Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The theme for today's reference books is: California. Because Better Half and I are going there next week for our vacation, and because we have a couple of cool, underutilized books in the collection (as well as the usual Lonely Planets and Moon guides, which are useful but not really exciting.)

A Companion to California
James D. Hart, University of California Press, 1987

"This work is intended as a useful companion for anybody interested in general or basic knowledge about any aspect of the most populous tate in the Union." So says James Hart in the introduction, and so delivers the book. It's sturdy and thick, suitable for summarily crushing your opponent in any contest over the question of how many carrots are grown in the state (36,000 acres' worth, in 1982.)

The entries are arranged in a single alphabetical list, encompassing everything from Death Valley to Ronald Reagan, and dipping into such obscure byways as "Canadians in California." As in any encyclopedia, there's some capriciousness to the choice of entries. Why, for instance, is there no entry for Clint Eastwood, who is a California native and who has devoted much of his professional and political life to the town of Carmel? Why is there no entry for the movie Blade Runner? Why, most importantly, is there no index? (Although there is a chronology of the state's history in the back of the book.)

This one offers the basics, but not much more. And a lot of the basic information is out of date now, given that this was published in 1987. I don't see a newer edition in WorldCat, but we're probably due for one.

Historic Spots in California
Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch, Ethel Grace Rensch, Rev. by William N. Abeloe
Stanford University Press, 1966

This is the third edition of a book that was first published in 1932, and I'm not sure why it's the one we have in the reference section, since there's a fourth edition in our stacks. Anyway, it's an interesting handbook for someone who wants to spend some time thumbing through the history of the state.

I like the arrangement of this book, which makes it easy to find what you're looking for. There's a map of the state with the counties clearly delineated on the inside cover, and the book itself is arranged alphabetically, by county. If you're driving down the coast (hypothetically), you can clearly see which counties you'll pass through, then read a few pages about the county by flipping through to that section of the book. If you're interested in areas smaller than counties (i.e., Angel Island, etc.), you can find them in the index in the back.

The history here is written generously and with obvious interest (which it isn't in the Companion, above.) I turned to the section about the Farallon Islands (San Francisco County), which are fascinating to me because they're swarmed by great white shark every autumn. There's a great little squib about the discovery of the islands, the rookeries of the sea birds that lived there, and the egg trade that used to thrive off the rookeries. Nothing about sharks, but I realize my interests aren't universal.

If I had to choose a source for answering quick, cut-and-dried factual questions about the state, I'd choose the Companion.

If I wanted to read some brief local history snippets, I'd choose Historic Spots.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

The world of reference is strange and mysterious. A couple of days ago I profiled the Statistical Handbook on Women in America. Today as soon as I went out to the desk, someone wanted to see statistics about the numbers of women on welfare in the U.S., by race. We found more recent tables in the Statistical Abstract, but going to the Statistical Handbook on Women in America found more specific information, taken from different census tables. I told the patron he could look those tables up in the most recent census. He went away pretty happy, I think.

In sum: profiling reference books works.

As another sidenote, my department continues to use a Blogger blog to profile reference questions. I have to say, I'm having a hard time deciding whether I should go back to listing the questions I'm asked. I understand the potential objections to doing it, but on the other hand, if there's a real problem with it, then I shouldn't have just posted here about the women-on-welfare question. I believe there's value in maintaining a sense of confidentiality around patron requests, but I think there's also a danger in becoming senselessly secretive. Libraries are, in large part, about the free flow of information. Does that mean we should let patron queries flow onto the Internet? I'm still stumped.

Meanwhile, I profile more reference books.

Today, a couple from the same stable: two books about the media and communications industry.

Plunkett's Entertainment & Media Industry Almanac
Jack W. Plunkett, 2002-2003 (annual)

I just had a conversation with a friend this weekend about what the heck Bluetooth is. If only I'd known I could have looked it up in Jack's short glossary, in the front of this book.

The main body of the almanac is a listing of 366 entertainment and media companies, providing vital statistics such as address, financial information, contacts, affiliations, etc. There's also a field for recording how many apparent women officers each company has, as well as a notification if a company seems to be a good place for a woman or minority person to work and advance. A typical entry, pared down to the most basic information and what interests me, looks a bit like this:

First Look Media (
Ranks within this company's industry group: Sales 21; Profits 29
Types of business: independent film distribution
Contacts: Christopher Cooney, CEO [et al.]
Phone: 310-855-1199
Financials: 2001 sales in thousands: $28,200; 2001 profits in thousands: $-1,400
Competitive advantage: focus on international markets
Apparent women officers or directors: one

There's a break-out box outlining the company's growth plans and special features, and listing some of its better-known products (Antonia's Line, The Secret of Roan Inish, Titus, etc.)

Companies are listed alphabetically, but you can also look them up via their parent company, in the index in the back.

There are several narrative chapters in this book as well, giving major industry trends and an industry overview (charts and tables included.) There's also a really interesting section on project budgeting examples, which breaks down the estimated production costs of the "average" feature-length film and hour-long television program.

This one's interesting for media hounds and people wanting to pry into some of the nooks and crannies of the entertainment industry (including such narrow byways as 3-D video arcade games and bingo supplies.) Some of the bigger companies will be covered by other business sources, but I'm pretty sure this offers more depth in the industry than the general sources can do.

Hoover's Guide to Media Companies
Hoover's, Inc., 1996

Ah, Hoover's. The business standby. I haven't done business reference in a very long time (we have a separate desk in our library), so I'm a little rusty on what we have, but I'm pretty sure this isn't our most recent edition. Still, it's fun to look through.

Hoover's profiles companies in much the same way as Plunkett does, providing an initial industry overview and then a "list-lover's compendium" showing the 200 largest media companies (Sony won in 1996), the 200 fastest-growing companies, the top-earning US magazines, the newspapers with the highest circulation (USA Today beat New York Times), the top 10 web publishers, and so on. (There's a slightly depressing table showing the Publishers Weekly bestsellers for 1995; Danielle Steel takes 2 of the 5 spots in fiction.)

The profiles are alphabetical by company name, and they list pretty much the same vital stats as Plunkett does. Hoover's adds key competitors and a little more narrative, as well as slightly more thorough financials. There's also not complete overlap in who gets covered in each book; First Look isn't in Hoover's, and Encyclopedia Britannica isn't in Plunkett. Hoover's offers profiles for the "top" media companies, and then for a selection of extras, including Playboy Enterprises, Inc. (Which grossed $247.2 million in 1995.)

There's a list of further "key" media companies in the back, as well as several indices (including one by geographical location.)

Obviously, this one is highly geared to business researchers; in some ways, it seems more so than Plunkett's, at least to first glance.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

I've been a little busy lately, and because we're in summer intersession, I haven't been on the desk very much. But this morning I got a comment from some kind soul saying "more posts, please." And because I live to oblige...

Two reference books today, because the desk is quiet and I need the practice. Taken more or less at random from our reference collection, we have:

The Language of the Civil War
John D. Wright
Oryx Press, 2001

This is a fun one. It's an alphabetical list of words and phrases that developed during the Civil War. There's a good bibliography of further readings, and a comprehensive index. Also includes a listing of terms in related subject groups at the front (i.e., all the terms having to do with horses, weapons, medical matters, etc. are listed in one place.) I've had good experiences with Oryx Press encyclopedias in the past; they seem to be a pretty solid little publisher. There are some images of Civil War-era people and places, which can be useful when students are looking for that kind of thing. Overall, it's probably what I'd call a "secondary" reference tool--it's not a source of hard data or statistics, and it's likelier to be used as a browsing tool than for a specific answer to a search. But these are entertaining books to spend time with, as evidenced by our student assistants' strong inclination to choose them when they have to review something for their Reference Gem.

A few interesting Civil War-era terms:

poor as Job's turkey: A common simile for poverty or lack of funds; e.g., "Every time the sutler comes around, I'm as poor as Job's turkey."

sutler's pie: A small pie that was an uninviting but still popular snack item for Union soldiers. The pies sold for 25 cents, and the ingredients within the thin crust were usually a mystery. One soldier described them as "moist and indigestible below, tough and indestructible above, with untold horrors within."

bull-head: A slang name for someone who acted stubborn or was stupid. The insult was first used about a decade before the war began.

Statistical Handbook on Women in America
Cynthia M. Taeuber
Oryx Press, 1996

It's an Oryx kind of day, apparently. I didn't realize these were both Oryx Press when I took them off the shelf. It makes me think (idly) that it might make interesting reading to intentionally review a few books from a single publisher at the same time. It could be a good way to get a sense for how authoritative or user-friendly a given publisher tends to be.

Anyway, this one's what I might call a "primary" reference book, full of facts and figures that answer specific questions about the status of women in this country.

It's a bit hard to neatly encapsulate a book with this much information in it, and in this case the ToC doesn't help too much. It's not particularly user-friendly; the arrangement is hard to read and I'd frankly rather turn to the index to find a specific figure. Fortunately, Oryx seems to give good index. There's a glossary of terms, and a one-page guide to information resources, which helpfully explains that the United States has a "decentralized statistical system." No kidding, say reference librarians everywhere. Still, it's helpful to know which agencies to call for which kinds of figures.

The broad categories of information in this one are the usual for demographic stats sources: education, health, employment, poverty, population change, etc. The sources are generally U.S. government agencies, and there's a certain amount of capriciousness in what's included. ("Hypertension among persons 20 years of age and over, by sex, age, race, and Hispanic origin: 1960-62, 1971-74, 1976-80, and 1988-91", for instance.) But there's also some very good information in here, that would answer a lot of questions we might conceivably get: divorce and annulment rates, birth rates for unmarried mothers, causes of death according to sex, etc.

We should update this one, if there's a new edition out.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Guide to American Poetry Explication
James Ruppert, G.K. Hall & Co., 1989

Thanks to Steven Harris, head of collection development at Utah State and erstwhile supporter of the LES New Members Discussion Group, for this one. At ALA Annual in Chicago, Steven gave us a brief talk about explication guides. They are now my new favorite toy.

Basically, explication guides are books that painstakingly index all of the explication-type criticism on short stories or poems or drama, listing all the unlikely, hidden locations to find out what Emily Dickinson meant by, "It's Easy to Invent a Life," for instance. How is this different from MLA? Well, most of what's in MLA isn't explication--it's criticism. It's more fine-tuned, it's often theoretical, it's usually highly specific, and it may not so much explain the "meaning" of the poem as apply a theory to it, or use it for cultural analysis, or... In short, it's not usually the kind of stuff that undergraduates want to find when they're looking for something to help them read and analyze a poem. (Or a short story, or a play.)

Also, MLA indexes chapters in books, but it doesn't index two-page discussions of a poem within a chapter. Explication guides will literally tell you that you can find a run-down of "It's Easy to Invent a Life" on pages 103-105 of Heaven Beguiles the Tired, by Thomas W. Ford. (And you can.) This is what I mean by "unlikely, hidden locations." Explication guides offer access to the nitty-gritty discussions tucked inside larger works--the things you otherwise have to tell a student to just browse through, or check the index for, or read entirely. They help you not crush a student's spirit, in other words.

The guides I've seen are better at covering major authors than obscure ones. But they're still amazing resources, and thank you, Steven, for telling me about them. It's a lot better than having to rely on Gale's Literary Index for references to excerpted gobbets reproduced in the various Gale series. God help us if we ever have to rely solely on those.