Every few years this picture makes the rounds on the internet, and every time it does the booksellers and librarians of the world nod in understanding. Public librarians and booksellers get this question day in and day out – academic librarians less so. (Most of our books in academic libraries don’t have their fancy covers on anymore, so this question would be pretty much impossible here anyway.)
Here’s the thing, though. It’s not that “people annoy us” with this question. It looks to me like there was some frustration behind this particular display, sure, and the result is wording that pokes fun at patrons in a way that makes me squirm, but that’s not the norm for people I’ve talked to. Most librarians and booksellers I’ve encountered are proud to know their collections and clients well enough to be able to match people with the books they want!
No, the thing that’s frustrating is that it’s hard for us when we can’t figure out the answer to the question (we’re very all-in on the identity of being able to answer questions), and our systems don’t let us search by cover design features. That mantra of librarianship, The User Is Not Broken, means that if we’re getting tons and tons of the same question, that means that the system isn’t set up right.
Of course, another piece of the frustration is that we often don’t have a ton of control over our search systems. Don’t get me started on the refrain from vendors about “what users want” that almost never matches what the people I work with every day ask me about… And, sure, often what people want and need aren’t technically feasible, or aren’t feasible within shrinking budgets, or aren’t feasible with reduced staff or with staff that gets less and less training.
But if we actually can’t change the systems, we can embrace the fact that we can foster humans who can say “Oh, maybe you’re thinking of this red book?” Humans are pretty incredible!