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



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/3/13

   March 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Boston Post Cane from Winthrop, MAI think this is my absolute favorite reference question so far this year. It took a few days before the final answer emerged, and it all started with a patron sending in this message from our ChelmsfordHistory.org website's contact form:

Does Chelmsford have a Boston Post cane, if we do who is the lucky holder?

I've lived in New England for about twelve years, and have heard of these canes. What I knew about them was just that some towns had them and some didn't, and they were handed out around the turn of the last century by a newspaper or magazine.

I've been in Chelmsford for seven years, and never heard of one of these canes in connection with Chelmsford. I did a bit of research, and then replied to the patron:

I haven't heard of a cane in connection with Chelmsford. I found a list online of the communities that have them, and Chelmsford isn't included:

http://web.maynard.ma.us/bostonpostcane/the-canes/massachusetts

I think when the canes were passed out by the Boston Post, Chelmsford was a much smaller town than now, and perhaps didn't make the cut of the original 700 towns that received them. I'll check with the Historical Society to be sure, and let you know. Thanks.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

From this website, I learned more details about the canes: in 1909, they were given to 700 towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, by Edwin A. Grozier, Publisher of the Boston Post newspaper. The tradition was to give the cane to the oldest living resident in town, and then it was passed on to the next oldest when that person died. The cane itself belonged to the town, administered by the Selectmen, but was always supposed be held by the oldest resident. Of course, as towns grew, this became harder to track, and many canes were lost or retired and put on display somewhere.

Anyway, I emailed the Historical Society to be thorough, and while waiting for a reply, continued to check our vertical file and local history resources. I wasn't able to find anything about a Chelmsford cane, so I was surprised by the message I got the following day from the Historical Society:

We have it at the Historical Society now, but I don't think it is on display yet. It went missing for many years but turned up at the Senior Center a couple of years ago. [One of our members] has more details on the mystery if you are interested.

Holy smokes - do you know what this means? The internet lied to me!

I was certainly happy I checked with them. I emailed the patron the good news, but also followed up with the other Historical Society member to see what else I could learn about the cane. The next day, I heard back:

Hi Brian,
You can find out all about the cane in Judy Buswick's book Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst. I'm sure the library has a copy. There is a chapter on the cane.
Take care

Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst coverOops - we do indeed have multiple copies*, and it wasn't one of the books I looked in. The title of the chapter on the cane is "Mystery defines cane's history," which is why this book didn't come up when I searched the catalog for keyword combinations that include Boston or Post (however, a search for "Chelmsford cane" produces this book as the only result).

So, bad on me for not conducting a more thorough search on my own, but I'm glad my reaching out to an expert resource directed me back to the right place.

This chapter, which was originally published as a newspaper article in 1996, detailed the Chelmsford cane's history, from the first few recipients through it being lost, and then suddenly turning up one day at the Senior Center. After that it made its way to the Historical Society for safe keeping, and another Historical Society member said that it is in fact currently in a display case there.

Again, I emailed the patron with what I had learned, including letting him know we have this book in the library. A few days later he came in to pick it up, and we had a nice little talk about the canes, and his interest in them.

Apart from me dropping the ball and not finding the right book when I should have, this was a great reference question. The internet was wrong, local resources were vital, I learned something about local history, and the patron got exactly what he wanted. But best of all, I get to email the people who run that Boston Post cane website to have Chelmsford added, doing my little part to make the internet a better place.

 


*This book is also available for purchase from the Chelmsford Historical Society.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/17/13

   February 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Ebay listing for 1743 MASSACHUSETTS Bay COLONIAL Laws CHARTER American ADULTERY Leather BOSTONThis isn't a reference question, but I think it is by far the most interesting email the library received this week. The message below was sent to my Director, and was then forwarded to our cataloger and me to look into:

Subject: former(?) Rare Chelmsford Library Book 1743 MASSACHUSETTS Bay COLONIAL Laws

Hello, I noticed this rare book for sale on ebay and an image shows an ownership label of your library. I'm not interested in buying it, just wanted to bring it to your attention in case this rare item had been removed from your collection. No response needed to me.

Wow. We checked out the ebay listing for this book, and sure enough, the inside cover has a old Chelmsford Library bookplate:

Adams Library bookplate

None of us ever recalled seeing this book in the collection, or even anything remotely like it. We have lots of old historical and vital records, but none leather-bound or particularly valuable.

There was no record in the catalog for this item at our library (although a nearby library does have it) - which means this item could have been weeded and discarded, sold as a fundraiser, or stolen by fiends any time in the last 100+ years.

Since we have no way to know, there's nothing we can do. I do occasionally hear about stolen library books being sold at auction (or worse, maps or color plates cut out of library books), but in this case I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt. It is an interesting situation though. If anyone would like to purchase it and donate it to the library, please let me know.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/10/13

   February 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Holding a duckOne common question at the reference desk is a patron asking for a specific book by describing the cover - they don't remember the title or author, but know it was "kind of red, with an airplane or a submarine, and maybe something like a roundish square type thing."

Being librarians, we take whatever information the patron can provide and do our best. I know many people dread this type of question (because it's often just impossible), but I sort of enjoy them. Since the expectation of success is so low to begin with, it's a fun challenge, and finding the right book is all the better for it.

In this case, the patron was actually a coworker of mine - she had taken her niece to a different library, and was trying to re-locate a book her niece had picked out and loved, to see if the author had any others. But all she could remember was that it was a newish kids book with a girl holding a duck on the cover.

I first went to Amazon's advanced search with this question. My keyword search was for "girl duck," limit to Condition=New, Format=Printed Books, Pub date after November 2012, and then submitted individual searches for each of the different kid ages one at a time. None of the searches has a likely-looking cover, so I decided to just use "duck" as my keyword (thinking that if a duck is on the cover it must be the important part of the story). I also dropped the idea of using the age limiter in favor of the Subject option limited to Children's Books.

Amazon advanced search page

In that search, result #10 looked promising. I called my coworker over to check, and she was excited - the book she'd seen with her niece was indeed Lulu: Lulu and the Duck in the Park (Book 1), by Hilary McKay and Priscilla Lamont*.

Lulu and the Duck listing on Amazon

Awesome. But then I started to wonder - was Amazon the best tool for this question? There is no really good "look up a book by cover" resource out there, although I would love there to be. LibraryThing started down this road with CoverGuess. The genius of their approach was to gamify the data entry part of tagging cover art, but I don't think a searchable interface has ever been created.

Anyway, out of curiosity I decided to run the same search process in Novelist and the library catalog, to see if I could have successfully located the book with those tools.

Novelist's advanced search is more complex than Amazon's - I used "girl duck" as a keyword, limited to Audience = 0-8 Years, and Publication Date from = November 2012:

Novelist advanced search

In my library's catalog's advanced search, I used "duck" as the keyword, limited to Format = Books, Audience = Kids, and Publication Year after 2011:

Evergreen's adavnced search

And now the results - each one has the number next to it indicating how far down this book was in the search results:

Amazon:

Result #10 on Amazon

Novelist:

Result #2 on Novelist

Library Catalog:

Result #55 in the library catalog

In all cases it was findable, but Novelist ranked it the highest with the fewest search limiters. However, since Novelist is a subscription database, getting to the search interface is a much more cumbersome process than using Amazon. The library catalog is easy to get to and the search interface is reasonable, but burying the book at #55 is bad because many people give up log before the sixth page of search results (thanks for that, Google).

Something else I noticed, and what I think is another strike against the library catalog, was the various sizes of the cover images. Comparatively, the library catalog's cover thumbnail is tiny, and because of this it's not really evident that the girl is holding a duck. Since that's all I had to go on with this search, if I had started with the library catalog, I probably would have missed this book entirely. I don't know why the thumbnails are as small as they are, but it seems the catalog would be improved by making them almost twice the size they are now.

So there you go, my curiosity was sated. Anyone else have a favorite method for finding books by cover descriptions?

 


*I don't know why Amazon has the publication date as September 2013, since the other library apparently had it cataloged and on their shelf. Ah, sweet mysteries of life.



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This Is Why I Like Working In A Library

   February 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

My library's One Book Chelmsford selection this year is Townie, by Andre Dubus, and the kick-off event was last weekend.

To promote the book with patrons, we decided to hang up a punching bag right next to the circulation desk, so it's the first thing people see when coming into the library. Pretty neat, huh? Plus, since we didn't want to permanently attach it to the wall or ceiling, they let me build a stand for it:

It's nothing fancy, but I like woodworking and carpentry, and any excuse to use power tools is a good one. The wood and hardware cost about $30, and we bought the bag itself on Craigslist for $15, so it's not too much money for a pretty eye-catching display. And in how many other jobs would I get to do something like this?

Patrons seem to really like it too - especially kids. We encourage people to try it, and I'm pretty sure it won't fall over (we tested it). We still haven't decided what to do with it afterwards, but we've got a few months. Who knows - maybe we'll just catalog it and add it to the circulating collection for people to check out.



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Lost Item Replacement Policy, And When To Ignore It

   January 30th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Chewed bookMy library recently updated our policy for patrons replacing lost or damaged items.

The problem that arose is that patrons would check out a book (say, a non-fiction book that was five years old, with a price in the record of $30) - then they'd lose it, and eventually they'd get a bill for $30. Our previous policy said patrons could replace lost/damaged items either by paying for it or by supplying another copy of the book.

This meant that, instead of paying the $30, patrons would often find used copies of the item online, for just a few dollars, and give that to us as a replacement copy.

The problem was that often these books were in terrible condition (sometimes even discarded from another library, with their stamps and stickers still on it). Not to mention that there would often be newer versions of this item available, which we would want to get instead of the old outdated one.

So, we updated our policy to be:

Lost/Damaged item fees

  • NO REPLACEMENTS ACCEPTED FOR BOOKS
  • Book or magazine - patron is charged 100% of the full price
  • DVD, music CD, or videogame - replacement allowed only if it is new and still sealed in the original package, otherwise the charge is the same as books, 100% of full price.
  • Book on CD - $10 per CD (if the entire item is lost, then 100% of full price.)
  • Playaway, CD-ROM, kit - 100% of full price
  • Lost CD or DVD insert - $2
  • Lost CD or DVD case - $2 (so lost case & insert is $4)
  • Still not sure what to charge? Call tech svcs

What to say when patrons ask...

Why can’t the library accept replacements for lost or damaged books anymore?

There are several reasons:

  • Many of the replacements we’ve been getting are used items in poor condition.
  • Replacing the exact same isbn can mean getting an old edition of a book when a newer edition is available.
  • In some cases, we don’t wish to replace the lost item, and would rather use the fee to buy something new that we need for our collection now.

Why does a replacement DVD, music CD or videogame have to be new & still sealed in the package?

  • For similar reasons – we’ve received old and/or used items to replace things we wouldn’t have bothered to replace at all.

Why is the replacement cost 100% of the full price? I can get it for less than that on Amazon!

  • True, but sometimes the items you get from Amazon are old and used, and you might not even realize it till it arrives.
  • Also keep in mind that when we replace a book or other item, it involves staff time to get the new item, catalog it, and process it to go into circulation.

This all happened a couple months ago. Then just a couple weeks ago, we received the following note from a patron:

Replacement Book Note

My favorite part is that she drew a picture of an open book on her note. Since the replacement copy she supplied was a brand new copy, and this title is still on the school's summer reading list, we just kept it.



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Stopping Unsolicited Scientology Books

   January 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Scientology books in my libraryA couple weeks ago, my library received the latest shipment of free Scientology books, and I'm guessing your library did too. On the whole, we never want these books, and rarely do they make it to our shelves (or even out of the boxes they came in).

So I was happy to see a post on the Maine Libraries listserv the following week (from Mamie Anthoine Ney of the Southern Maine Library District) detailing an email exchange she had with the company that sends them out. She asked them to stop sending them to her site, and this is the response she received:

Dear Ms Ney,

Thank you for message alerting me to this situation.

I have taken your address off the mailing list.

If you have not been able to send the books back yet, let me know the correct address, contact name and number and I can have my shipping department get FedEx to pick them up.

The books are very valuable and I do not want them to go to waste.

I will pick these up right away if you have not been able to arrange this.

Best regards,

Mr. Larry Perras
Library Distribution Manager
Bridge Publications
5600 E. Olympic Blvd.
Los Angeles, California 90022
(323) 888-6200

Mr. Perras' email is address is lperras@bridgepub.com and he is the person to contact if you'd like your library to stop getting these boxes of books. I forwarded this to my library's Head of Technical Services, and she was only too happy to email them to take us off the list (although we never got a reply from them).

Thank you Mamie for sharing this information - hopefully it will keep more of these books from ending up in dumpsters.



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