Sunday, July 16, 2017

Can you turn on the Internet?



Asking the Right Questions

Getting the best answers always means asking the right questions.  This article is a continuation of several I have written on research and searching for answers.  The cases I mention are based on events (except for when I say it is from a TV show), but I have taken dramatic license to make a story.


In order to ask the seek answers one must do research into the topic and come up with the best questions.  When watching TV news shows, Face the Nation or Meet the Press, the preparation of the host and the other journalists is very evident.  The host had spent many hours investigating and preparing for the few minutes the guests are on the screen.  In contrast students come to the library reference desk and ask, “Do you have a book? or ”Can I rent a book?”  I could answer, “yes, I have a book” or “no, we don’t rent books” and be totally correct.  I answered the text of the question, but did not give the information they needed.  To give them what they need, I need to ask them to clarify their needs. They need to tell me the title of the book or a subject they are investigating.  If the book is for a class and the student know the title, it is easy to find out whether we have the book or not.

A student asked, “Can you turn on the Internet?” 
I was puzzled and asked, “Are you able to login with your ID and password.” 
Student replied, “Yes, but the computer still won’t work.”
I walked over to the computer and found the power was off.  I pushed power on button and it came on.  The student was then able to login.    A few minutes later the student asked for help when the site would accept her input.  Since the site was for a personal reason and not school or library connected, I couldn’t help.  I said that I don’t know anything about the site and she would have to call the company’s support line.  The student said that the library secretary helped her before.  That was an insult to the librarians.  We have no secretaries.  I don’t think anyone in the entire college has that job title or description.

“My teacher told me I need two books and two peer-reviewed articles for my paper,” is frequent request from students.  First, I hate the idea that “peer-reviewed” is a standard for selecting an article.  While some research universities say that “peer-reviewed” is the gold standard for research, I humbly disagree.  If the peer-review is rigorous in the medical or scientific field, this is reasonable. The editors can’t know everything and someone needs to check to be sure the authors are on track and not making up data and conclusions.  I have been the reviewer of “scholarly” articles, that were poorly conceived, poorly written, and not ready for publication.  Since I was a volunteer, I could not spend the time to edit.  I had no ability to judge if all the facts were correct.  I had the opinion that if the written text is unclear, I could not trust the evidence or experiment to be done well.

I also edited a newsletter for my local librarian group.  Since every article was reviewed by at least two librarians, I called it “peer-reviewed.”

The teacher should have showed the students (or asked for librarian help) how to choose appropriate sources for the topic.  The students need to learn the bias and limitations of books, newspapers, magazines and academic journals.

If the student has not chosen a topic or has such a general topic that a search will get tens of thousands of hits, I refer them to Opposing Viewpoints.  Opposing Viewpoints is a database with a list of popular topics and editor chosen articles.  It is a good starting point for beginning English or speech classes.  Students can look at the choices and find a small number of articles to start with.  Instead of 43,4533 hits for “gun control” when searching the catalog, the student find 3-10 articles that can be perused and read.

Some students are very secretive with their search.  I saw a puzzled student looking in the stacks and I offered help.  She had been looking in the artifact card catalog.  I explained the card catalog had not been maintained for more than 20 years and the cards there didn’t represent our collection.  I offered help.  She said that she wanted a law book.  I asked what area of law she wanted to research.  She said it was for her sister.  I said that I needed to know more so that I could direct her to the right books.  I showed her the KF section and said this was law of the United States and KFI is the law of Illinois.  I told her that I needed to know what jurisdiction to further help her.  Was this a federal issue, state or local issue?  Did she want the statute or a book about the issue?  She said “child custody.”

Right away I knew this was not an issue that one could just look up in a book.  If the search was academic, I could guide her to books and articles about the topic. If this was case based, the person needs to talk to an expert who can find the answer in her situation.  The student ran out of time and had to go to class. Support groups and legal websites have lots of great information on child custody issues.  With further interaction I could have done a better job of pointing her to a way to find out the answer or at least a better question.[1]   As a librarian, I can’t give legal advice.

I mentioned the about search to a lawyer and he said that clients sometimes want instant answers.  The clients want the lawyers to work magic and remedy the situation, but forget there is a good reason to consult and expert.  In the latest issue of Time magazine (July 24, 2017) Heather Gerken, Dean of Yale University Law School wrote,

In law schools, we don't just teach our students to know the weaknesses in their own arguments. We demand that they imaginatively and sympathetically reconstruct the best argument on the other side.[2]

This is really how all serious research should be conducted. While science and humanities scholars don’t face adversaries in court, they do face conflicting opinions and data.  I teach that scholarship is a search for the truth. One must use triangulation – read and use multiple sources, understand the context, and use experience and common sense to figure out the truth of the situation. 

The case my lawyer friend told me about involved a plaintiff (the client) who wanted to evict a sub-letting tenant from their apartment.  The apartment was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and was in subsidized housing.  The rent agreement did not allow subletting.  Subletting was subject to financial and legal penalties.  The plaintiff and family had gone to the Catskills for the summer and sublet until the end of September.  When questioned by my friend’s partner, the client did not tell the whole story.  The client did not say why the rental was for the month of September.  My friend knew something was fishy because Hasidic couples from Williamsburg would not stay in the Catskills past Labor Day.  On or before Labor Day everyone would return to the city for school and work.  Because the lawyer knew some of the background and context, he knew what questions to ask the client.  The client called the subletter a squatter and wanted him out. The opposing attorney produced an ad in Yiddish for the apartment offering to sublet.  The client had no case or grounds to evict, because subletting was not allowed.

In a case from the TV show Blue Bloods,[3] Detective Danny Reagan was on a jury for a murder trial.  He was the only one not voting guilty.  He knew that that physical evidence did not match the “eye witness” account. The jury was hung and the prosecution scheduled a new trial.  Danny was assigned the case.  The original defense attorney wanted the defendant to take a plea of guilty.  Since he was innocent, the defendant dismissed that attorney and plead innocent.  Danny questioned the so-called “eye witness” and tried to understand her story by visiting the crime scene. The pieces did not fit.  The triangulation of testimony, physical evidence, and professional expertise told Danny something was wrong.  Eventually Danny put the pieces together and found the connection between the “eye witness” and victim.  She was a former lover and killed him out of jealous anger. If Danny’s first question would have been “Did you kill the victim,” she would have said an emphatic, “No.” He used his expertise to figure out the right sequence of questions to make sure the truth was told.

This is an example of doing research to enable one to ask the best questions.  A student coming to the library does not always know the best questions.  Once the librarian or teacher helps formulate the best questions, the research can proceed. 


[1] The web site FindLaw is one starting page.  The page for child custody is: http://statelaws.findlaw.com/illinois-law/illinois-child-custody-laws.html  The site has links to the law and other information on the subject.  They do recommend seeing an attorney to decide the best course of action.

Another helpful site is from the Illinois Legal Aid Online web site:   https://www.illinoislegalaid.org/legal-information/getting-custody-child

[2] Reference for the print edition: Gerken, Heather. “One campus arena where free speech is not up for debate: law schools.” Time, July 24, 2017 p. 20. Reference for online version: Gerken, Heather. “Dean of Yale Law School: Campus Free Speech Is Not Up for Debate” http://time.com/4856225/law-school-free-speech/?iid=sr-link1, July 13, 2017; retrieved July 16, 2017.

[3] Justice Served season 4 episode 8 originally aired Nov. 13, 2013.

Moral Compass



Parashat Pinchas  July 15, 2017 -- The Moral Compass


This week, Parashat Pinchas, is a continuation of the story describing the act of idolatry and sexual immortality that started in beginning of Numbers chapter 25.  Pinchas summarily executed Zimri from the tribe of Shimon and Cozi, daughter of Zur, a Midianite. This stopped a plague that took the lives of 24,000 Israelites. The worship of the idol, Ba-al Pe’or, was an affront to God and very existence of the Jewish people.  The worshipers of the idol were not interested in the idol itself, but rather the act was justification for sexual immortality. It was a gateway to moral relativism and personal freedom. 

The business lesson is the moral conscience or compass should be in place all the time.  In business dealings with customers and clients, the first time one strays from the moral laws or expectations, one feels guilty.  Later the guilt turns to justification.  One may just say that this action allows me level the competitive playing field.  Soon the actual letter of the law is broken and cheating is the new normal.  This is wrong on many levels.  If one cheats customers, can cheating on the employees or the community be next?  In an organization or community personal freedom is limited by the needs to respect the personal freedoms of everyone.  I can yell, scream, and wave my arms all I want as long as I am not interfering with the rights or space of others.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Library Magic and Plundered Books



Library Magic and Plundered Books



Rarely do I get reference questions that are interesting enough to write about.  This week I had two and one of those I was the information seeker.  

A senior scholar asked about the word “abracadabra.”  She wanted to know the meaning.  She said that the word sounded like it was from Aramaic, but she couldn’t find it in her Talmud dictionary or in the Talmud at all.  She heard that the word meant, “he created as he spoke.”  This folk etymology explanation is offered by the magician Steve Cohen in his book, Win the Crowd.[1] Cohen is a magician, not a linguist and should have read the subtitle to his book.  I told the scholar that I wrote an article on the topic in December 2002 and forwarded the link to her.  You will have to read the whole article[2] to understand that “abracadabra” is a magic word used by magicians to distract audiences. 

I recently read the book, Book Thieves[3], by Anders Rydell.  I wrote a short review for professional publication, AJL Reviews, but my interest in the topic of stolen books was piqued. Rydell talks about millions of books that were confiscated and destroyed by the Nazis and a few that made their way back to the owners or their heirs.  I will be writing a longer article connected to the topic of the book.  Forever, my views on book ownership, the source of the books, and the de-acquisition of library items are changed.  

I remembered when I was a student working in the Jewish Theological Seminary Library we had thousands of books with the book plate from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction. See illustration to the left.  These were “ownerless” books from Europe that were distributed to Jewish libraries and the Library of Congress mostly in the United States and Israel.  Since Rydell wrote about the ownership records of books I wanted to know if the JTS library had recorded which books were from Jewish Cultural Reconstruction.[4] 

I searched the term, “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction” in their catalog and got more than 44,000 hits.  This is way more than the 12,000 items the JTS Library was supposed to have acquired.  I looked at the catalog records and found many had “Jewish Cultural Reconstruction” in the added entry MARC field 710. There was no 500 note or other field that would explain the reason for a 710 entry.  I called the JTS Library reference desk.  After explaining the catalog entry, the reference librarian didn’t know the answer.  She had to consult with the catalogers.  I am waiting for the answers and will share them when I publish the full article.  The full article will have example titles.

Formulating the proper question is half-way to getting a good answer.  I have students ask all the time for “a book.”  It takes many questions to figure out what they want.  I am always amused at the amount of words the students waste telling me the story of their life before they get around to the question they need us to help them with.  

Don’t you just burn on the inside when some clueless administrator says, “Can’t a work-study student do that?”  Some of the librarians have more degrees and years of study than the faculty and administrators. Library collections are curated, selected and organized by experts; books don’t appear on the shelves by magic.  Just by using the magic of abracadabra I cannot teach management, the understanding of historical context, and critical analysis needed to run a library. To answer many challenges that I see as routine, one must travel around the sun many times and view each day as a learning opportunity.







[1] Win the crowd : unlock the secrets of influence, charisma, and showmanship.  New York : Collins, 2006, ©2005.

[2] Stuhlman, Daniel D. “Abracadabra”  Librarian’s Lobby December 2002.  http://home.earthlink.net/~ddstuhlman/crc55.htm

[3] The Book Thieves : the Nazi looting of Europe’s libraries and the race to return a literary heritage / Anders Rydell, translated by Hening Koch. New York : Viking Press, 2017.  

[4] I had to check my personal collection for pre-war books from Europe.  I found only three and I am certain they were not plundered.