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



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What Do To When Authors Die

   March 13th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Terry Pratchett died this week, and I, like many people, were saddened.

I came to the Discworld books later in my life, sort of by accident (which is the best way to come across books like the Discworld books), and to say I liked them is an understatement. It was more like the worlds and characters had just been waiting for me and were happy to have me turn up.

It wasn't until later that I realized I had already read some Pratchett, without knowing it. His book, Good Omens, co-written with Neil Gaiman, was another I had inadvertently come to on my own, on the shelf in an independent book shop in Yellow Springs, Ohio. I can't say it changed my life, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was also introduced to Neil Gaiman that way. I somehow missed the introduction to Terry Pratchett, but since I got there in the end, I suppose it is okay.

Perhaps because of this, but perhaps also just because they are similar and the connection is logical, I have always linked Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in my head.

So when I came across the following line while reading Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warning today (specifically in the story, The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury), I couldn't help but be reminded of Terry Pratchett's death:

I sometimes imagine I would like my ashes to be scattered in a library. But then the librarians would just have to come in early the next morning to sweep them up again, before the people got there.

Very appropriate on many levels, but it also seems that there is hardly a tribute fitting enough for such a creative and prolific writer as Terry Pratchett.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/25/15

   January 31st, 2015 Brian Herzog

I'm sure everyone is sick of hearing about New England snow storms by now (I certainly am), but by far the most common question I heard this week was, "Brian, how much snow did you get at your house?"

Well, this is how much:

2015-01-blizzard-yardstick

Which is to say, more than a lot, but I stopped counting. Granted, this is next to my driveway so some of it is piled up from shoveling, but still a lot. And more coming this weekend.

And for the fun of it, I tried to make the yardstick as close to actual size as I could:

2015-01-blizzard-yardstick-actual

So, if you'd like to get the full Brian's Driveway Experience, just print out that image and hold it up next to you. Or, I am accepting volunteers to help come shovel after the next storm.



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Snapshot of a Future Male Librarian

   August 8th, 2013 Brian Herzog

I saw this photo and immediately though, "hey, that's what it's like to be a male librarian":

only boy at a girls princess party

Of course it's not entirely true - I always see other guys at library conferences and things (especially tech-oriented library conferences). And I know I enjoy my job as much as any princess with a balloon. But it is not at all uncommon for me to go to meetings with reference librarians in the region and be the only guy in the room.

In fact, I thought that would be a good title for my memoirs: The Only Guy in the Room.

For a bit more on librarian gender stereotypes, check out Mr. Library Dude's post on Image, Public Perception, and Lego Librarians. The whole thing is funny, but the male fashion choices minifig especially made me laugh. However, I'm still unrepresented there: I don't drink coffee.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/13

   February 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Oscar the GrouchEarlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.

And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.

This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.

First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.

Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."

Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.

Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.

All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.

This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."

This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.

Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.

This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.

Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.

The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).

But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.

Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.



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Damn It Feels Good To Be A Librarian

   February 1st, 2012 Brian Herzog

I had thought that by doing fewer posts per week, I'd end up with higher quality overall. However, not so much, exactly.

My friend Chris emailed me a link to the image below, which showed up on failblog under the "ugliest tattoos" category. This font wouldn't be my first choice, but I don't think it's so bad (although I cropped out the worst parts - click through to full size if you dare).

LIBRARIAN tattoo

But this tattoo reminded me that, unlike my unmodified self, there are lots of librarians with tattoos, piercings, dyed hair, et. al., who probably hear "you don't look like a librarian" every time they tell someone what they do for a living. I have nothing specific to say about this, other than I'm glad our profession is as diverse as our collections, from the individual to the flickr group to the The Tattooed Ladies of Texas Library Association (or just search Google Images for tattooed librarians).

Also: while reading about tattoo librarians, I found a Jessamyn post pointing to a book project: author Shelley Jackson's project for her story Ineradicable Stain: a 2095-word story published exclusively in tattoos, one word at a time, on the skin of volunteers.

Now that is truly lib-core. Incidentally, the title of the post comes from the Geto Boys "Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta," featured in one of my favorite movies, Office Space (NSFW, literally and figuratively):

And in case someone doesn't follow my leap from this tattoo to gangsta, it's the font. Check out, homies.



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Knowing When To Say When

   January 26th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Reduced signSo, this post might not matter to anyone but me, but I felt like I should announce it anyway.

For the last few years, the blogging schedule I've stuck to was new posts every Tuesday and Thursday, and the Reference Question of the Week on Saturdays. Over the last couple months though, I've felt that I'm both running out of things to say and have less free time to work on posts, so I've decided to cut back to just one new post a week and the Reference Question on Saturday.

Not a major change I know, but it feels major to me because it's a schedule I've stuck to for so long. I know a schedule isn't mandatory for blogs, and most people probably just post only when they have something interesting to say. For me though, I think that if I didn't make myself stick to a schedule, I'd quickly slip into nothing at all.

So anyway, again, I don't know if anyone would have even noticed if I didn't say anything, but there you go.

But I am curious about the schedule/no schedule thing, both for personal and library communications. Does you're library have a set goal or schedule for blog posts, tweets, email newsletters, etc., or do you only do it when you've got something to say? In my library, it varies: I try to have a new blog post once a week, but Twitter is much more as-needed (in addition to automated tweets for library events). We have a main email newsletter that goes out once a week, but also sort of a childrens supplement which only goes out when the Childrens Room has something specific to communicate.

It seems like all models work in their context, but I'd be curious to hear if other libraries have had success following one path or another.



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