Archives for Reference Question:
September 21st, 2013 Brian Herzog
I hear this reference question maybe two or three times a year, and it's one that I equally enjoy and despise. Despise because I tend to have a very low success rate with them, but enjoy because I know that if I weren't a librarian, I'd be calling my library to ask the exact same question.
Through the online contact form of the library's ChelmsfordHistory.org website this week came this question:
I'm trying to figure out who originally built my grandmothers house. [It was] built in 1946. I would like to get a name and or pictures of the original structure and the original owner.
This is probably a common question anywhere that has old houses, and lots of people want to know the history of their home. And for some houses, a lot of that work has been done. Our local Historical Commission has made available online a tremendous amount of information from their survey of old homes, but rarely does the patron asking live in one of these. And in this case, finding a photo of the original home - and the owner! - seemed like a particularly tall order.
I don't think I've ever been asked who the builder of a home was, and it seemed like the only possible record of that might have been on the original building permit issued by the Town. I called the Building Inspectors office in Town Hall and spoke to the Building Commissioner, explaining what I was looking for. Although he was helpful, unfortunately the records he has only go back to the 1960s, and he didn't know if older Town records of building permits even still existed.
In the end, he suggested I look for the original deed through the county's Registrar of Deeds. He said that often the first record of sale is from the builder to the first owner - which I didn't know but makes sense. I've only ever used their land records website for current who-owns-this-property type questions, and again struck out because their online records only go back to 1976.
So at this point, I emailed the patron back explaining what I had (not) found so far. I gave her the contact information for the Registrar of Deeds though, because her contacting them directly - or, more likely, her going there in person - might be able to produce the records back to 1946. With that, hopefully, she'll get the names of the builder and original occupant.
As for photos though... since her home wasn't an old one in an historic neighborhood, I think the only source for photos may be family photos of previous residents. I don't know if the patron is motivated enough to track down the family of the original owner, but it might produce some photographs. Also, if the builder is still in business, they may have photos or plans for the original house too. I don't know how much her house has changed since it was built, but if the the builder built multiple homes in the area, there may be some that used the same plans and are still in their original condition, which may give an idea of what her house originally looked like.
I apologized for not being much help, because I felt like I was really grasping at straws at the end. Hopefully she'll have luck with the Registrar of Deeds - and hopefullyier, I'll find a new and helpful "history of my house" resource before the next question like this comes in.
September 14th, 2013 Brian Herzog
Here's one of those questions where I wish I had gotten the patron's contact information, because not only did I find out after the fact that I gave him bad information, but I also found a good answer later on, too.
One afternoon someone from the Circ Desk called down to Reference. She said there was a patron who wanted to donate money to an online charity, but all he had was cash and he wanted to know if we could help him.
I immediately started to mental spin through all the ways I knew of to pay for something online, and none of them originated with an actual fistful of dollars. The best idea I could come up with on the spot was some kind of prepaid credit card, which is not something the library offers (but I know there are lots out there). However, right across the street from us is a bank, so I just recommended he go over and check with them, optimistically hoping a bank product would be some kind of cash card he could use.
After work that day curiosity got the better of me, so I walked over to the bank and asked them this question myself - and I was surprised that the teller's answer was "no." She said the closest thing they had were regular debit cards, but those are tied to an account. She said they do get requests for something like a prepaid cash card, because lots of bank customers don't want to expose their account information online at all - but they just didn't offer any kind of "internet gift card."
That phrase made some connection for me, and got me wondering if PayPal offered a gift card, much like I see eBay and Amazon gift cards for sale at cash registers. Sure enough, they do! I also found Green Dot MoneyPak, CoinStar, PayNearMe.com, and CashPayment.com.
Drat that I didn't think of this when the patron was in the library. Of course, he'd still have to find a nearby participating retail location, and the charity would have to accept one of these, but at least there is a way to turn cash into an internet-friendly form.
September 7th, 2013 Brian Herzog
A patron came up to me at the desk one evening, when things were really slow and most of the computers were empty, and asked,
What is your average availability for computers?
After a little clarification, what he was really asking was, how often is there at least one public workstation available, versus how often are they all in use.
Anecdotally, for my library, mornings and evenings always have available computers, but during the daytime - especially lunchtime and after school - often every computer is in use. I was able to answer this just off the top of my head, which any reference staff person could.
However, the patron really wanted an actual percentage of time the computers are free, so I had to go into our stats. We use Time Limit Manager for our 22 adult computers (we have 10 other public computers also), and the usage report for July 1 2012 - June 30 2013 broke down like this:
- Sessions: 48,192
- Used Time: 1416 days, 22 hours, 27 minutes, 29 seconds
- Unused: 970 days, 6 hours, 34 minutes, 36 seconds
- Avg Session: 42 minutes 25 seconds
If my math is correct, that rounds to 34,006.5 + 23,286.5 = 57,293 available hours total, and 23,286 is just about 41% of the time. So, roughly, 41% of the time we have a computer available for the public to use.
Those seemed like pretty good odds to the patron, and he explained to me why he asked. He said he uses his home computer very little any more, and figured that if he dropped internet access at home, the amount of money he'd save annually could buy him an airline ticket to Europe each year - and he made it clear which of those activities he prefers.
I'd like to go to Europe every year too, but I don't know that I could do without internet at home. However, I think it's awesome that someone find the library useful and reliable enough to plan their life spending - and traveling - around it. And this might be one demographic that wasn't covered by Sarah's recap of Pew's Digital Divide report - people who choose not to have internet at home because they know they can rely on the library for it.
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:
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:
- 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:
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.
Tags: air mail, arrow, cardboard, cathedral, libraries, Library, moon rock, national, new zealand, public, Reference Question, space window
August 24th, 2013 Brian Herzog
Back 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:
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:
August 17th, 2013 Brian Herzog
Sometimes, patrons just miss a chance at a really great Reference Question of the Week.
A patron called and asked for information on a product called the "Parrot Talking Bible." She described it as a physical device that lets you press different buttons to hear the Bible being read to you.
Sounds straight-forward, but I couldn't find a product called the "Parrot Talking Bible." I found lots of disc-based and digital audio Bibles, and even a physical device called Talking Bible, but that wasn't what the patron was looking for.
The problem was that any time I included "parrot" as a search term, I'd either get a Parrot Bible, or Bible jokes or stories involving parrots. There were a surprising number of them, but my favorite was:
Four brothers left home for college, and they became successful doctors and lawyers.
One evening, they chatted after having dinner together. They discussed the 95th birthday gifts they were able to give their elderly mother who moved to Florida.
The first said, "You know I had a big house built for Mama."
The second said, "And I had a large theater built in the house."
The third said, "And I had my Mercedes dealer deliver an SL600 to her."
The fourth said, "You know how Mama loved reading the Bible and you know she can't read anymore because she can't see very well. I met this preacher who told me about a parrot who could recite the entire Bible. It took ten preachers almost 8 years to teach him. I had to pledge to contribute $50,000 a year for five years to the church, but it was worth it. Mama only has to name the chapter and verse, and the parrot will recite it."
The other brothers were impressed. After the celebration Mama sent out her "Thank You" notes.
She wrote: "Milton, the house you built is so huge that I live in only one room, but I have to clean the whole house. Thanks anyway."
"Marvin, I am too old to travel. I stay home; I have my groceries delivered, so I never use the Mercedes. The thought was good. Thanks."
"Michael, you gave me an expensive theater with Dolby sound and it can hold 50 people, but all of my friends are dead, I've lost my hearing, and I'm nearly blind. I'll never use it. Thank you for the gesture just the same."
"Dearest Melvin, you were the only son to have the good sense to give a little thought to your gift. The chicken was delicious,thank you so much."
The patron was disappointed I couldn't find what she was looking for, but also remarked that maybe she had gotten some wrong information.
See, now what would have made this a great Reference Question of the Week would have been if she had said this after I read her that joke. Oh well. Ever since this call came in I periodically re-search looking for a "Parrot Talking Bible," but so far nothing.