Using web archives for document supply: a case study

Today I was asked to help with a curly document supply request. A distance student was looking for a particular article, which my colleagues had been unable to locate. Usually we think of document supply as resource sharing, but today was really more about resource finding. It’s also similar to reference queries about how to find journal articles, which we get all the time.

It wound up being so difficult—and interesting!—that I thought others might like to know how it was done. This is also partly so that if my colleagues decide they want me to present a training session on this, I’ve already got the notes written up… teehee.

The request

The details I received looked like this:

Journal Title Risk & Regulation
Publisher CARR LSE
Volume / Issue Issue 3
Part Date Spring 2002
Call Number

Title Japan: Land of the Rising Audit?
Article Author Michael Power
Pages 10 ff

My colleagues initially thought this was a book chapter request, but the book they’d found didn’t quite match these details, at which point they roped me into the search.

Catalogue search

Step 1: Search our local catalogue. This is standard for all document supply requests—you’d be surprised how often people ask for things we already have. I consider it a learning and teaching opportunity (and sometimes also a reminder that print books and serials still exist). In this instance, we didn’t have anything with this title in our catalogue.

Step 2: Search Libraries Australia, the national union catalogue. If another Australian library held this serial, we would request it on the patron’s behalf through the Libraries Australia Document Delivery (LADD) system, of which most Australian libraries are a member. I didn’t have an ISSN, so I had to go on title alone.

Good news: there is a record in LA for this serial, so I could confirm it exists. Bad news: no library in Australia holds it. (Records without holdings are common in LA, as many libraries use it as an acquisitions tool.)

Step 3: Search SUNCAT, the British serials union catalogue. I realised later that I didn’t really need to do this step, because the only extra info that LA didn’t have was a list of UK institutions that held copies. (Which I obviously couldn’t get at.) However, it wasn’t until this point that I noticed the note stating ‘Also available via the internet.’ Which got me thinking—is this an OA online journal? It would explain the lack of local holdings if it was just on the internet…

Web archive search

Step 4: Google the journal title. Yes, Google, like a real librarian.

There is a distinct possiblity that I own this particular shirt

Turns out the journal Risk & regulation is indeed published free and online by the London School of Economics, AND they have back issues online! … going back to 2003. The one I need is from 2002, because of course it is.

Step 5: Search the UK Web Archive. Knowing the journal was a) a UK title and b) online at some point, I then turned to web archives to find a copy. I searched on the article title, it being more distinctive than the journal title, and also because a more specific search would get me results faster. This brought me to an archived LSE news page from 2002.

The LSE news page provided a link to the journal page—but the UK Web Archive hadn’t preserved it! Argh!

Step 6: Search the Wayback Machine. All was not lost, however. Because I was now armed with a dead URL that had once linked to the journal page I needed, I could go straight to the Wayback Machine, part of the Internet Archive, and simply plug in the URL to find archived copies of that page. The Wayback Machine recently launched a keyword search functionality, but it’s still a work in progress. My experience suggests this site functions best when you know exactly where to look.

I had to fiddle around with the URL slightly, but I eventually got to the journal landing page. Remembering that I needed issue 3 from Spring 2002, I clicked on the link to the relevant PDF—also archived!—and quickly located the article.

Step 7: Email article to student and give them the the good news. They thanked me and asked how I found it, so I gave them a shorter version of the above in the hope they might find it useful in future. I made sure to reassure them that this kind of thing is quite difficult and there’s often not necessarily a single place to search (they had wondered what search terms they ought to have used) and if they were stuck in future, just ask a librarian—it’s what we’re for. 🙂


Web archives aren’t usually the search target of choice for reference and document supply staff, but they are an absolute goldmine of public information, particularly for older online serials that may have vanished from the live web. Many researchers (and librarians, for that matter) don’t know much about web archives, if anything, so cases like this are a great way to introduce people to these incredible resources.

This was also a bit of a proud moment for me, I won’t lie. It’s so good to have moments like this every now and again—it helps me demonstrate there’s still a place for professional document hunters.

The curse of reference anxiety

This week, I’ve been wrested from the safety of my office workspace, surrounded by trolleys and paperwork, and thrust into the bustling atmosphere of a law library reference desk. It’s the start of semester so there are new students everywhere, wanting to know where the loos are, how they can find short-loan textbooks, and why the printers aren’t working.

I’m no stranger to reference, but I am a stranger to law students. I have a rudimentary understanding of Australia’s legal system, but I couldn’t use LexisNexis properly if you paid me. And people are paying me. I borrowed an old copy of the first-year intro to law textbook and a legal research guide, hoping I might learn enough to be useful while on the desk, but I know it won’t be enough. I also don’t know anything about fixing printer problems, and we had a lot of those today.

Now, I know I wasn’t hired to be a law reference librarian. If asked, I wouldn’t describe myself as a law librarian at all. I’m a cataloguer working in a law library. My strengths and interests lie elsewhere. I’ve also only been in this position for less than three months—I can’t possibly be expected to know all this stuff.

But it doesn’t help when someone comes to the desk and asks a question I can’t answer.

I wondered today whether ‘reference anxiety’ was a thing. Whether I might add it to my burgeoning collection of anxieties. I have anxiety. I’ve had it for years. It’s been exacerbated recently by a succession of personal problems—I can’t help but bring it to work.

Turns out reference anxiety is very real. A 2010 article1 [non-OA] by Adam Bennington in Searcher examined the causes of reference anxiety and its effect on librarians, along with some tips on when to cut your losses and accept an incomplete or unsatisfactory answer.

It still hurts, though.

You are the information professional after all, the expert searcher, the experienced librarian, the ultimate information broker. People come to you because Google couldn’t cut it. Not only do you want to help, but you want to help legitimize the profession by showing the client you can find anything.

When the searcher can’t uncover the answer, feelings of guilt, shame, and doubt in his or her professional worth can grow acute, especially in newly minted information professionals.

Don’t I know it.

If someone comes to the desk with a circ query, or a catalogue query, or a ‘where are the loos’ query, I know I can handle those, and my confidence is obvious. On the flipside, if someone asks me about finding cases, or choosing the right book for their essay question, or even how to fix the damn printers, I freeze. Not only can I not help them, I don’t even know where to look. If all three reference librarians are unavailable, I’m out of luck. I could ask the reference seekers to send an email and ensure someone gets back to them, but people need their printing right now, and they don’t teach printer repair in library school.

My heart rate goes through the roof. I can’t breathe, suddenly. My brain is going in ever-tightening circles. I can’t help them. What the hell am I here for?

We speak often about people who become overwhelmed by libraries and librarians, and the resultant user anxiety that creates. We call it, reasonably enough, ‘library anxiety’. Librarians bend over backwards to alleviate the fears of users who aren’t used to asking questions of people, not the internet, and we strive to make the library a welcoming and productive place. But that necessitates a certain level of reference skill.

I don’t have that skill, and I know I’m not expected to, but I like working here, and I want to do right by our users, my colleagues and my boss. I want to make sure every patron leaves with something. Whether that’s a case citation, or an email address for further help, or the number for the IT helpdesk.

Managing my anxiety enough to get them that something remains a work in progress. But all I can do is try. Perhaps after I’m done with the first-year law textbook, I’ll pick up a printer manual as well.

  1. Bennington, A. (2010). A practical guide to coping with reference anxiety disorder. Searcher, 18(3), 22-25,54. Retrieved from 

Why should I trust you? You’re a librarian!

‘Trust me, I’m a raaaaaat’

Librarians. We’ve got tickets on ourselves, haven’t we? Fancying ourselves as leaders of crusades against fake news and information illiteracy and all that. Styling ourselves as trustworthy gateways to all the balanced, unbiased information your heart could possibly desire. Go on. Ask us. Make us feel relevant again.

Modern reference librarianship has a certain smugness about it. People could just as easily Google their answers, we tell ourselves, but instead they come to us. To us! Never mind the fact we use Google half the time ourselves to find the answer, or that people tend to only ask for a librarian’s help out of sheer frustration (often with our resources), people still come to us for answers! They like us! They trust us!

Now, maybe my LIS degree program is deficient in this regard, but I don’t recall ever coming across the library version of the Hippocratic Oath. (Turns out someone invented one.) Thankfully, malpractice lawsuits against librarians aren’t really a thing. But what, really, is stopping a librarian from dispensing biased or unreliable information? How does a user know, really know, that a librarian is any more inherently trustworthy than a Google search?

The short answer is: they don’t.

We, as librarians, can’t appeal to academic authority, as much as we might like to. Plenty of people working in libraries don’t have degrees in the field. (I don’t yet have mine.) No, we didn’t all go to school for this stuff. I work with awesome people who have life experience in other areas. Doesn’t make them any less trustworthy, any less reliable or any less capable of answering patron questions.

Much as we might claim otherwise, each librarian will bring their own implicit biases to their work. Where, for example, do we draw the line between collection development and censorship? For many librarians, at least on ALA Think Tank, it turned out this line was the (now-cancelled) prospective book by professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos. Plenty of librarians refused to buy the book in an effort to support minority patrons and fight hate speech. Plenty of other librarians pledged to buy the book in an effort to support free speech and fight impressions of censorship. Each side has considerable merit, even if the point is now moot. But how can patrons trust librarians either way?

It’s no secret that librarianship in the Western world is dominated by white middle-aged cat ladies who like tea and cardigans. My only point of diversion from this stereotype is my hatred of cats. With such a homogenised workforce, there are few opportunities for minority patrons to see themselves reflected in their knowledge workers. Indigenous patrons, for example, may have good reasons not to trust white librarians. We cannot simply expect our patrons to trust us. We have to earn that trust.

Our chief competitor, Google, owes its success to a secret algorithm that ranks search results by various metrics. Librarians, particularly in academic and school environments, spend considerable time and resources on teaching students how to critically evaluate their Google results and their news(feed) consumption. I’ve yet to come across a libguide on the subject that implores students to evaluate librarians themselves. Sure, I can’t see how Google’s brain works for myself, but nor can I see a librarian’s brain. That IFLA infographic on fake news promotes librarians as unbiased sources of truth. This sends entirely the wrong message.

This infographic drives me bonkers

Some have argued that critically evaluating everything we see and hear is what got the world into this mess. I respectfully disagree. I firmly believe the key to information literacy is to evaluate what the librarian says with the same tools one ought to be using to evaluate everything else. Tools that librarians are falling over themselves to teach. There are no unbiased, impartial sources of information. Not encyclopedias. Not government websites. Not reputable news organisations. And definitely not librarians.

Am I shooting myself in the foot? No. I’m being honest with myself and I’m being honest with the patrons I serve. I recognise that a deeply-held, professional sense of duty is the only thing stopping me from telling my patrons porkies, and I want them to know that too. I want them to use those critical evaluation skills right back at me and hopefully recognise the merit in my answers. I want them to know better than to take me at face value.

I want them to know better than to trust me.