 'Gallaudet' from the Select Library drop-down menu. The number of results I got from the search I performed here, for instance, was about 70. Not bad, but who has time at this stage in the Fall semester to go looking through 70 items? However, if I were looking for a movie, clicking on the "Movie" link in the above list under Format cuts it right down to 6 items.

If I were looking for a book, it'd be time to check out the other possibilities. One of my favorites is by author. This has turned out to be one of the most useful options when someone comes up and knows only the title (which is usually something very generic, like "Land" -- there is a book called Land, which is all sorts of fun to find) and author; I just find the list of authors that appears in the right-hand column and click on "more," then scan the list until I find the author I'm looking for, click on that, and there it is.

Other ways you can use this listing of options (called "facets" in Librarianese):
  • A general subject in a specific part of the world (say, child prostitution in Southeast Asia)
  • A topic relating to a specific time period (telecommunication devices before 1934)
  • Specific applications of words that are used in a number of contexts ("play" as a therapeutic methodology)
  • Common forms that can cross genres (Detective fiction instead of histories of criminology or the biography of a detective)
  • Recent works with the latest theories or best practices (Reviews of pharmaceutical intervention in the treatment of schizophrenia published within the last 3 years)
You get the idea. Those facets are incredibly useful and save a lot of time from going down the drain of repeated search attempts or slow scrutiny of pages and pages of search results. They make the search process feel more like a process, proceeding from the initial search to the first facet you see that will be useful, to the second (although usually you get what you need with the first facet), and so on until you find what you're looking for -- or don't, in which case you need to start over, but with a better idea of what keywords to enter next time. Things also tend to go a lot faster with this method, which comes in handy when you've got a slightly wild-eyed student standing on the other side of the counter with five minutes left before class.

That wraps it up for this week. Enjoy your weekend!

Question of the Week
I was looking for a book on the catalog earlier this week, and I noticed that some of the results that came up for that book said "electronic resource." What does that mean?
Basically, that means the book is available as an e-book. In other words, it's totally online and can be accessed from anywhere.

However, there are a couple of catches. The first catch is that those books usually can't be downloaded. You can't save them to your computer. You can, however, set up a personal account that will enable you to save your favorite books so you can find them again, and even set bookmarks to keep your place. It's pretty neat ... but it does lead us to the second catch: Even if you have a personal account, you still need to go through ALADIN in order to access your books.

For example, one of our biggest e-book providers is eBrary, Inc. They have a website where you can go and log in and check out their library outside of Gallaudet. Unfortunately, they'll charge you for the privilege, which trips up a lot of people who head home somewhere off campus, log in to, and try to start reading the same book they've been reading here on campus; they won't be able to get in. The reason for this is simple: there are no free accounts on You have to either pay for access yourself or be a member of an institution (like the Library) that does.

In order to take advantage of the Library's access (and we have quite a lot of it), you will need to go through ALADIN. You'll have to log in, find the e-book in our catalog, and then access the book from there. This is because when you log in to ALADIN and then access the e-book, our network will tell eBrary that you're part of Gallaudet and they'll let you in without a problem. Then you can log in to your personal account and you'll find everything just like you left it.

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