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

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Microsoft Clipart Surprise

   July 2nd, 2015 Brian Herzog

Here's a real turkey of an Easter Egg right before Independence Day:

I was searching the Microsoft clipart gallery in Powerpoint because I needed a picture of a Teddy Bear for an event listing on our calendar. And skimming the results, the third one down on the left looked like it might be a good candidate...

Powerpoint clipart gallery

So now click on the image above to share in my surprise at that particular clipart bear's scary costume. Is this an April Fool's joke?

I don't know where Microsoft's online clipart gallery is pulling from, but they are far more prepared with clipart for all types of occasions and holidays than I would have expected.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/15/15

   June 20th, 2015 Brian Herzog

colonial ninjaI know I tend to be overly-paranoid, but sometimes reference questions are so unusual that I think they just have to be some "secret shopper" type test to see if I'll take them seriously. One such question came in via email last week:

-----Original Message-----
Sent: Tuesday, June 09, 2015 5:11 PM
To: askus@mvlc.org; bherzog@mvlc.org
Subject: Chelmsford Library Reference Question

patron_name: [---------------------]
patron_email_address: [---------------------]
patron_card_number: [---------------------]

Comments: Do you have reference/source documents on trade of goods/ideas from Asia to Europe during the 18th Century? I am a French & Indian War re-enactor, and I am looking to doing some research on whether certain items, bamboo training sword and stuff like that, as well as knowledge of martial arts would have been traded during this time period.

Thank you for your assistance.

What the heck? It sounds both plausible and ridiculous at the same time. However, since that's the kind of criteria that interests me, I looked around to see what could be found.

My coworkers had already pulled the few books we had on the French and Indian War, but they weren't much help. And we didn't have any resources on Europe-Asia trade in the 18th Century, so I continued looking online. The best I could find were references to European colonization of Asia, but not much specifically about the trade of bamboo swords or martial arts training.

So, I replied to the patron with what I could find:

From: "Chelmsford Library Reference"
Sent: 6/10/2015 7:20:00 PM
Subject: RE: Chelmsford Library Reference Question


Unfortunately, we don't have very many resources on the French and Indian war, and for those we do we haven't been able to find any mention of bamboo or martial arts, or any trade with Asia.

I checked some of the history databases we subscribe to, as well as two books that seemed most relevant:
- The war that made America : a short history of the French and Indian War, by Fred Anderson (call number 973.26/Ande)
- Empires at war : the French and Indian War and the struggle for North America, 1754-1763, by William M. Fowler, Jr. (call number 973.26/Fowl)

Since we didn't have any luck with library resources, I tried to find other organizations with more expertise in the French and Indian War. Here are a few groups that might have the information you're looking for:

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has an extensive list of online resources:

Fort William Henry Museum in Lake George, NY, has an extensive exhibit and a Contact Us form for questions:

Fort Ligonier in Ligonier, PA, also has an extensive museum and a contact form:

Lastly, the website http://www.warforempire.org/visit/site_listing.aspx?state=massachusetts&c=visit lists sites in MA that might be of use, including the Boston National History Park which can be contacted at http://www.nps.gov/bost/contacts.htm

I did find a reference stating that the French and Indian War was the name of just the North American theater of the Seven Years War, which took place in other parts of the world simultaneously, including Asia. It looks like France, England, and Spain had various battles in Asia, mostly in India and the Philippines. Although fighting happened at the same time as the French and Indian War in North America, I wasn't able to find any cross-over between the two areas.

I'm sorry we can't provide more direct help, but we will keep looking at let you know if we find anything with the connection you're looking for. Thanks.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

Very shortly the patron replied:

Sent: Wednesday, June 10, 2015 7:38 PM
To: Chelmsford Library Reference
Subject: Re[2]: Chelmsford Library Reference Question

Mr. Herzog,

I thank you very much for your assistance, and I must especially thank you for going several steps beyond what I expected, it is greatly appreciated!

Many thanks,

I always feel a little guilty when a patron thanks me even though I don't feel I helped very much, but perhaps one of the museums will provide the information he's seeking. And I've been mostly out of the library since this question came in, but now that I'm back I can continue looking - I still have the patron's email address, and who knows what further research might find.

Still, though - I will admit to looking this patron up in the catalog to make sure he was real before I started working on the question.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/7/15

   June 13th, 2015 Brian Herzog

questio nmark signSo, Monday was a odd day. All three of these (slightly odd) reference interactions happened in the space of a few hours:

1. A patron, who had been sitting at a table near the Reference Desk for a couple hours, walked up and asked,

Could I have a minute of your time?

Which I immediately thought was suspicious - it felt like he was going to try to sell me something. Then he starts this three minute ramble that his dog just died, and he just buried him, it was a Pomeranian, he was sad, he'll miss him, and it was cremated and he buried the urn.

All the while I was listening and starting to feel sad for the guy, but on the other hand was still skeptical and expecting him to ask me for money or something. Or at least get to the end and ask me a reference question.

When he finally did pause, I said something like, "I'm very sorry, that is terrible" - and then he just said "thanks for listening" and went back to his table!

Now I felt terrible - he was upset and just needed to talk to somebody, and here I was expecting a scam. I don't think he noticed though, because later when he left he smiled and said goodbye.

2. A little while after that, one of the volunteers who leads an English Conversation Circle came to the desk and said she wanted to ask me about proof of residency. She said many of her attendees have only recently come to this country and are living with their kids (who are adults). They don't have driver's licenses or any ID with their local address, and she wanted to know what they could use for proof of residency.

My initial thought was that it all depends on who they are trying to prove it to - the library, for example, will accept pretty much any mail (but preferably a bill) with their name and address on it. But she specifically said they weren't applying for library cards - she just wanted to talk about the concept of "proof of residency" in the next conversation.

I know Massachusetts issues non-driver's license ID cards, through the RMV, so I checked their website. Their requirements to get that ID don't seem to include any kind of proof of residency, and people with certain kinds of Visas are allowed to get one too.

I've never really thought about it before, and although it does seem kind of odd that you'd just walk in and tell them where you live, I guess you have to start somewhere. This might just be me being security-paranoid again.

3. And then, almost at the very end of my shift, a patron who had been in one of our study rooms for a couple hours comes up to the desk. He's got his bag, some books, a small box, and a lot of loose papers.

He asks to use the stapler and tape, which is no problem.

Then he asks if he can hang a flyer on our bulletin board, which he hands to me. It's for a fundraising road race for a non-profit, so I tell him that is also no problem.

Then, THEN, he asks me if I can hang it up right then, and if he can video record me while I hang it, because he's producing a promotional video for their Facebook page.

Well, that feels a little weird, but not so weird that I say no. So we go upstairs to the community bulletin boards right by the front entrance. It's kind of a big sign, so I need to make some room for it as he's getting his phone ready. I ask him for any last minute directorial suggestions, to which he said, "um, just pin it to the board is fine."

So I do, and we pull it off in one take. What professionalism!

I may have hesitated more for another group, but this fundraiser benefits a charity in the name of a local kid who was injured in the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, so it certainly is a good cause. I haven't seen the video posted yet, so keep checking.

These may not have been real reference questions, but the Reference Desk certainly is not a boring place.

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Reference Question of the Week – 4/12/15

   April 18th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Willy Wonka meme: Oh you can get Russian girls?  Tell me your secret.This week's question is really only funny because of an amazing coincidence, and for the ensuing internal embarrassment.

On Thursday this week, a young woman with an Eastern European accent came up to the desk and said she had something she needed to print. She could see it in the email on her phone, but not when she logged into her Yahoo account online - so what could she do?

Our Print from Anywhere service allows people to submit print jobs by email, so I explained how to do that. It's kind of a long email address to type, and when I pulled out our brochure which has the email on it, she said thanks and took it over to a nearby table to actually send the message.

A few minutes later she came up and said the email was sent. I logged into the web print queue and scanned the list to find an email job (by far most of the jobs come through the web interface, so the emailed ones stand out). I saw one, saw it hadn't been printed yet, and released it.

As I picked it up off the printer, I glanced at the front to make sure it printed okay, with no smudges or anything. There weren't, but what I did notice (which is more than I should, I know), was that it was an email from someone named Olga saying she was from Russia and found me attractive. In fact, this is what it was*.

What? I blushed and just handed it to the patron. I thought, well, maybe she doesn't speak English well, and was more comfortable taking time to type all of this out instead of saying it to me. I thought maybe if I just handed it to her we'd avoid that awkward yet common patron-hitting-on-librarian situation. We've all been there, right?

So she took it from me, and then immediately said,

My name's not Olga. This isn't mine.


I took the print back from her, and went back to the print queue. I refreshed it, but no other email print job was listed. Hmm.

We looked at her phone, and sure enough, she hadn't actually sent her message yet. So she did, it showed up, I released it, and she was happy.

Two more comments about this:

  1. I know this is a common type of spam, but sending it to a library's print queue and letting it lie in wait for a single male librarian to accidentally print it is impressively strategic thinking.
  2. I don't think the patron picked up on any of this, because she just wanted her print job. I, on the other hand, immediately started looking forward to sharing my ridiculous ego with you.


*I blacked out our web print email address, just in the hopes of cutting down on any future spam sent to it.

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Introducing Intergenerational Library Shelving

   April 1st, 2015 Brian Herzog

My library has implemented a few alternatives to Dewey shelving in the past, but we're rolling out something this week that I'm really excited about - we're calling it Intergenerational Shelving.

The idea originated when we noticed the difficulties some families had in using the library. Parents would bring their kids in, often of various ages, and picking up books for everyone required stopping in multiple departments. Wouldn't it be nice, we reasoned, if we didn't cordon people off by age, but instead opened up the entire library for everyone?

Yes! So our solution was to intermix all of the books in the entire library, along these guidelines: books for adults on the top shelves, and books for kids on the bottom shelves. Here's how our approach looks:

intergenerational shelving

As you can see, adult books are on the high shelves - which eliminates adults having to bend way down to the lower shelves to find things. And kids books are on the bottom shelves, so all kids books are within kid reach. The colorful border indicates the age levels.

This system has lots of other benefits too:

  • We're trying to line up adult, teen, and childrens non-fiction books, so all the books we have on a subject - say, the solar system - are right next to each other, regardless of the target age
  • It removes age-related stigmas association with books - adults who want a kids book, either for an easy-to-understand introduction to a topic, or just like reading kid stories, don't have to be embarrassed about going into the Childrens Room (or worse, get accusatory glances for not having a child chaperon)
  • Kids who are advanced readers are more likely to serendipitously encounter higher reading level books
  • Parents are less tempted to dump their kids in the unlicensed daycare that is the Childrens Room while they go off looking to the adult section - now the entire family can browse together
  • This really reenforces the Library As Community Center idea, because patrons who may not have ever mixed before now find themselves in the same aisle all the time: kids series books are shelved under large print, and our senior patrons enjoy hearing from kids what the Rainbow Fairies are up to
  • Reshelving books has been tremendously simplified - all our Pages have now been trained to shelve everything. And, the Circ staff doesn't have to pre-sort carts as items are checked in - everything is just mixed together and the Pages take care of it

This has been such a huge success so far that we've gotten inquiries from retail stores who'd like to copy the model for their own shelves. The local grocery store is considering putting boring foodstuffs on their adult-eye-level shelves, with toys and candy on the low shelves underneath. The possibilities are endless!

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/22/15

   March 28th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Card catalog: London - MarriageThere really was nothing to this question, other than I thought it was neat and a creative idea. This came into the general reference email inbox this week:

Sent: Wednesday, March 25, 2015
To: askus@mvlc.org
Subject: Card Catalog

Good Afternoon-

My name is [...] and I am a high school teacher in town. My fiancé, [...], is a life long resident of Chelmsford and currently teaches at the high school as well. We are getting married this fall and are hoping to include a theme of vintage school, as it was education that brought us together. We want to incorporate as much school and hometown as we can into our centerpieces and we're hoping Chelmsford Library may be able to help us. We were wondering if you had any wooden card catalog container you were willing to part with. We could clearly make a donation or pay for them. If you could let us know we would be extremely grateful.

Unfortunately, all I could really do was write her back saying that no, we don't have those anymore.

And honestly I think that if we did, we certainly wouldn't sell it and I'm not even sure we'd loan it out for a use like this. Maybe, depending on the size, but those are such a hot commodity now that they are a lot more valuable than people think.

But it did get me wondering about other sources for wedding "props" that would be either educational or of local interest. I presume they've already checked around the local schools, for desks or tables and such things. Any other group that I work with regularly - the historical society, local museums, even Town Hall - probably wouldn't lend their pieces to be used at a wedding. Beyond that, it's either local consignment shops or getting lucky knowing someone who has something.

Which is kind of too bad - a card catalog would make any wedding more interesting.

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