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



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/22/14

   June 28th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Davy CrockettIn the time my website was down, I kept collecting the odd reference question whenever they came up. Not that it really matters, but some of these questions are from a few weeks ago.

I was sitting next to a coworker at the reference desk when she answered the phone. She listened for a moment, and then covered the phone, turned to me, and asked,

Before I start answering this, was Davy Crockett a real person?

Ha. I said yes, and she said turned back to her computer and looked something up online. She found whatever it was she was looking for, and said into the phone,

Yes, there are descendents of Davy Crockett still alive today.

You're welcome

And then hung up. Apparently, that's all the patron wanted to know.



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Summer Reading Program Ideas

   June 26th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Summer Reading signSince I work mostly with adult reference and tech support, I've never done much with summer reading programs. But my library is doing two different things this year that seemed like fun, so I wanted to share.

For patrons, we're doing the Fizz Boom Read program for kids, and an interesting but somewhat complex Literary Elements subject bingo for adults. Which are fine, but it's two other programs we're running that I really think are neat.

First, our Childrens Room is making Fizz Boom Read more fun by adding a little raffle incentive. When kids bring in completed log books, they get a raffle ticket. They can then use their raffle tickets to win one of 24 "prize jars." The jars were put together by library staff, and range from a jar of Legos to beads to pennies to Starburst to race cars to stuffed animals - anything that kids might like and would fit in a jar:

Summer Reading jars  
Summer Reading jars  
Summer Reading jars

At the end of the summer, a winning ticket will be pulled for each jar. I know prizes for summer reading are questionable, but I liked this because it's not exactly cutthroat head-to-head competition. Lots of reading is still rewarded with better odds, but the winners are still luck of the draw.

Secondly, our Head of Readers Services put together a "Celebrity Frankenstein" program just for staff. Out of magazine photos, she cut eyes, ears, noses, and mouths of celebrities - and then, for each book a staff person reads, they can build a celebrity Frankenstein face out of the parts:

Adult summer reading face

Bizarre, but engaging - here are all the rules.

She hung a huge sheet up in the Circ office to track everyone's progress, because making it visual makes it much more fun:

Adult summer reading board

And, because this is a staff program, we're also supposed to include notes about what we thought of the book on the back of our face. I think these notes are going to be used later on a "staff picks" display.

I know there are tons of ideas out there for summer reading programs, but I hadn't heard of either of these before. Anything that makes reading more fun is okay in my book.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/25/13

   August 31st, 2013 Brian Herzog

Because this is Labor Day weekend and I want to be outside instead of in front of a computer, this week's reference question is going to be a little different so I can hurry things along.

In fact, it's not a question at all - it's answers to questions I truly hope someone asks me about at the Reference Desk. Part of being a librarian is having the information ready to go for when someone comes looking, but the problem is that people don't always ask about the really cool stuff. To wit:

  • A couple years ago a huge earthquake hit New Zealand, and among the damaged buildings was the cathedral in the city of Christchurch. While they wait for a new cathedral to be built, the constructed a temporary one out of cardboard:
    cardboard cathedral

    Read more here and see construction photos in the Christchurch City Library's flicker set.

  • Speaking of cathedrals, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, has a stained glass window called the "Space Window." Its imagery depicts planets and stars, but best of all, at the center of one image is an actual moon rock:
    space window
  • And finally, out in the plains and deserts of the American west, there are huge concrete arrows on the ground. Why? To guide early airmail pilots:
    air mail arrow

    At one point the arrows stretched from New York City to San Francisco - now that is cool. Read more at Snopes.

If anyone ever gets asked about one of these things, please let me know. Or if you have some trivia you're just waiting to be asked about, share it in the comments. Happy Labor Day.



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Creative Names for Book Groups, and Who They Might Attract

   August 28th, 2013 Brian Herzog

For as long as I've been a librarian, I've heard librarians talking about how to attracted more 20-40 year olds to the library. One method I've heard repeatedly (often from 20-40 year old librarians) was that we need to do outreach to where those patrons are: bars and other fun places.

I know libraries have set up help desk tables on college campuses, public parks, and even in bars, and also use pubs and coffee shops as a meeting spot for book groups. Recently, I heard about a new book group from the library in Haverhill, MA, that is taking this same tack - here's the groups logo:

get lit logo

Get Lit is a social book club designed for twenty and thirty something readers in the greater Haverhill area. We will be meeting monthly to talk books, socialize, eat, drink, and whatever else might come up. Second Thursday of the month, The Barking Dog Ale House in Haverhill.

I don't drink and I find bars almost unbearable, but I think this is fantastic and I hope it's successful.

Apart from people looking for free wifi, it seems to me that library patrons tends to skew to the extremes, with libraries looking either like day care centers or senior centers. Which is fine, but I also like the idea of reaching out to the patrons in the middle.

My library occasionally brainstorms to come up with program ideas that would attract the "mid-life" patrons, and some work and some don't. The "Get Lit" book group seems to walk a fine line between being clever and devolving into a frat party. However, I still think it's funny, and it's a book group I'd go to. Good job, Haverhill Public Library.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/18/13

   August 24th, 2013 Brian Herzog

PAT 154071Back in library school, I remember distinctly being told that patent searches are one of the most difficult types of reference questions, because usually you're trying to find out if something isn't there. However, this patent search was difficult for a different reason.

I think I've mentioned before that one of my hobbies is metal detecting, which I share with my brothers. One of them emailed me this photo of something he had found, saying it was a chunk of metal about the size and shape of an ear with "PAT 154071" stamped in it, and asking if I could help figure out what it came from.

He had already done some online research and had a couple potential patent dates, but wasn't really sure. I love knowing right off the bat the best resource to check, so when I got this message I just typed in http://www.uspto.gov and clicked on "search for patents." The US Patent and Trademark Office has a full-text search, which is great, but since I was looking for a specific patent number, I just went to the Number Search, typed in 154071, and... that's when the problems started.

The first screen to come up said that this patent, dated August 11, 1874, wasn't available in full text, so it would have to be viewed as a scanned image. Which is fine, except viewing the image just prompted me to update my Quicktime plugin.

I tried going through the steps to update it, but I could not get the update to download from the Quicktime website. I tried this on a few different computers at my house and in the library, but all of them (all Windows computers) had the same issue. Next I tried searching for "can't download quicktime" and found someone with the same problem and an alternate link on the Apple website. This time the update did download and seemed to install, but I still couldn't view the image on the PTO website - and still got prompted to update Quicktime.

Frustrated, I went to my last resort: I used one of the library's Apple computers. I got a weird plugin update message too, but the image did display:

154071image

Actually, the PTO website said there were two images associated with this patent, but the other one was clearly for a different invention (and different patent number).

So, pretty cool, especially because of all the problems I had getting it. I couldn't tell from the drawing where the piece my brother found came from, but it was still worth the effort.

Since the patent drawing listed names, I thought I'd expand my search online and see what else I could find. I tried various combinations of the names of the inventors and "combined folding chairs and benches," but didn't have any luck.

So, I just tried searching for "patent 154,071," and boy did I get a surprise. The first result was for Google Patents, conveniently displaying the image that I had tried for two days (and had to use a Mac!) to view. I didn't know patent searches were a Google offering, but I suppose all public domain information is probably assimilated by now.

I am disappointed that the Google search was more productive than using the Patent Office's own website, and that they'd use a tool that relies on a problematic plugin.

But since I was at Google, I tried a few few things and found this entry in the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, page 214:

pat 154071 gazette

Neat.



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What Do You Think About E-Cigarettes in Libraries?

   August 21st, 2013 Brian Herzog

e-cigaretteMassachusetts has a state-wide library email discussion list, and lately I've been following with interest a discussion about whether or not e-cigarettes should be allowed in libraries.

The sentiment seems to be coming down on the "not allowed" side, which is where I am, too. I have not encountered one in my library, but other Massachusetts libraries have - one even felt the "e-smoker" (a.k.a., apparently, "vaper") was actually trying to pick a policy fight because he had a bunch of pro-e-cigarette material at the ready.

I've done some light research on this since the discussion started, and was surprised to find out the FDA's position is basically "needs more study, so in the meantime we're erring on the side of caution." The Mayo Clinic feels the same way: "Until more is known about the potential risks, the safe play is to say no to electronic cigarettes."

That alone is enough to sway me into the "not in libraries" camp, but I was also curious about the effectiveness of them as a smoking cessation tool. Marketing for e-cigarettes seems to be all over the map, from cessation to a healthier alternative to a method to still accommodate the smoking habit in smoke-free zones. Which is what marketing is supposed to do: appeal to everyone and anyone in order to sell sell sell.

However, WebMD had an interesting point regarding cessation and health-related side-effects:

Rather than quit, e-cigarettes might worsen users' nicotine habits, says Michael Eriksen, ScD, director of the institute of public health at Atlanta's Georgia State University and former director of CDC's office of smoking and health.

"I have seen no evidence that people switch from tobacco cigarettes to e-cigarettes or other smokeless tobacco products," Eriksen tells WebMD. "If you look at how smokeless products are marketed, they are sold as something to use at times you can't smoke. The implication is you will increase nicotine exposure, not reduce smoking. We'll just be encouraging people to use more nicotine."

This might be true because of how e-cigarettes work (also from WebMD):

  • The user inhales through a mouthpiece.
  • Air flow triggers a sensor that switches on a small, battery-powered heater.
  • The heater vaporizes liquid nicotine in a small cartridge (it also activates a light at the "lit" end of the e-cigarette). Users can opt for a cartridge without nicotine.
  • The heater also vaporizes propylene glycol (PEG) in the cartridge. PEG is the stuff of which theatrical smoke is made.
  • The user gets a puff of hot gas that feels a lot like tobacco smoke.
  • When the user exhales, there's a cloud of PEG vapor that looks like smoke. The vapor quickly dissipates.

And if nothing else, it's that last part that, I think, is also a problem for libraries. My library has a policy that prohibits the "use of tobacco products," which may or may not cover e-cigarettes (which actually contain no tobacco). However, I think the vapor put out by e-cigarettes would certainly fall under the "other activities which disrupt the library" part of the policy, because it looks enough like smoking that I'm sure many patrons would not be comfortable with it.

One message to the discussion list said their municipality had already banned them entirely. I'm curious if other libraries have encountered e-cigarettes, and what the library position is. Please let me know what you think in the comments (and being a non-smoker, I'm also interested in the smoker's viewpoint on this).



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