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



Archives for Resources:


Navigating NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

   October 25th, 2011 Brian Herzog

SF Signal presents A Guide to Navigating NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy BooksThis isn't new, but I read on Slashdot last week that NPR listeners voted for the top 100 science fiction & fantasy books of all time.

But the website SF Signal saw a problem: the 100 science fiction & fantasy books were from all over the genres, and had basically no rhyme or reason. So they created a readers advisory flowchart, to help readers select which of the 100 they'd be most interested in reading by answering a few questions.

A 100-book flowchart graphic is massively huge (see below), so they also made an interactive version - it's great, and worth a look:

Flowchart for choosing science fiction and fantasy books

Does anyone know of other interactive "choose-your-own-adventure" type readers advisory tools out there?



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/6/11

   March 12th, 2011 Brian Herzog

ALA Library logoInstead of one of my reference questions, this week, I wanted to share this:

Through a chance email conversation with the ALA librarian Karen Muller, I learned the ALA not only maintains a library of its own, but the American Libraries magazine also posts online some of its more interesting reference questions.

They're interesting, so check it out.

Also, I was curious, so I read more about the ALA library, including its mission:

The primary mission of the ALA Library is to help the staff of the American Library Association serve ALA members, and thereafter, the needs of the members of ALA, other libraries, and members of the public seeking information on librarianship. The ALA Library is a small special library with a collection that focuses exclusively on the history of and issues within libraries and librarianship. The Library's staff will respond to reference and information requests in accordance with this mission and collection scope.

Their website deserves some exploring, and has interesting information, including

Of course, it could just be me that was in the dark about all this. They're also on Facebook and Twitter, and with 12,000+ Twitter followers, maybe I'm just the last to know.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/9/11

   January 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Movie Suggestion FAILThis week's question wasn't difficult, and isn't particularly unusual, but I'm sharing it because I like the resource we ultimately found to answer it.

An older patron walked up to the desk and said,

I don't really follow popular culture, but I think I should start watching more movies. Can you tell me which movies were the most popular in each of the last five or so years?

My first suggestion was to check the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, but he felt that winning an award didn't necessarily mean it was popular. Besides, he said, he didn't just want a list, he also wanted to read summaries of the movies.

When he said that, I walked him back to where the film and movie books are (791.4375). I showed him Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and a few others. None of the books on the shelve arranged films by year, but he did like all the reviews and ratings, and he especially liked 1001 Movies... because it listed movies by genre.

The patron took those over to a table while I went back to the desk to find a chronological list. At the desk I told my coworker about the question I was working on, and just then the phone rang. I answered it, helped the caller with their question, and by the time I hung up my coworker had already searched online and found the perfect resource for this question.

The website is Films101.com, and it lets you see lists of movies in all kinds of different ways - by rating, year, gross revenues, genre, award winners, and on and on. Clicking on any movie led to reviews, and the website's layout was uncluttered and easy to navigate.

The listing that best fit this question was their Yearly Top 10. Since the website format was clean with no sidebars full of ads, I was able to print a double-sided list all the way back to 2003 on a single sheet of paper. I brought this over to the patron, and his face lit up - he said it was exactly what he was looking for.

He came by the desk a few minutes later, saying he was checking out Leonard Maltin's latest book, so he could go down the list and look up each one. He also pointed out that he was happy foreign films were included, because "there's a lot going on outside this country."

Any kind of movie suggestions (or readers advisory) can be tough because once you get beyond award winners, everything is so subjective. Something else I liked about this website was that it continually took in new data, so rankings sometimes changed based on new review sources.

Yay for giving a patron what he wanted, and for teamwork.



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Resources for Redesigning Websites

   November 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Thinking about the new design of the San Jose Public Library reminded me that I've been collecting links to tools and articles about web design. I posted a few resources before, but the demise of Bloglines has prompted me to pull out all my bookmarks and do something with them.

I'll be using these when we redesign our website, and hopefully you'll find them helpful too:

Web Design Overview

 

Design Tips & Goals

 

Testing & Development Tools

 

And the final word on this subject will come from Chuck - Design Coding is not only hilarious, it's amazingly accurate:

But I'm sure there are tons of other tools out there, so please share your favorite in the comments. Thanks.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/5/10

   September 11th, 2010 Brian Herzog

back pain artA patron comes to the desk and asks where the books on back pain are. I get up to show him, but he says he can find them himself, if I just write down the call number for him. So I write 617.564 on scrap paper and he was off.

A few minutes later he comes back and says he needs help after all. He found the books okay, but it turned out they are all on the bottom shelf and his back hurts too much to bend over.

We have a laugh at the irony, then I pull them all and put them on a cart, so he can take them over to a chair.

This is another example of an unintended side-effect of Dewey, and also the second shelf-height-related incident I've helped with. I wonder how long before we achieve the trifecta - is it possible for books to be too "middle-shelf?"



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The Resurrection of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 7th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Yahoo PipesLast week I started talking about newspaper obituaries. Today's post details how we're improving access to the obituaries we do have in our newspaper microfilm records, using an online index created with Yahoo Pipes.

Our microfilm records of the local papers go back to 1940. But microfilm is primarily an archival format, rather than an accessible format, so it can be cumbersome to use. Our biggest impediment was that we didn't know what was there - when a patron contacted the Reference Desk asking for someone's obituary, it was very time-consuming for us to search the microfilm for an obituary, which may or may not have even appeared in the paper - we wouldn't even know until we checked.

So we created an online searchable index to the newspaper's obituaries - not the text of the obituaries, just a name/date/page index. Patrons and staff can use this to know whether someone's obituary appeared in our newspaper, instead of having to check the microfilm every time.

Here's how we did it: first, for about the past 10 months, volunteers have been going through every microfilm reel we have, page by page, and building an Excel spreadsheet with the following information:

Newspaper Year Month Day Page FirstName MiddleInitial LastName Maiden-Jr-Sr

The first column is necessary because we have records for both the Chelmsford Newsweekly (1940-1993) and the Chelmsford Independent (1986-present). The middle columns are reference and retrieval information. In the last column, we included extra information, like maiden name, whether a person was a "Jr." or "Sr." etc., and anything else that was random and didn't fit into another column.

The spreadsheet itself is useful, but I wanted to put this online so anyone could search it. The tool I chose was Yahoo Pipes, which has both pros and cons:

Pros:

  • It's easy to play with and learn (like most Web 2.0 tools), but is also very powerful so we can grow into it
  • It can use a csv file for the data, which is easy to create with Excel
  • Beyond a simple search, it also provides fancy features like RSS feeds and tie-ins with other social media tools
  • Using Yahoo Pipes is covered in Chapter 7 of Library Mashups, written by Nicole Engard
  • The data is easy to update as the file continues to grow
  • It worked

Cons:

  • Searching a database is not what Pipes is intended to do, so it's probably not the best tool out there (I wanted to use DabbleDB, but they're in transition right now)
  • The csv file must be ftp'ed to the webserver, which will be increasingly problematic - right now the file is 17,000+ lines and over 1MB. It will only get bigger, and the entire thing needs to be uploaded each time it's updated
  • Pipes has funny rules that you don't know about until something breaks. For instance, field names must be single words (hence "FirstName" and "Maiden-Jr-Sr"), you can't use certain characters in the data (like /), the search doesn't let you combine keywords (so far - I'm sure there must be some kind of fancy loop setup that will allow it, but right now people can only search either by first name or last name or year)
  • There isn't an easy way to embed the search box back into our website (there are Badge options, but only for search output) - you have to use the Pipe interface to search
  • There doesn't seem to be a wildcard for search
  • The results can't not link to something - I wanted the names and dates just to be displayed, but the way Pipes works requires the results to link to something

The last point was initially a pain, but it forced me to be creative, and I think the solution is actually more helpful for patrons than what I originally wanted. Now, when a patron finds the obituary listing they'd like to read, they click the link, and it automatically fills the obituary information into an email contact form on our website. That request gets sent to Reference staff, who then have an easy time of retrieving the obituary from the microfilm. Unfortunately, our microfilm machine isn't connected to a computer, so we'll just print and mail or fax the obituary to the patron. When possible we'll type them in and email them, and of course that will go into the searchable database too.

To make the connection from the Pipes listing to our email form, I had to use some javascript (which introduced another glitch: javascript makes names like O'Conner problematic, because it stops at the ', but I'll worry about this later).

Here's what the whole Pipe's source code looks like:
Yahoo Pipe for Obituary Search

Here's what it does:

  • The "Fetch CSV" module is the path to the csv file on our webserver
  • The module to the right of that controls what the patron search input box looks like. The "Label" field is "Enter EITHER a First Name, Last Name OR Year:" and you can see where that displays on the Pipe page
  • Both of those modules feed into "Filter" module - this one takes what the patron enters into the search box and filters the data from the csv file to create a subset of just matching records. Whatever the patron enters gets searched for in all the fields listed in the "Filter" module
  • The next module is "Rename" and I'm not sure I'm using it properly - I needed to create two new fields, so I'm just taking two existing fields, copying them, and renaming them so I can work with them later. The fields that got copied still exist untouched
  • Next is the "Regex" module, which is the most complicated and powerful, and I use it to create what the patron sees for the search results. The "Title" field is one I created, and here I'm replacing the contents from when I copied it to display what the patron will see on the screen - the code for it is "${FirstName} ${MiddleInitial} ${LastName} ${Maiden-Jr-Sr} - ${Newspaper}, ${Month} ${Day}, ${Year}, Page ${Page} ${Obituary}" which also includes punctuation formatting. So, for example, the result looks like this:

    Katherine M. Polley - Chelmsford Newsweekly, December 31, 1940, Page 7

    Because this field has to be a link, I also had to define what it links to, which is what I'm doing in the "Link" field. The value for that field is being written as

    http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/reference/ask_us-obits.html?obit=${FirstName}+${MiddleInitial}+${LastName},+${Newspaper},+${Month}+${Day},+${Year},+Page+${Page}

    which carries the data over to the library's website and some javascript pulls the data from the url and puts it in an email form. The patron can fill in their name and contact info into the form and submit it to us as an email message

  • The "Sort" module is self-explanatory, and I chose to list them with most recent first

This feels far more complicated than it should be, and I'm sharing it here to both save someone else from having to figure it all out again on their own, and to hopefully get suggestions on how to simplify/improve it.

Although, speaking of improving it, I do have one idea for future development: the local Cemetery Department has spreadsheet online listing complete burial locations - it would be neat to mashup up that data, so the obituary is linked to the cemetery plot location.

That's down the road a bit, so in the meantime I just keep adding whatever new obituaries appear in the paper to the csv data file - I had planned to do that weekly, but lately there have been many weeks without any obituaries in the paper (see my previous post). Anyway, we'll see how this works - it only went live last week, but already patrons have been using it, and it certainly does save a lot of staff time.



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