To be a good information professional requires doggedness and an insatiable curiosity in the hunt for coherent and accurate information that meets the needs of your clients. That strength is also a bit of an Achilles heel. Let me explain.
I’ve been volunteering with the Friends of the Ottawa Public Library for nearly a decade. I love the work because it connects me to my public library. The wee Carp branch in rural west-end Ottawa has a self-serve “Friends” store – a few shelves really – that bring in between $400-$500 a month.
That’s astonishing to me since we sell most of our second hand books and dvds for a toonie.
(As a life-long library lover, it also astonishes me that people walk by the free books to go shopping on the second-hand shelf, but I digress)
My current role is keeper of the special priced books. This shelf is for older books that we treat as ‘collectibles’ that need to be evaluated and assigned a special price. Mostly it means checking a well-known second hand book selling website called Abebooks. My predecessor used a sticky note to record the price inside the front cover of each item. Since the sticky notes were prone to falling off I decided to insert a slip of paper that I could record the selling price, the date it went on the shelf as well as some information about the author, the book or the edition. That’s the rabbit hole. I don’t just want to repeat a blurb from Wikipedia for background on Alan Caillou (pen name for a British spy during the Second World War who became a script writer in Hollywood in the 1960s but who also wrote a book about his time in a Tunisian prison during the War. And we have the first edition – with dust jacket) or Goodreads for a snippet about “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” by Simone de Beauvoir (“Stimulating story…highly recommended” said the Kirkus Review in 1959) and how do you summarize Treasure Island in 20 words (adventure story with pirates and a plucky lad named Jim) when you’ve never read Treasure Island.
This week I spent over half an hour digging through the Globe and Mail historical database in hopes of just a few sentences on a 1970s era high school text book called “Truth and Fantasy”, a reader full of song lyrics and poetry. I couldn’t find anything about the book but I did find a few lines about the two editors that I could use for my insert. And that was just one of the three books I was processing. They were all so darn interesting I ended up spending close to 90 minutes on the task and that’s way too long when you’re self-employed and your time is quite literally money. By the way, did you know the actress Kellie Martin now owns a toy store. Martin played Lucy Knight on ER (I loved ER. I still remember Lucy’s death scene) but before that she also had the lead on a tv show called Christy. Christy was written by Catherine Marshall. Marshall’s first book was a biography of her late husband an influential preacher. It was a best-seller in the 1950s and the first edition of “A Man Called Peter” is on sale at the Carp library for $8.00. See what I mean? Rabbit hole.
What I love so much about being a researcher is the chase. Just one more database or one more Google search and I just might find the magic – and reliable – source that will give me a great nugget to sell the book, or fact check that article or answer that research question. What I sometimes forget is the return on investment. I don’t even know if our customers like my pithy inserts in the second hand books they buy. By coincidence I just listened to the most recent episode of Spark, a CBC Radio program about technology. They interviewed a computer programmer who created a website specifically to make people think about the ease of getting distracted while online. Chris Bolan, when you wrote “I have spent hours caught in the webs of my own curiosity”, you were writing about me, weren’t you?
I’m going to set a timer from now on.