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

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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:


  • 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


  • 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


    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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The Death of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 2nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Newspaper MONEY SectionOne function of public libraries is to be a repository for community history. The extent to which a library can do this will vary, but at the very least, the library has holdings of the local newspaper, which patrons can use to look up obituaries of local residents.

But the reality of this is changing. As newspapers struggle to stay alive, they're exploring new revenue streams - our local paper recently started charging families to list obituaries, instead of providing that service for free. The paper is only published once a week for a town of 32,000 residents, but you can still see the effect below:

Year #/Obits
2000 444
2001 527
2002 523
2003 566
2004 556
2005 479
2006 500
2007 220
2008 215
2009 80
2010 26 (as of Aug.)

And of the 80 obituaries in 2009, only 12 were from June-December. With dramatically fewer obituaries appearing in the paper, the long-term research value of a library's newspaper holdings is diminished. There must be other factors at play too, but hopefully newspaper revenues will stabilize and this downward obituary trend will be reversed. Regardless, there will always at least be a gap for anyone doing genealogical research or just looking up a friend of family member.

And this doesn't seem to be just a local thing. A Slashdot post describes the same thing on a bigger scale. There's also a Boing Boing post that looks into Legacy.com, the company many newspapers are using to outsource obituary listings. The bottom line in both posts is that obituaries and death notices are turning into a cash cow business - and as it becomes more and more expensive to run an obituary, there are going to be fewer and fewer of them.

So, all of that is sad news - doubly so since it's out of the control of libraries (unless we start publishing family-written obituaries on our own websites for free). But at my library, we have been working to improve access to what we do have. Tune in next week for Part Two of this post, detailing how we created an online index to the obituaries in our newspaper microfilm records, to make then easier for patrons and staff to locate.

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American Physical Society Offers Free Access to Libraries

   August 3rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

American Physical Society logoI thought I'd pass this along in case anyone is interested - The American Physical Society is offering online access to their journals free to public libraries.

I haven't decided if my library will take advantage of the offer, because these journals seem more academic that what our patrons are usually after, and also, it's in-library access only. But on the plus side, it's free, and this is a good direction for publishers to be headed.



Ridge, NY, 28 July 2010: The American Physical Society (APS) announces a new public access initiative that will give readers and researchers in public libraries in the United States full use of all online APS journals, from the most recent articles back to the first issue in 1893, a collection including over 400,000 scientific research papers. APS will provide this access at no cost to participating public libraries, as a contribution to public engagement with the ongoing development of scientific understanding.

APS Publisher Joseph Serene observed that "public libraries have long played a central role in our country's intellectual life, and we hope that through this initiative they will become an important avenue for the general public to reach our research journals, which until now have been available only through the subscriptions at research institutions that currently cover the significant costs of peer review and online publication."

Librarians can obtain access by accepting a simple online site license and providing valid IP addresses of public-use computers in their libraries (http://librarians.aps.org/account/public_access_new). The license requires that public library users must be in the library when they read the APS journals or download articles. Initially the program will be offered to U.S. public libraries, but it may include additional countries in the future.

"The Public Library program is entirely consistent with the APS objective to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics," said Gene Sprouse, APS Editor in Chief. "Our goal is to provide access to
everyone who wants and needs our journals and this shift in policy represents the first of several steps the APS is taking towards that goal."

--Contact: Amy Halsted, Special Assistant to the Editor in Chief, halsted@aps.org, 631-591-4232

--About the APS: The American Physical Society is the world's largest professional body of physicists, representing close to 48,000 physicists in academia and industry worldwide. It has offices in Ridge, NY; Washington, DC; and College Park, MD. For more information: www.aps.org.

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Buying Databases Like Used Cars

   June 22nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Image: discounts everywhere, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from cjc4454 photostreamLast week at a meeting of area reference librarians, the topic of research databases came up - which ones we like, which we wish patrons would use more, etc.

One librarian remarked that her favorite database is one of the most expensive, but doesn't get used much so she's considering cutting it. She happened to mention the price they're paying, which got everyone's attention.

That particular database vendor bases their pricing on population. For her town of 32,000, they're paying over $7,000 for that database. My town is exactly the same size, but we pay only $4,400 - and another town, of 25,000, pays over $5,000. What?

Then we started relating other database pricing anecdotes:

  • A sales rep told one librarian a database cost $4,000. When the librarian said she couldn't even come close to that, the sales rep asked, "well, what can you afford?" - she said $1,500, and the rep made the deal for that price
  • One vendor said they don't like losing customers, so when I called to cancel a database, they gave it to me for free provided I kept access to the others I had from them
  • Another vendor gives volume discounts, so when I called to cancel two of the three databases we got from them, he said buying just the one database (without the volume discount) would be more expensive than getting all three

I hate this. Don't get me wrong - I like the database sales reps I work with - I just don't understand the business model behind databases. And the difference between charging a library $4,000 for something instead of $1,500 seems like price gouging.

It's great that reps are able to work with small-budget libraries, but it would be so much easier to have fixed, posted prices, rather than everyone paying different rates (isn't that one of the things that got the health care industry in trouble?).

All the librarians at the meeting agreed to compare notes and prices, so we can try to save money the next time we renew our contracts. I hate to haggle and negotiate for prices, but now I feel like it would be fiscally irresponsible of me not to - and never accept the first quote. Since what we pay is public record anyway, maybe libraries should post their database contracts in a central place, so we can all get better deals.

(And just as a funny aside: while I was looking for a photo to accompany this post, this clever one cracked me up. Ah, sales - it's why I left the business world for librarianship.)

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A Few Notable News Stories

   March 25th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I usually don't like just reposting things unless I have something intelligent to say about it. Regardless, here are a few news stories I noticed recently that seem to be flying under the radar (intelligent commentary optional):


Raj PatelThe Life of Raj Patel
Sure you've heard of Raj Patel and his books The Value of Nothing and Stuffed and Starved - but did you know he is the messiah?

Neither did he, but the folks of Share International are treating him like Brian, despite his denials, because they know Only the true Messiah denies His divinity. (via)


Overdrive Announcements
Overdrive logoTwo Overdrive stories: one about LEAP, their New Program for Visually Impaired Readers, and another about a program to Offer Honor System eBook Lending for Libraries, so no DRM. Both worth investigating.


Free Music, as in Free Lunch, as in No Such Thing
Freegal logoAlso on the DRM theme is a Library Journal article about a new music service called Freegal, from Library Ideas, LLC and Sony. Interesting in that this service will

  • have no DRM, just plain old mp3 files
  • require no content manager software
  • trust people to follow copyright law, instead of just assume they're criminals
  • charge libraries per download, rather than an annual subscription (or rather, a "minimum annual commitment" which can be managed on a weekly basis)

All good news, but I'm curious to see how the pricing model works - it's not like anything else used in libraries, is it? And who out there thinks a website called "freegal" might get blocked by sex filters?


What Do You Know About Knowr.com?
Knowr logoNot a news story, but I got a press release about Ooga Labs' new Knowr.com, billed as a "Question and Answer site that ties to the users social graph ... to create a vibrant knowledge network." What I liked about it is their approach:

At first, we had thought that people ... could use our service to share what they know with each other, both within their own particular industries, and in exciting, boundary crossing ways. With a little research, we saw that these groups already have vibrant communities online.

Then we quickly noticed teens and other Facebook super users are using services like this to conduct informal interviews of each other and celebrities.

I'm not entirely sure what it does, or why, or that it isn't already being done, but I did like that they decided to use existing web platforms (in this case, Facebook) to integrate with, instead of building a whole new networking tool. Good approach.

However, since it requires a Facebook account, that leaves me out.

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