or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk

The World Still Is A Good Place

   February 1st, 2017 Brian Herzog

Last week, someone called the library asking if they could return a book by mail. Of course, we said, that's no problem.

This week, a package arrived with this inside:

How awesome is that? I have no idea if American Airlines, or airlines in general, make this a general practice, or if this Flight Attendant just did it because he felt it was the right thing to do. But it is great, and we appreciate it, and I'm sure the patron* does too.

In any case, I sincerely hope American Airlines reimburses their above-and-beyond Flight Attendant for postage. Thank you very much Tom!


*By the way, we looked up who had it checked out and called to let them know their (lost) book was returned, but the phone went right to voicemail. Probably that means they're still on vacation - but now without Rodney Dangerfield to keep them company.

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Display Idea: What Your Neighbor Is Reading

   January 20th, 2017 Brian Herzog

A reader of this blog, from the Wayne County Public Library, sent in a pretty awesome display idea that I wanted to share:

At Wayne County Public Library we have a display by the checkout counter called "What Your Neighbor is Reading." We just place items recently turned in on a cart with a "What Your Neighbor is Reading sign on it that has an image of Wilson (from "Home Improvement") on it. Previously, we used an image of Gladys Kravitz (from "Bewitched"). Our patrons enjoy seeing the pop culture figures and they like the convenience of being able to check books out so close to the register.

How cool is that? Just putting the little local spin on it and identifying them as something their neighbor is interested will definitely draw peoples' attention. Very similar to "Recently Returned" shelves, but more fun.

She also mentioned that they place a colored slip in each of the display books that is removed at checked out, and have a sheet at Circ they use to track stats on displayed items. Another great idea.

I hope you find this as neat as I did and can use it in your library. Thanks, Gigi!

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An Old Solution to a New Problem

   December 8th, 2016 Brian Herzog

One of those on-going discussions in the library world is how to display new books.

Well, new-new books are easy: when something is recently published, it goes in the new book room, or on the new book shelf, for six months or a year or whatever you're library's practice is. And usually, it also gets marked with some kind of sticker so pages know to shelve it as "New" rather than in the regular collection.

The question has been - at least for me - what is the best way to handle books that are not recently-published, but that are still new to the library (and therefore possibly new to our patrons)?

If I missed ordering something when it first came out, and then a patron donates a copy, should it go into the new book room like a new book (even though it's not "new"), or should it just go right into the regular collection (even though people might miss it there)? I've heard arguments both ways on this, but the Jackson (NH) Public Library has a great (and obvious) solution that just never occurred to me.

They do put these old-but-new-to-the-library books into the new book room - and just mark them "NEW-ish." Brilliant.

This labeling lets people know the books aren't just published, but also allows the people who browse the new book room (rather than search the catalog) to easily find them. And that's the important thing.

This might be commonplace in other libraries too, but like I said, it never occurred to me before. Now I just need to convince the staff at my library to go for it. We'll see.

Way to go, staff at the Jackson Library.

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Keeping Constant Contact Clean

   November 16th, 2016 Brian Herzog

Earlier this year, when the woman who used to be in charge of all our email newsletter retired, I became the library's primary contact for our Constant Contact account. This meant I started getting the weekly emails about how many new subscribers we had, confirmation that messages were sent out, and I was the one to get the billing notices.

All of that is fine, except that after just a couple weeks, our bill jump. A lot. And I had no idea why.

After a little digging and a few phone calls to Constant Contact, it turned out that the number of contacts in our account had grown so much that we crossed into the next higher pricing tier. We were now over 10,000 contacts - that sounds great, but the price different was tremendous, and wasn't something we had budgeted for nor could we afford.

After the dust settled, the obvious occurred to me: Chelmsford's population is about 33,000 - there's no way that enough people in town could have signed up for our email newsletter to grow our contacts list that much.

So I started looking at the weekly new subscribers notification more closely, and notice something - see if you see the same thing I did:


To me, all of these looked like fake email addresses. Not just the .ru, .pl, .top, .site, etc, but even the yahoo.com accounts looked bogus. And we were getting 100-200 new subscriptions a week, so yes, it makes sense then how we could grow from a sensible subscriber base to over 10,000.

So now of course, I needed to figure out how to delete all these fake addresses out of our account to bring the total number of contacts down so Constant Contact would drop us down to the lower pricing tier again. Their Customer Service people I spoke with were friendly, helpful, and understanding, and gave us a grace period to get things under control.

I hadn't used Constant Contact much before this, but I quickly became familiar with their Contact Management area and deleting contacts. My first strategy was just to search for things like "*.ru" and "*.pl" and delete any address that came up, because I sincerely doubt that we have any patrons in Russia or Poland. I built myself quite a list of top-level domains to search for and delete every week, and even though it helped, it still required a lot of of my time.

The first day I started working on this, I deleted something like 2,000 contacts. That was a good start and gave us some breathing room to stay below 10,000, but I knew there were lots of other junk addresses in there that I needed to figure out how to eliminate.

I also wanted to stop the flow of new signups. I talked to Constant Contact again, but they said there was no way to block signups by country or domain. They said all I could really do was require First Name and Last Name during signup, and also use "confirmation opt-in" (where patrons must click a link in an email sent to them after they filled out our web form before they are actually subscribed to the list). I did turn on the first name/last name requirement, but didn't want to use "confirmation opt-in." That extra step annoys me, and it bugged me that real patrons would have to suffer (and possibly not get signed up) because of the jerks out there. Not to mention, there is no guarantee that this would keep the jerks out.

So I kept looking in the Contact Management section for something that might help. At one point I tried figuring out where these fake signups were coming from - we only have one signup form on our website, and that's it. No Facebook form, no other apps, nothing, but I figured these fake accounts must be coming from some kind of script somewhere.

On the Advanced Search screen, I saw one of the options was "Contact Source:"


That made me think that if I could just figure out the source, I could easily search for those and delete them. Nice.

Oh, and then on list of contacts, I noticed there was a way to change the view, and the second option included the source. Ha - it's all coming together now.


After skimming through pages of our contacts, I noticed something: the source for the real contacts were either "Added by you" or "Website sign-up form." The source for everything that looked like a fake address was "Embedded JMML."

I had no idea what "Embedded JMML" or where it was to be abused like this, but at least there was some commonality. Now all I had to do was an Advanced Search for Source=Embedded JMML and everything is fine.

Except: Embedded JMML was not one of the options in the Source dropdown box in Advanced Search. Arrgh.

But, I think I solved it anyway. Using a combination of Advanced Search fields, I was able to filter out all good records, and so the results were only records with the Embedded JMML as a Source:


And there were THOUSANDS of them. I skimmed through pages of the contacts to make sure no real addresses slipped through, but they all looked fake.

So I selected them all, braced myself, and deleted 4,000 contact from our account. Whew. At least now we're back down to a realistic number, and they all seem like legitimate addresses.

I contacted Constant Contact once again, asking if they can block the "Embedded JMML" as a source for signups, or at least tell me where these signups were originating. At first all answers were no, but the support person who got my ticket really stayed with it, and convinced the development team to look at adding this as a feature. Which is great. For awhile I was beginning to think it was a big Constant Contact conspiracy to make it impossible to manage our contact list, because their pricing structure is set up to charge us more for high numbers of contacts - but that seems crazy even to me.

I know this is kind of dumb, but it really was a problem. And oddly, I didn't see anything on the internet about other people experiencing this same issue, so maybe we're just unlucky. Still, I thought it was kind of interesting and wanted to share.

So, the end result of all of this is that I still have to spend five minutes each week setting up this Advanced Search and deleting all the JMML signups, but at least it's a functioning method to get what I want, it keeps our contact list accurate and clean, and patrons don't have to jump through unnecessary hoops to get the library's email newsletter. Maybe that's the best I can hope for.

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Book Reviews in the Age of Email Leaks

   November 9th, 2016 Brian Herzog

ageofjihadcoverI was reading book reviews while doing selection for our non-fiction collection, and came across one for Age of Jihad: Islamic State and the Great War for the Middle East, by Patrick Cockburn.

After what I read I still couldn't decide whether or not to buy it for the library, so I went out to Amazon to see more information.

The bits of information on Amazon records I always look for are publication date, format, number of review stars, publisher, best seller rank, and also whatever is in the editorial review section.

Often these are blurbs written by (I'm guessing) paid reviewers, but sometimes I recognize names as someone I'd expect to be an authority on the subject. Sometimes they're even full-blow Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, or other review journal reviews.

And sometimes they completely surprise me.

When I looked at this section for Age of Jihad, I found this:


So is this a thing now? Being mentioned flatteringly in leaked email correspondence is a source of promotional material? Huh - that doesn't seem like the best use of the technology tools we have, but I guess it's the world we live in.

It hadn't occurred to me until I saw this, but I bet a whole bunch of people immediately did Ctrl+F for their name as soon as the text of her emails were released.

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Readalikes for Old Bags.

   June 2nd, 2016 Brian Herzog

Recently one of our patrons submitted a purchase suggestion for a book she saw reviewed in the Boston Globe: Old Bags Taking a Stand, by Faith Baum and Lori Petchers

The patron had also clipped and stapled a little part of the Globe's review, which made it sound interesting enough to investigate further. In cases like this, my first stop is Amazon to see if anyone else has reviewed it.

Now, one of the little games I play when searching - for anything - is to try to type in as few keywords as possible to get the result I want. Known item searches are of course the easiest, and in this case, I just typed "old bags taking" into Amazon's book search - and laughed out loud at the result:


Yes, the correct book was listed first, but the second result was what struck me. Little Women? Really, that's the exact opposite of "old bag" in this sense. Amazon, what in your search algorithm matched these two books?

I've showed a couple coworkers this and their search results varied slightly, but Little Women was always on the list. It seems weird, but maybe this is one of those reader preferences computers can identify that people wouldn't - maybe Little Women fans really are the target audience for Old Bags. Hmm.

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