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



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My Taxes Pay Your . . .

   February 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

tax billHere's a sentiment that has bothered me ever since I started working in libraries: the idea that an accountable portion of everyone's tax bill goes into the library budget, and that anyone could dictate exactly how "their" portion is spent.

It bothers me because it is the exact opposite of how community-funded resources work, and it's difficult to convince someone of this who is dead-set on it.

Recently one of our patrons requested we purchase a specific book. However, it didn't fit our collection development policy*, and was kind of expensive anyway ($55), so I had to tell the patron that the library wouldn't be purchasing it.

There were copies in libraries not too far away, but they were all reference copies, so I couldn't even request it for her. It's unfortunately when a library can't fill a patron's request, but it does happen.

However, this patron was upset with my decision, and came back with the argument that she was a tax payer, and she wants her tax money to be used to purchase this book.

This got me wondering just what an average resident does "contribute" to the library's budget, so I did some rough calculations:

  • Library budget is roughly $1,500,000
  • Chelmsford population is roughly 33,000
  • So, $1,500,000 / 33,000 = $45

These numbers are very rough, but I was surprised the contribution was even this high - and that it happened to be so close to the price of the book in question.

But if we did allow this sort of earmarking, it would mean that this patron's entire year's library privileges, plus part of next year, would be tied up in this one book. If this system was used, she couldn't use any other library resource: no other books, DVDs, etc, she couldn't come into the library and use our electricity or heat, and she wouldn't be entitled to any assistance from staff. For more than a year.

This is why this kind of micromanaging is impossible in community-funded resources. Taxes stop being "my taxes" as soon as they're paid to the Town, and then become "our resources." That money is then spent by responsible stewards - librarians, Town Clerk, DPW workers, etc - in a way that best benefits the town overall. Everyone in town, who are all treated equally, regardless of how much their tax bill is.

I apologize for the rant - I know this is all basic Library 101 stuff, but maybe only to librarians.

 


*It was a genealogy book about early settlers of Jamestown, VA, and no sources I consulted drew any connection to Chelmsford, MA. We only collect local and regional resources, and this just didn't fit. Plus, since we have a limited budget, purchasing it could mean that two other items more relevant to Chelmsford don't get purchased. This is why collection development policies are so important.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/14/13

   July 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Removed pay phonesI've talked about pay phones before, but I like them - and we do still get asked about them - so here's the latest pay phone question.

This week, a man came to the Reference Desk asking if we knew where any pay phones were. The phones in the shopping plaza across the street were removed earlier this year, which were the last pay phones in town I knew of.

Since the pay phone was removed from our lobby, our policy has been to let people use desk phones. I offered this to the patron, but he declined because it was going to be a long call to Worcester, MA (which would also be a long distance call). He said he preferred a pay phone, so my coworker and I and the patron brainstormed where one might be.

We thought of all the high-traffic retail centers, but couldn't definitely remember seeing one anywhere. Eventually the patron thanked us, and just sort of wandered away.

This bothered me, so that night after work, I went grocery shopping. My grocery store is in a big shopping plaza*, and I drove around slowly really looking for a pay phone. And, success! I found one right outside the entrance to Wal-Mart:

Wal-Mart pay phone

At the library the next day, I relayed my find to my coworker, and also the patron who came in later. We thought this could very well be the last pay phone in town, and thought the only way to be sure was to drive around trying to spot them. Not being a digital native, you see, it took awhile before I realized that this is why Facebook was invented.

I asked on the Library's Facebook page if anyone knew where there were pay phones in town, and immediately got some responses:

Facebook pay phone post

Great! Crowd-sourcing Reference Questions is kind of fun - and certainly provided a better answer than I did for the patron. This might even motivate me to create a Custom Google Map of local pay phone locations - it would be a challenge to maintain, but there certainly is no other resource for this question.

 


*This plaza just got a Five Guys!



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Calculating the Value of a Community’s Library Use

   November 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

817 on a calculator spells LIB upside-downThis year while we were compiling all of my library's FY11 statistics to report to the state, it occurred to me to try something new with them.

Since everything we tally up for the state report is how much each library service get used, I thought I'd put all those totals into the Library Use Value Calculator - this then, in theory, will show how much value the entire community gets from using the library (instead of just using the calculator on an individual level).

Here's how things broke down*:

Total
Community
Use
Library Materials & Services Value of
Total Use

$


$

So at retail prices, the entirety of our activity last fiscal year should have cost our patrons a staggering $12,371,068.30 - over twelve million dollars. The library's total budget is about $1.5 million. So, by funding and using the library, our community saves about $10.5 million dollars a year.

I think that pretty clearly spells out the value of public libraries. Hopefully we'll be able to work this into some marketing materials to make the case of why our (meager) budget is important to the community.

 


*A couple notes on the figures:

  • Interlibrary Loan Requests I think includes all of our network transfers within our consortium
  • I was surprised ebooks was so low, but our Overdrive stats show that downloadable audio is still far more popular than ebooks (of course, ebooks are still new to us, so we're still building that collection)
  • The state report has a single line for "Periodicals" - so I put that into the Magazines box in the calculator, and left Newspapers empty
  • The state report groups all "CD" usage, so our audiobooks and music CDs are combined under Audiobooks, and I left CDs empty
  • I left Meeting Room Use (per hour) empty, and am just replying on the attendance numbers - the per hour use is more individual and doesn't really scale out well to the community level
  • I didn't have a total for Database Searches, so the number there is the number of times our databases were accessed (as opposed to searched) - which, again, makes more sense for the community level rather than individual level


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We’re Starting Up A Jelly

   July 12th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford Jelly logoThere's a new program starting this week at my library - a Jelly.

What's a Jelly?!
A Jelly is a casual yet organized assembly of people who choose to work in a social atmosphere - with other interesting and creative people to talk to, collaborate with, and bounce ideas off.

The idea for the Chelmsford Jelly actually originated with a patron. He approached our programming librarian and asked if the library could host a Jelly. After researching online to find out what the heck a Jelly was, we agreed - we're providing a room and some publicity, and he's doing everything else. He's also set up a meetup page for the Jelly to manage it.

I think the idea of "coworking" is a good one. There are lots of people now who, for whatever reason, do work at home, in coffee shops, in parks, whatever, instead of going into an office. There is a lot of freedom in that, but sometimes it helps to be around people who are also doing work. The coworking approach is just that - working around other people who are also working. They're not necessarily working together, just near each other - near enough to enjoy each other's company, use as a sounding board, share lunch, and share the experience of working. Basically, social networking in person.

For us, the Jelly will meet every third Friday from 11:30-4:30. We're not sure how successful it will be, but since the library's core mission is providing community space for patrons (and this program requires extremely little effort on our part), we want to support this program as much as possible.

Update: At our first Jelly, I think there were about 4-5 people who came to work, and stay for part or all of the day. But I was told there was a steady stream of other people who just popped their heads in to see what it was, or, as one man said, "to see what kind of people come to these things." I think this will become more popular as word spreads over time, so I'll post an addition update after a few sessions.



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Free As in Libraries, But Libraries Are Not Free

   July 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Free as in Library signI have less and less time to keep up with reading RSS feeds these days, but a fantastic post by Carrie Straka, a contributor at Tame the Web, reminded me why it's worth it to keep current on blogs.

She attacks the myth that everything in the library is free, and explains why "a library card isn’t a 100% off coupon." Library materials aren't free - we make them freely accessible, because they have already been paid for. It's like the food in your refrigerator - it was purchased at one point, to be consumed at your leisure (or not used and wasted).

Many users believe that the services and materials we provide are free. As all library staff knows, this is a misconception. The services and materials we provide are not free. In fact, they are far from it. Librarians work within a budget and use all money provided to us through taxes, tuition, or other means.

The comments are also interesting.

And something else I'd like to add, in terms of patrons having misconceptions about ownership of library resources: I've heard some patrons say that they're not returning some item, because their tax dollars have paid for it and they want to keep it - and besides, their tax dollars pay my salary so they can tell me what to do.

This too is a misconception. In libraries, there is no translation between one person's tax share and possessive ownership over a portion of the collection. The entire community's taxes are pooled to build a shared community resource, and library staff are paid to maintain a useful collection and ensure all the materials remain available for the entire community.

It seems a little contrary to the library spirit, but I do tend to err on the side of serving the community rather than the individual. It's a fine line to walk, and my library's yes-based policy means we are accommodating in individual situations - but when push comes to shove (which is thankfully rare), I do consider the library a community resource, not a private one.



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On Google+ and the Role of Social Networks

   July 5th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Last week I received an invitation to join Google+ (Google's version of Facebook). I don't use Facebook and don't entirely trust Google so I won't be creating an account, but it did get me wondering: does the internet need another Facebook?

Usually when I'm online, I'm looking for an answer to a question or a solution to a problem. To visualize that process, and hopefully provide some context for a new social network, I came up with this Venn diagram that identifies the available various pools of people...

Venn Diagram for finding answers online

Based on this, it seems like Google+'s goal would be to make the green circle bigger - but I don't think that's what happens. Closed networks, like Facebook and (I presume) Google+, at best only make their portion of the green circle bigger, but often don't even make it into the green circle at all*. This can actually make it harder to find answers, as homopholy might keep us using the most convenient resource, instead of the most appropriate one.

The important thing to remember is not to rely on one tool for everything - closed-loop social networks are good for keeping in touch with friends, but open forums like Ask Metafilter, Ask Slashdot, or Quora are better for non-social answers (but okay for those, too).

So with that, the question is: is Google+ a better way to keep in touch with friends? It seems like the answer would be "no" if the critical mass of your friends are already on Facebook (and unlikely to switch, or unlikely to maintain both). But from initial reviews (also this), it sounds like Google+ has some cool ideas, so its real impact might be gauged by how quickly Facebook adopts the best features.

And the next question is: have any libraries started using Google+ to connect with their patrons?

 


*Note that one of the qualifiers is "people who know what they're talking about" - a social network might make it easier for me to get my question out to people I know, but it doesn't help if no one I know knows the answer to my question (which might just indicate that I socialize with the wrong people).



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