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Reference Question of the Week – 3/17/13

   March 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

PrintFriendly logoOne of the most common questions we get at the Reference Desk is something along the lines of:

I tried to print something, but all I got was this blank page. Can you print it for me?

The reason this happens (I think) is that a lot of web pages - especially news sites and free email accounts - compartmentalize information using frames*, and many web browsers have a difficult time trying to print all these different frames at the same time.

When patrons try to print a page like this just using the browser's File > Print function, it often doesn't work. The page designers know this, so they usually embed a little printer icon somewhere within the content frame the person wants to print - the body of the email, the news story, etc. It generally seems to appear in the top-right corner of the content window, and when you click it, opens the important content in an entirely new window that will print nicely. However, it is often so subtle that people never notice it.

But check this out: I stumbled upon PrintFriendly by accident, and I love the idea. It is specifically designed to make printing these annoying pages easier. You can copy/paste in the URL of the page you want to print, it grabs the content, and then you have full control over which parts of the page actually print - it lets you remove anything you don't want.

What I thought was even more useful is their bookmarklet that you can stick right in your browser - that way when you want to print a page, the PrintFriendly button is always right there, instead of having to mess with copy/pasting the URL. Neat.

Since finding this, I've been testing it every chance I get, and it seems to work about 90% of the time. Usually, exactly what I want to print is the only thing that shows up. But even when extra sidebars and things do show - like in this Lowell Sun newspaper article (source) - PrintFriendly makes it so easy to remove all the junk (just click on whatever you want to delete). This means the good content fills the page (a single page), instead of being a very narrow column four pages long.

It didn't work everywhere though. For instance, Zap2it.com listings seem to print much better the normal way than through PrintFriendly.

A few more neat features: once you render a page to print in PrintFriendly, it gives you the option to print, create a PDF, or email it. Very handy.

Of course, my first thought was to put the bookmarklet in all the browsers on our public workstations. This still might be a good idea, but patrons will need to be trained to use it, which will be a challenge. Everyone is so conditioned to File > Print, and usually people don't know something went wrong until after they've paid for their print job (why doesn't anyone File > Print Preview?!?).

So for the time being, this might just be a handy tool in the librarian toolbox (but I do have it installed on my computer).

I have no idea how long PrintFriendly has been around, so I might be the last person to know. Has anyone been using this? I'm curious to see how well PrintFriendly works on a wider array of websites.


*Frames is an HTML way of embedding multiple "windows" into the same webpage. The best clue for knowing whether or not there are frames on a page is to notice if there are scroll bars inside the page. There will always be the main vertical scroll bar all the way on the right edge of the browser window (for pages longer than the screen), but sometimes there are additional vertical scroll bars in the page itself, that just moves some content in a little window. This is a frame, and may or may not print when you print using the browser's File > Print functionality.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/10/13

   March 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

This week is actually a crowdsourcing request to find the answer to a question. Last month, a friend of mine at the Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, tweeted:

Tweet from @itsokihaveabook  Has anyone seen a historical chart of when things can't be repaired and must be replaced instead? Pls send link if you find it!

I followed up with her and got a little more detail on what she's after:

What I am looking for is basically a timeline showing when repair of certain things became obsolete; for example, approximately when most people stopped taking their shoes to a cobbler and just bought new shoes, or when radio or toaster repair became a thing of the past and you just had to get a new one instead.

That sounded like a chart I'd like to see, and I'm always happy to help, so I started researching to see what I could find. The search so far has been unsuccessful, and earlier this week she posted an open request on her blog asking for help. If you're interested, please lend a hand - unanswered question bother me.

Apple connectors that change with every generationThe search has turned up some good stuff though. I like making and repairing my own things, so of course this question - and the notion of planned obsolescence in general - interests me. Jenny listed some of the resources we've found so far, including the one I found most eye-opening, "Consumer Society Is Made To Break," because of this:

“Planned obsolescence” may sound like a conspiracy theory but it was once openly discussed as a solution to the Great Depression. In fact, most scholars trace the origin of the term to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which London blames the global economic Depression on consumers who disobey “the law of obsolescence” by “using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”. London’s sinister solution was to propose a government agency that would determine the lifespan of each manufactured object whether it is a building, a ship, a comb or a shoe. Those frugal consumers who insisted on using their products past the expiration date would be penalized.

The full text of the pamphlet is included in their post. To me, planned obsolescence did seem like some kind of manufacturer's conspiracy, so I was surprised to read it originated as a solution to the great depression. I suppose that makes sense, but the idea of deliberately building a short - and unextendable - lifespan into products to force people to spend more money on a replacement is just offensive.

Anyway, if anyone manages to find what Jenny is looking for, please let her know (and me too). Thanks!

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/3/13

   March 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Boston Post Cane from Winthrop, MAI think this is my absolute favorite reference question so far this year. It took a few days before the final answer emerged, and it all started with a patron sending in this message from our ChelmsfordHistory.org website's contact form:

Does Chelmsford have a Boston Post cane, if we do who is the lucky holder?

I've lived in New England for about twelve years, and have heard of these canes. What I knew about them was just that some towns had them and some didn't, and they were handed out around the turn of the last century by a newspaper or magazine.

I've been in Chelmsford for seven years, and never heard of one of these canes in connection with Chelmsford. I did a bit of research, and then replied to the patron:

I haven't heard of a cane in connection with Chelmsford. I found a list online of the communities that have them, and Chelmsford isn't included:


I think when the canes were passed out by the Boston Post, Chelmsford was a much smaller town than now, and perhaps didn't make the cut of the original 700 towns that received them. I'll check with the Historical Society to be sure, and let you know. Thanks.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

From this website, I learned more details about the canes: in 1909, they were given to 700 towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, by Edwin A. Grozier, Publisher of the Boston Post newspaper. The tradition was to give the cane to the oldest living resident in town, and then it was passed on to the next oldest when that person died. The cane itself belonged to the town, administered by the Selectmen, but was always supposed be held by the oldest resident. Of course, as towns grew, this became harder to track, and many canes were lost or retired and put on display somewhere.

Anyway, I emailed the Historical Society to be thorough, and while waiting for a reply, continued to check our vertical file and local history resources. I wasn't able to find anything about a Chelmsford cane, so I was surprised by the message I got the following day from the Historical Society:

We have it at the Historical Society now, but I don't think it is on display yet. It went missing for many years but turned up at the Senior Center a couple of years ago. [One of our members] has more details on the mystery if you are interested.

Holy smokes - do you know what this means? The internet lied to me!

I was certainly happy I checked with them. I emailed the patron the good news, but also followed up with the other Historical Society member to see what else I could learn about the cane. The next day, I heard back:

Hi Brian,
You can find out all about the cane in Judy Buswick's book Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst. I'm sure the library has a copy. There is a chapter on the cane.
Take care

Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst coverOops - we do indeed have multiple copies*, and it wasn't one of the books I looked in. The title of the chapter on the cane is "Mystery defines cane's history," which is why this book didn't come up when I searched the catalog for keyword combinations that include Boston or Post (however, a search for "Chelmsford cane" produces this book as the only result).

So, bad on me for not conducting a more thorough search on my own, but I'm glad my reaching out to an expert resource directed me back to the right place.

This chapter, which was originally published as a newspaper article in 1996, detailed the Chelmsford cane's history, from the first few recipients through it being lost, and then suddenly turning up one day at the Senior Center. After that it made its way to the Historical Society for safe keeping, and another Historical Society member said that it is in fact currently in a display case there.

Again, I emailed the patron with what I had learned, including letting him know we have this book in the library. A few days later he came in to pick it up, and we had a nice little talk about the canes, and his interest in them.

Apart from me dropping the ball and not finding the right book when I should have, this was a great reference question. The internet was wrong, local resources were vital, I learned something about local history, and the patron got exactly what he wanted. But best of all, I get to email the people who run that Boston Post cane website to have Chelmsford added, doing my little part to make the internet a better place.


*This book is also available for purchase from the Chelmsford Historical Society.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/24/13

   March 2nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Library Emergency PhoneThis sort of happened once before, and I think it's awesome - although it probably wasn't very awesome to experience.

One member of our staff recently took a two-week cruise, leaving from Florida. She and her partner flew to Florida, took a shuttle from the airport to the dock, and were just about to get on the boat when the realized one of their suitcases was missing. But worst of all, it was the suitcase that contained his blood pressure medicine.

They simply could not go on the cruise without it. And they only had an hour and a half before they had to check in on the ship, so they didn't have enough time to get all the way back to the airport and try to track down the bag.

So, she did the only smart thing - she called the library.

Her logic was this: they knew the name of his doctor and the town in which he practiced, but no other contact information. The Reference Desk was able to easily find the doctor's office phone number, which she then called from her cell phone in Florida.

The doctor's office said they could send a new prescription to a local pharmacy down there - but of course they were at a cruise ship terminal and had no idea where a drug store might be.

The ensuing story sounded like the stuff of a Benny Hill sketch: they found a taxi, but the driver barely spoke English. He tried to locate a CVS Pharmacy on his smartphone's GPS, while my coworker tried to keep the doctor's office on the phone. I can just hear Yakety Sax playing while picturing this cab racing down the street, cell phones blazing, communication barrier humming, and the clock ticking.

They finally find a pharmacy, (hopefully) convince the cabbie to wait in the parking lot because they'll be right back out and need to race back to the dock - my coworker still has the doctor's office on the phone and gives it to the pharmacy technician so they can work out where to send the prescription.

After a few tense minutes the new prescription is filled, the smiling taxi driver is happily waiting for them, and they make it back to the cruise ship just in the nick of time. The rest of the cruise goes smoothly, they have a wonderful time, and they even manage to pick up their lost suitcase on their way back through the airport going home.

And the moral of this story? Never go on vacation without taking your local library's phone number with you.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/17/13

   February 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Ebay listing for 1743 MASSACHUSETTS Bay COLONIAL Laws CHARTER American ADULTERY Leather BOSTONThis isn't a reference question, but I think it is by far the most interesting email the library received this week. The message below was sent to my Director, and was then forwarded to our cataloger and me to look into:

Subject: former(?) Rare Chelmsford Library Book 1743 MASSACHUSETTS Bay COLONIAL Laws

Hello, I noticed this rare book for sale on ebay and an image shows an ownership label of your library. I'm not interested in buying it, just wanted to bring it to your attention in case this rare item had been removed from your collection. No response needed to me.

Wow. We checked out the ebay listing for this book, and sure enough, the inside cover has a old Chelmsford Library bookplate:

Adams Library bookplate

None of us ever recalled seeing this book in the collection, or even anything remotely like it. We have lots of old historical and vital records, but none leather-bound or particularly valuable.

There was no record in the catalog for this item at our library (although a nearby library does have it) - which means this item could have been weeded and discarded, sold as a fundraiser, or stolen by fiends any time in the last 100+ years.

Since we have no way to know, there's nothing we can do. I do occasionally hear about stolen library books being sold at auction (or worse, maps or color plates cut out of library books), but in this case I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt. It is an interesting situation though. If anyone would like to purchase it and donate it to the library, please let me know.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/10/13

   February 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Holding a duckOne common question at the reference desk is a patron asking for a specific book by describing the cover - they don't remember the title or author, but know it was "kind of red, with an airplane or a submarine, and maybe something like a roundish square type thing."

Being librarians, we take whatever information the patron can provide and do our best. I know many people dread this type of question (because it's often just impossible), but I sort of enjoy them. Since the expectation of success is so low to begin with, it's a fun challenge, and finding the right book is all the better for it.

In this case, the patron was actually a coworker of mine - she had taken her niece to a different library, and was trying to re-locate a book her niece had picked out and loved, to see if the author had any others. But all she could remember was that it was a newish kids book with a girl holding a duck on the cover.

I first went to Amazon's advanced search with this question. My keyword search was for "girl duck," limit to Condition=New, Format=Printed Books, Pub date after November 2012, and then submitted individual searches for each of the different kid ages one at a time. None of the searches has a likely-looking cover, so I decided to just use "duck" as my keyword (thinking that if a duck is on the cover it must be the important part of the story). I also dropped the idea of using the age limiter in favor of the Subject option limited to Children's Books.

Amazon advanced search page

In that search, result #10 looked promising. I called my coworker over to check, and she was excited - the book she'd seen with her niece was indeed Lulu: Lulu and the Duck in the Park (Book 1), by Hilary McKay and Priscilla Lamont*.

Lulu and the Duck listing on Amazon

Awesome. But then I started to wonder - was Amazon the best tool for this question? There is no really good "look up a book by cover" resource out there, although I would love there to be. LibraryThing started down this road with CoverGuess. The genius of their approach was to gamify the data entry part of tagging cover art, but I don't think a searchable interface has ever been created.

Anyway, out of curiosity I decided to run the same search process in Novelist and the library catalog, to see if I could have successfully located the book with those tools.

Novelist's advanced search is more complex than Amazon's - I used "girl duck" as a keyword, limited to Audience = 0-8 Years, and Publication Date from = November 2012:

Novelist advanced search

In my library's catalog's advanced search, I used "duck" as the keyword, limited to Format = Books, Audience = Kids, and Publication Year after 2011:

Evergreen's adavnced search

And now the results - each one has the number next to it indicating how far down this book was in the search results:


Result #10 on Amazon


Result #2 on Novelist

Library Catalog:

Result #55 in the library catalog

In all cases it was findable, but Novelist ranked it the highest with the fewest search limiters. However, since Novelist is a subscription database, getting to the search interface is a much more cumbersome process than using Amazon. The library catalog is easy to get to and the search interface is reasonable, but burying the book at #55 is bad because many people give up log before the sixth page of search results (thanks for that, Google).

Something else I noticed, and what I think is another strike against the library catalog, was the various sizes of the cover images. Comparatively, the library catalog's cover thumbnail is tiny, and because of this it's not really evident that the girl is holding a duck. Since that's all I had to go on with this search, if I had started with the library catalog, I probably would have missed this book entirely. I don't know why the thumbnails are as small as they are, but it seems the catalog would be improved by making them almost twice the size they are now.

So there you go, my curiosity was sated. Anyone else have a favorite method for finding books by cover descriptions?


*I don't know why Amazon has the publication date as September 2013, since the other library apparently had it cataloged and on their shelf. Ah, sweet mysteries of life.

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