December 7th, 2013 Brian Herzog
I've seen some weird things while helping with tech support, but this is really one of the weirdest damn things I've ever encountered.
For awhile now, we've been getting complaints about YouTube videos not working on some of our computers. The problem has been easy to reproduce, because, sure enough, the video will play for a second and then the viewer window goes black/staticy and displays a "video cannot play" error.
Usually the culprit is an out-of-date browser or plugin, but even with the latest versions the problem persisted. Searching online didn't really turn up anything useful. I got so frustrated that I had to go to my second-to-last-resort, YouTube's help suggestions - still nothing.
Finally, I went to my last resort, asking our IT person to take over the problem because I wasn't making any progress. It baffled her too for a little while, but after some more online searching, she came up with a fix: plug in the headphones.
I believe our computers automatically mute their speakers when headphones are unplugged (so as not to play sound otherwise, which may bother the patrons around them). YouTube must be looking at some sound setting in the computer and doesn't like not having available speakers, and so just doesn't play the video at all. But if you have headphones plugged in before the video starts, it works just like it should. I have no idea why YouTube videos would not play without this, but there you go.
I don't understand it, but it works, so maybe I don't need to. Just, thank goodness for smart coworkers.
November 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog
Here's a service I didn't even know the library could offer - until someone asked about it.
An older patron called late morning one day, and asked if we had a slide projector. Before I could answer (and the answer would have been "no"), she continued, saying that she had a bunch of slides from different places she's been - she hadn't looked at them for years, and just wanted to see what was on them.
While she was talking, and knowing we didn't have a slide projector, I started thinking of other options to accommodate her. To view slides, all you need to do is project light through them, so I thought maybe using a digital projector and holding the slide in front of it might work. Or even just a flashlight.
Then for some reason I thought of our microfilm machine. I've never tried it with slides, but it seemed like it would work - just put the slide on the glass where the film/fiche would go, and it should be nicely viewable on the screen.
So I told the patron to come in, and that we could find something she could use. If the microfilm machine didn't work, there's always a flashlight.
About mid-afternoon she arrived, with a shopping bag full of slide boxes. We went over to the microfilm machine, and I showed her how to turn it on and put a slide on the glass - and amazingly, it worked great:
She's not a very techie person, but she could easily handle swapping out slides and aligning them so she could see them on the screen. There was hardly anything to it, and the image was nice and big. And, a side benefit was that she could even print them!
She spent a couple hours looking at them - not rushed at all, just enjoying them. She let me know when she was leaving so I could turn "that machine" off, and she seemed quite happy. Yay! And double-yay for successfully improvising.
Also: an interesting aside to this reference question is that I believe this is the first time I've ever seen a color image on our microfilm machine - I never knew it had it in it.
November 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This wasn't a particularly difficult question, but it was fun and interesting - and none of it took place in my library.
One Friday night, a guy I know showed me a cane passed down from his grandfather to his father, and from his father to him. His grandfather lived in Sweden, and all my friend (who is in his sixties) knew about him was that he worked on some kind of coastal cargo boat, making runs to various ports of Europe. He figured the cane could be be fairly old, and could be from anywhere in Europe.
The cane was interesting because it wasn't just old, it also concealed a hidden weapon. Now, I've seen sword canes before and have heard of gun canes, but I'd never heard of anything like this one. It was a kind of gun cane, in that the shaft screwed apart to open up a place to insert a bullet. But the really unusual thing was that the top of the handle also unscrewed, and that was designed as a blowgun.
The net result of this was that you held the cane to your mouth, blew (hard) to move a firing pin forward to strike the bullet to fire it down the barrel which was inside the length of the cane. Very novel design, and a really cool antique cane.
But holy smokes I can't believe people wouldn't knock their teeth out firing this thing.
Anyway, this is what we were able to figure out just from examining the cane. The blowgun part was unmistakable, and the firing pin mechanism was still intact and worked. We weren't sure exactly what caliber bullet it took, and had no idea of the age or origin. However, it was a neat thing to see on a Friday night.
But of course, being a librarian, I wasn't satisfied with that. When I got home that night I started researching "blow gun cane" online, and eventually found a few websites with pictures almost exactly like what my friend had, including some auction websites giving a ballpark value.
Now that was some pretty good information, but I noticed one website included the reference,
Similar to one illustrated on page 191 of Snyder's Canes.
Research is all about following clues, so my next stop was Amazon to figure out what book this "Snyder's Canes" might be. My best guess was Canes: From the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, by Jeffrey B. Snyder. Another quick search didn't turn up any option to read the book online, so I checked our library catalog - and my luck continued to hold. My library didn't have a copy, but another library in our consortium did.
Normally I'd just request the book and wait the few days for it to arrive. However, I was seeing my friend on Sunday, and I really wanted to show him what I found. So, while I was out running errands on Saturday, I swung by the Topsfield Town Library to check the book out - yay for Saturday hours, and yay for consortium reciprocal borrowing privileges*.
It's a funny experience to pick up a book for the very first time and be able to flip right to the page with your relevant information - behold**:
The two bottom pictures are exactly it - awesome. Sunday morning I emailed my friend the links I had found and also show him the book. He was suitably impressed and grateful, but above all interested and happy to have the extra information.
The bottom line seems to be the cane is from France from the late 1800s, and probably fired a .32 caliber bullet. He has no plans to sell it or fire it, so for now, this information was exactly what he was looking for. And I of course ended up happy too, because what's more fun than a nice little weekend research project - involving an antique blowgun cane, no less?
*A special treat was that the library director was working the circ desk and checked me out - so a big yay for hands-on directors staffing service desks.
**By the way, this page was scanned with my library's public scanner - another library win!
November 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This reference question can be filed under "just one more thing a librarian may be asked to do sometime." A patron came in one day this week and asked if I could write him a letter so he could get into the library at Harvard.
He said he had found two books in WorldCat that he wanted to use, but he needed a letter to be allowed to use them in their reading room. I've never been in Harvard's Widener Library myself, and have heard that anyone who isn't affiliated with Harvard needed special (and hard to get) permission to use their collection.
I'd never been asked to assist a patron in gaining access, so while he got to work on his laptop, I went to work figuring out what I could do to help.
A quick search turned up a webpage for Harvard's Library Privileges Office (the existence of which amused me but someone's got to do it), on which I found the criteria for Independent Researchers not Affiliated with Harvard:
Necessary Documentation: A valid photo ID card AND a letter from the reference librarian of your university or public library stating that the specific library materials needed are not available elsewhere.
Free of charge:
Application for a Visiting Researcher Card should be made in person at the Library Privileges Office.
Before writing the letter, I looked up in WorldCat the two book titles the patron had given me. Both were indeed at Harvard, however: one was also available at Boston University (just across the Charles River from Harvard), and the other was at Amherst College (about 70 miles away).
I don't know how strict the Library Privileges Office is about "materials needed are not available elsewhere." Although, even though each book was available in another MA college, only Harvard had both, so gaining this access would save time for the patron - who did tell me he had a deadline.
So I typed up a letter [pdf], which I hope is good enough to help the patron. I wasn't sure if there was a proper format or anything, but I really do hope this works. The patron thanked me, took the letter, and I think immediately left to go present it in person at Harvard. I hope the he lets me know how he makes out.
November 2nd, 2013 Brian Herzog
A big thank you to everyone who sent in your best reference question - there were 28 submissions, and 395 total votes for the four finalists. At the end, it was close - the winner got 30% of the vote, and second place got 27%.
And the winner is: Erin Apostolos!
Here's her winning entry again:
I had a genealogy question from a patron who lives locally. She has an alabaster stone on her property that says "Mary E." born 1910 died (date is lost) wife of Peter E. Hadley. She wanted to know when Mary had died and what her story was. I was able to find their marriage info and find them on the census in Goffstown, NH but Mary disappeared by 1870 so I assumed she died between 1860-1870. I poured through our genealogy books at the library but did not find her or her husband.
After exhausting our genealogy databases, I googled Mary and Peter. After looking around a bit I found this link: http://www.hadleyfamily.us/album/album.html If you scroll about halfway down, you will find a picture of Mary Cochran Hadley, dead in her coffin with her date of birth and death! My jaw just dropped when I found this. In all my years of doing genealogy, I have never found a subject in such a state! What a find. The patron was absolutely thrilled. I was able to connect her with the man who had created the family's Website.
This was by far my favorite reference question and answer!
If you're interested, be sure to read all 28 contest entries.
For her prize, Erin wins a custom-imprinted six-pack of Jones Soda, with the Swiss Army Librarian logo on the label. She, and the other three finalists, also each get a cool Swiss Army Librarian sticker.
Thank you again to everyone who participated, and especially for reading my website. I hope everyone has as much fun with this as I do.
October 28th, 2013 Brian Herzog
There were 28 submissions for the Best Reference Question Contest, and the panel of judges narrowed it down to the top four (it was a four-way tie, so there are four finalists instead of three).
Please use the link below to read all four and vote for your favorite - voting will be open until October 31st, and then the winner will be announced on November 2nd:
Thank you to everyone who submitted an entry - they were really fun to read. After the contest is over, I'll post all of the questions so everyone can enjoy them. Thanks also to the judges for helping out - it's much easier for me not having to be subjective.
Go vote already!