what you learn in library school, what’s in a name

library of congress advanced search boxes

I use my library school education in odd ways. I barely knew library school was a thing before I went to library school. So I’m not entirely surprised when other people don’t know that many, if not most, librarians have some sort of professional-level education. Library education is a curious mix of what I think of as trade-school work–learning to do repetitive tasks efficiently and within the scope of an existing protocol–and professional work–thinking about big picture ideas like intellectual freedom and how to determine what a book is really “about.” In the work I do nowadays, I am more likely to use my decades of experience than I am to use things I specifically learned in school, but there are a few exceptions. Doing research to write Wikipedia articles uses a lot of my library school learning.

Doesn’t need to be Wikipedia, certainly, but I’m often writing articles there about people who aren’t super-famous, or were well-known maybe a long time ago. They’re often women, married women. Which means, especially for historical women, they’d have a married name and a maiden name. A decent chunk of the women I write about have been married more than once. So they might have multiple versions of their names. And, of course, historically the woman might just be known as Mrs. MANSNAME, even for her professional work.

Google’s gotten us all pretty comfortable with just tossing a hash of basically-accurate letters into a search box and having it come back with more or less what you’re looking for. Using other, generally worse, search engines can often require doing things like “bound phrase” searching (see what I did there?) where the only way you’re going to come back with anything remotely accurate is to say that you’re looking for a bunch of specific words in a specific order. In library school, I took a class that taught you how to search in databases. This was back when you would pay BY THE QUERY to look things up, and it wasn’t cheap. Being able to write good queries was a money-saving skill, not just a time-saving one. So we’d do fun exercises where we were given a set of records to try to find, and then we’d write and run queries to see how we’d do in terms of recall (did we get all the stuff that matched) and relevance (did we get a bunch of extra junk too). One of the assignments involved looking for information on an indigenous language that was transliterated as Athabaskan or Athapaskan or Athapascan or Athabascan. So you’d need to make sure your query used Atha?as?an, and you’d need to know how to do that within the query language of the given database.

So nowadays, when I am searching Loc.gov, or Newspapers.com, or within various random databases or websites, I need to figure out how they deal with queries, peeking at the advanced search if there even is one, to determine how many different ways I need to search for someone’s name. Within a library catalog, searching for an author, there would be authority control so you’d mostly need to just know what version of the person’s name the catalog uses and then you’d know that all their books would be under that one name. Not so with other databases.

As an example, I wrote an article about Mary C. Alexander, an early female pilot who lived in the DC area. She was married twice. Here are many of the different ways her name might be found:

M. White
Mary White
Mary C. White
Mary Charlotte White
M. Alexander
Mrs. Alexander
Miss. Alexander
Mary Alexander
Mary C. Alexander
Mary Charlotte Alexander
Mrs. John Ira Alexander
M. Held
Mary Held
Mary C. Held
Mary C. A. Held
Mary Alexander Held
Mary C. Alexander Held
Mrs. Mary Held
Mrs. Mary Alexander Held
Mrs. Emil Charles Held
Mrs. Mary Charlotte Alexander Held

Looking for information about her, distributed among many different places with their own quirky search mechanisms, most of which aren’t surfaced in Google, has been a fun chance to flex the query-building muscles that I don’t get to use that often nowadays in my regular library work.

Ask A Librarian: Prison furniture?

image of a sturdy library tabl that was built by iowa prison industries.

We have discussed whether it is ok to contract with [prisons] — is it possible that it means people who are incarcerated are learning actual useful skills that they can use to get decently paid work when they get out? Or are we kidding ourselves? Do you have any idea? I’m wondering how I might find out if it actually translates like that. I guess I could try and get in touch with someone at the Department of Corrections. What do you think?

The prison furniture thing is really a pickle. I see it as “of a kind” with discussions about library pay rates. Some libraries are just so small that they can’t pay reasonable wages and if it’s between that and being closed more hours, I think it’s important to make the decision that is best for the community. At the same time, the prison labor situation is… a problem and it’s worth trying to not contribute, but I am also cognizant of the fact that yes, building nice furniture is actually a job skill and a real one, as opposed to, say, making license plates.

So I often think, for myself since I am not in a decision-making capacity, how could I still serve my community but also make the world more just? So thinking about ways in which the library could try to balance the situation either by doing something like making a donation to people who are trying to address inequality or incarceration issues (I realize this is not necessarily simple for a library) or maybe finding a way to Zoom with some of the people who made the library’s furniture, either currently incarcerated people or people who have gotten released to let people know how the situation really works. Alternately, working with restorative justice organizations within communities to try to keep people out of prison, or getting a subscription to Prison Legal News for the library. Or working with the prison that makes the furniture to see what their prison library (if any) is like and how you could help. I know Johnny Flood at Vermont Humanities has been doing some of this work.


Obviously it’s a difficult choice, but I’m not sure it’s entirely practical for libraries to entirely eschew prison labor. But they can assure if they do engage with the prison industrial complex I think there are ways to do it mindfully and acknowledging that any time you engage with the capitalistic system–as we have to!–there are ways to mitigate damage, a little.