July 19, 2008

Library science

After years of research, and some extensive (selective) data analysis on what I can remember, I am prepared to reveal my general laws of library trips.

Going to the library will always take more time than expected.

Even after you've adjusted your expectations. Take a reasonable expectation of how long getting a book should take you, and then multiply it by Pi (actual time = estimated time * Pi). Your frustration with the time it is taking you will increase exponentially with your actual time in the library (F = eactual time in library)

There are many reasons for this solid empirical relationship, including the following:

When you need the item urgently it won't be there

The probability of an item being on the shelf decreases with the need for it. If you need a popular item, students from another class will be using it. If you need a rare item, it will be missing because no-one has needed it for a long time and it "got lost when we moved that section of the library."

Popular items will be removed for rebinding when you need them. New copies of popular items are being processed when you need them.

Corollary: The inter-library loan copy of the item will arrive the day after you gave the lecture, or sent off your paper.

Missing book requests have to be filled in by hand at the library

Given the above laws, it is clear you shouldn't actually go to the library, you should just fill in a missing book request without checking the shelves. But ... the librarians are wise to that. If you could just fill in a missing book request from your office, everyone would do it. So they raise the cost by making you go to the library to fill out the request.

It looks suspicious to walk straight in and fill in a missing book request, so spend a couple of minutes out of sight of the desk, and then fill it in.

Series of reports which are not really journals but not really books will be filed inconsistently

The inconsistency will be at two levels. Some of these series will be filed with journals, other series will be with books. But within a series you can expect that the issue you want will have been placed in the other place it could have been.

The public computers on the entrance level will be working, but being used. The public computers on upper and lower levels will be broken, or off because no-one uses them.

Self-explanatory. Also applies (of course) to the photocopiers.

The complexity of other patron's queries will be negatively related to the number of patron's asking questions

As predicted, you can't find that item. It's been moved or lost, so you have to talk to the staff to find it. It's Sunday, so there's not as many people asking questions. But they will have complex questions about accessing unpublished theses from the 1960s that are stored in a locked room accessible by swiping your library card, and their card doesn't work. Therefore, asking library staff anything always takes a long time.

Other people will already be in the middle of the movable shelving when you get there..

It is unfortunate to crush other patrons between the movable shelving ...

The library only started subscribing to the journal you want the year after the issue you want came out.

Or they stopped subscribing the year before the issue you wanted. Who knew, for example, that the Mississippi Valley Historical Review would ever amount to anything? Not Victoria University, who didn't have paper copies of the early volumes. Thanks to JSTOR this isn't a problem for major journals ... but leads to the corollary that the journal you want will be missing for the years you want, and is being digitized next year.

Whatever rules prevail about patron re-shelving will be ignored

I am against patron re-shelving. Except when it means the book I want is filed correctly on the shelf, instead of lying on a table, or on the carts waiting to be reshelved.

Posted by eroberts at 10:02 PM

July 8, 2008

Knowing your stable mates

Surely Microsoft Entourage (=Outlook for the Mac) should not flag "Powerpoint" as a spelling mistake ...

Posted by eroberts at 12:29 AM

July 2, 2008

Divided by a common language

It turns out that composing a post in your head is not the same as publishing it ...

As people more famous than me have observed the English speaking countries are divided by a common language. It's a division at the margins, where the homonym (porn/pawn), the double entendre (you know!), and the slightly-out-of-context word provide mostly amusement, occasionally confusion, and twice a decade frustration and insults ... Swearing always gets your point across. I will not relate these stories here and now, but if you go for a run with me or buy me a drink I'll be happy to share.

I grew up, it seems, in one of the last cohorts of children to learn to spell properly (that's at least partly a joke), so I was well trained in the mostly British spelling used in New Zealand English. By the time I got to graduate school in America computerized spell checking meant that the transition was quite seamless. My assimilation to American spelling was assisted by watching other international students (only a couple, mind you) who seemed determined to inflict their British spelling on Americans because the British spelling was "correct." The insecurity of intelligent people refusing to use imperial measures and American spelling is not endearing.

Spell checkers catch your mistakes, but are not sensitive to context. Easily the worst copy-editing I've done was writing a paper in American English with quotes from both American and New Zealand sources, and then having to transform my own words back to Australian English while retaining the original spelling in the quotes. This was a paper that used the word "labor" and "labour" a lot, along with variations on organize.

S[t]even years of graduate school switched my natural default spelling to American English, only to see me returning to New Zealand to teach both American and New Zealand history. In both classes, but especially in the American history class, I say that the students can use either language for essays but they must be consistent. This is not a consistency I impose on myself in relatively informal writing where I write both "defence" and "defense" or "organize" and "organise" in the same paragraph, and don't care. It's just not worth the time to check it for informal writing.

I realized my default was American English a couple of months ago, when after 3 weeks in America I was grading/marking papers for my New Zealand history class as I flew home. Nearly finished the marking I realized that in 2 hours of grading I'd been "correcting" all the students' consistent New Zealand English for American spelling. Because one is correct, right? Before handing them back I disclaimed the need for students to care about that part of their marks.

As well as mixing the spelling on a regular basis I have found that 8 years between countries—including half the last year in each—has seriously reduced my perception of distinct native accents. I'll hear American accents in New Zealand, or New Zealand accents in America and it will take me quite some time to realize those people are foreign! I can still sort of hear the distinctive British and Australian accents, but even there my ear for it is fading.

The mystery of it is that others can't understand me and think I spell funny.

Posted by eroberts at 8:49 AM