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



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/10/11

   July 16th, 2011 Brian Herzog

NO Stairway to Heaven signThis question made me laugh - partly because it is so odd, and partly because it's not the first request like this that we've had.

We received the following email from a patron with a Subject of "Request for a room" (I edited it a little for clarity):

-----Original Message-----
Subject: Request for a room

I would like to do some recordings with my guitar and voice (moderate volume) using a hand held recorder. I am currently working on a set of folk songs. Is there a isolated room in the Chelmsford Library where I could record during my weekday lunch hour?

One of my coworkers had a good response:

"isolated room" and public library - not a good combo.

We don't have anything in the library that is even close to being sound-proof enough so that his guitar playing wouldn't be heard by other patrons. Which may or may not actually bother people, but I would feel bad telling him yes, then having someone complain after he got all set up and going and then making him stop.

So the staff came up with a list of alternative potential places around town that might be able to handle this, including the local community center, performing arts center, and even the local cable television station (which at least has actual studios).

We sent a message back saying the library couldn't accommodate his request, and referring him to the list of other places we came up with. I haven't heard back if he found somewhere to go, but it would seem to lend some folk-cred if you record your album in a public library.

I do always feel bad when we reach a limit on how we can accommodate people, but at the same time it makes me happy that people continue to think of the library for just about anything.



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We’re Starting Up A Jelly

   July 12th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford Jelly logoThere's a new program starting this week at my library - a Jelly.

What's a Jelly?!
A Jelly is a casual yet organized assembly of people who choose to work in a social atmosphere - with other interesting and creative people to talk to, collaborate with, and bounce ideas off.

The idea for the Chelmsford Jelly actually originated with a patron. He approached our programming librarian and asked if the library could host a Jelly. After researching online to find out what the heck a Jelly was, we agreed - we're providing a room and some publicity, and he's doing everything else. He's also set up a meetup page for the Jelly to manage it.

I think the idea of "coworking" is a good one. There are lots of people now who, for whatever reason, do work at home, in coffee shops, in parks, whatever, instead of going into an office. There is a lot of freedom in that, but sometimes it helps to be around people who are also doing work. The coworking approach is just that - working around other people who are also working. They're not necessarily working together, just near each other - near enough to enjoy each other's company, use as a sounding board, share lunch, and share the experience of working. Basically, social networking in person.

For us, the Jelly will meet every third Friday from 11:30-4:30. We're not sure how successful it will be, but since the library's core mission is providing community space for patrons (and this program requires extremely little effort on our part), we want to support this program as much as possible.

Update: At our first Jelly, I think there were about 4-5 people who came to work, and stay for part or all of the day. But I was told there was a steady stream of other people who just popped their heads in to see what it was, or, as one man said, "to see what kind of people come to these things." I think this will become more popular as word spreads over time, so I'll post an addition update after a few sessions.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/3/11

   July 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Abortion protest signs: pro-life and pro-choice side-by-sideThis question was just kind of strange from start to finish.

A patron comes up to the desk with two articles photo copied from the Boston Globe - one from June 10, 2011, titled Americans conflicted on abortion issue, survey shows, and the other from July 2, 2011, titled Judge puts Kansas abortion law on hold. She slides them over to me and says,

Now this first article I know is from June 10th, but I don't know the page number. In this second article, this judge is mentioned [US District Judge Carlos Murguia] - can you tell me what President appointed him?

Okay, fair enough. For the page number question, I show her where we keep our newspaper back issues, and tell her than while she looks through them for June 10th, I'll look online about the judge. She's happy to be involved, so I walk back over to the desk (which is literally four feet away).

I know it won't take her long to find the newspaper, so I do the quickest search I can think of - just search for US District Judge Carlos Murguia, scan for the Wikipedia article (which are reliably in the top few results), scroll to the Sources section at the bottom, and click through to the Federal Judicial Center's Biographical Directory of Federal Judges entry for Judge Murguia* - which tells me he was appointed by Bill Clinton.

Just then the patron walks up and says she can't find the June 10th paper - she can find back to the 12th, but that's it. Usually, we keep old papers for a month, but really how far back we keep depends on how much space we have on the shelf, and I think the person who manages our newspaper archive just ran out of room and had to get rid of the 10th.

I ask her for the article so I can try looking it up in our Boston Globe database - but then notice the byline says it's an AP article, which aren't included in the database. I apologize for not being able to get this for her, she says she understands. A line of patrons has formed by this time, so she lets this question go and goes back to her computer.

I get busy after that, helping patrons in-person and on the phone. At one point while I'm helping a phone patron, I notice this newspaper patron walk up to the desk speaking over-loudly on a cell phone - she stands across the desk from me talking for a minute, then wanders away. I never would have guessed this patron would have a cell phone at all, let alone whip it out and use it in the library, but there you go. I continue helping people.

A little while later, when there is a break in my activity, this newspaper patron comes back up to the desk. She said she had called the Nashua Library (about 20 minutes away from us, across the border into New Hampshire), and they said they do have the June 10th paper. She slides me a piece of paper with Nashua's phone number on it, and three names - Katie, Katy, Kathy. She asks if I can call them and have them email me a copy of the newspaper, and the librarian's name is something like one of those she wrote down, but she can't remember.

I ask her if it's okay if I just ask them what page the article is on and they tell me over the phone, but she says no - she needs "documentation."

So I call Nashua, and, guessing, ask for Katie at the Reference Desk. I get transferred and when I say who I am, Katie laughs and said she had an idea why I was calling (knowing this patron, Katie probably got an earful on the phone).

Anyway, any librarian knows that photocopying a newspaper article can be difficult, not to mention trying to include the page number on the photocopy - not to mention trying to email/fax it when you're done. So Katie suggests she email me confirmation that she found the article and what page it is on, essentially providing a testament for the "documentation." This sounds good to me, and if the patron still needed more, then we could figure out a way to actually get a copy of the paper.

A few minutes later, the following email arrives:

I located the Associated Press article "Americans conflicted on abortion issue, survey shows" in the print edition of The Boston Globe for Friday, June 10, 2011 (Volume 279, Number 161). The article appears on the right hand side of page A2, and does not continue to any other page. This is the News section of the paper, and the article falls under the subsection heading "The Nation."

I print it and give it to the patron, and she is pleased and thanks me.

I can hardly take credit however - I had already given up on the question, since we didn't have that resource in the library, and there were too many other patrons waiting for me to try to track it down outside the library right then. I think it's kind of funny the patron contacted another library on her own, and I'm very grateful to Katie for being willing to provide an answer with the proper documentation.

This might be the single biggest thing I love about being a librarian - cooperation. Being able to have a short phone call with a colleague (a colleague, yes, but a complete stranger, too) in a different state, and within minutes have the exact right answer delivered to me - it really is just amazing. Sorry LinkedIn, library service desks are the single best professional network around.

 


*The Sources, References, and External Links sections alone make the entire Wikipedia project worthwhile. Even if the articles themselves didn't exist, simply compiling authoritative web links on just about any subject is the kind of topic-based bibliography directory librarians have always loved about the internet.



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Free As in Libraries, But Libraries Are Not Free

   July 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Free as in Library signI have less and less time to keep up with reading RSS feeds these days, but a fantastic post by Carrie Straka, a contributor at Tame the Web, reminded me why it's worth it to keep current on blogs.

She attacks the myth that everything in the library is free, and explains why "a library card isn’t a 100% off coupon." Library materials aren't free - we make them freely accessible, because they have already been paid for. It's like the food in your refrigerator - it was purchased at one point, to be consumed at your leisure (or not used and wasted).

Many users believe that the services and materials we provide are free. As all library staff knows, this is a misconception. The services and materials we provide are not free. In fact, they are far from it. Librarians work within a budget and use all money provided to us through taxes, tuition, or other means.

The comments are also interesting.

And something else I'd like to add, in terms of patrons having misconceptions about ownership of library resources: I've heard some patrons say that they're not returning some item, because their tax dollars have paid for it and they want to keep it - and besides, their tax dollars pay my salary so they can tell me what to do.

This too is a misconception. In libraries, there is no translation between one person's tax share and possessive ownership over a portion of the collection. The entire community's taxes are pooled to build a shared community resource, and library staff are paid to maintain a useful collection and ensure all the materials remain available for the entire community.

It seems a little contrary to the library spirit, but I do tend to err on the side of serving the community rather than the individual. It's a fine line to walk, and my library's yes-based policy means we are accommodating in individual situations - but when push comes to shove (which is thankfully rare), I do consider the library a community resource, not a private one.



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On Helping Parents Instead of Students

   April 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Parents with studentToday's post is a response to an email I received (thanks, Amber). She said she just started working in a public library again, and asked if I had any advice on helping parents when they are looking for resources for their child's homework. This happens often enough that I've actually written it into our reference policy.

The best-case scenario is when the parent comes in with the student, and I always try to engage the student as much as possible. After all, it's the student that knows what their assignment is and what kind of information they need - not to mention I am trying to teach them research skills at the same time.

The situation that can be the most difficult is when the parent comes in alone. It is certainly a good thing to have a parent involved in their child's education, but more often than not, I get the distinct impression that the parent is just doing the child's homework for them - which makes me uncomfortable.

Here are some of the tactics I use any time an adult asks for information on the underground railroad, or the Black Plague, or a very specific animal, etc:

  • Ask them if this is for them or for a homework assignment
    Rarely do people let you know right away that their question is for their child's homework assignment, but the quicker you know where you stand, the better
  • Ask if they have the homework assignment with them
    Maybe one person in a hundred actually does, but it can help a lot. For awhile the school library staff were emailing us assignments as they got them from the teachers, but this dropped off after they had staff cuts
  • Ask how much and what type of information is required, and the nature and length of the project
    If they don't have the homework assignment with them, this is the next best thing - but it's still rare that a parent would know very many details. However, sometimes they know that they need just two books*, or that they need photographs, or that the project is a three paragraph biography, etc. Whatever they can tell you will help, because there's a big difference between a five page paper and a poster.

    I also use this question to try to limit the amount of books the parent takes - some parents just want to take every single book they can find on the topic, and let the child sift through them once they get home. This is bad because often more than one student has the same topic, so if the parent says they need just two books, I try to hold them to that to leave resources for other kids

  • Ask for the age/grade of the student
    Obviously this is important in selecting the most appropriate resources, but also tells me right away if adult or teen resources are even applicable, or if I should refer them to the Children's Room
  • Ask when the assignment is due
    The answer to this is usually "tomorrow," but not always. This is especially helpful to know if I'm having trouble finding books on the topic - if the project isn't due for a week or so, that opens up the option of requesting books from other libraries. If there isn't time for that, I do remind patrons that they can drive to other libraries and pick up materials there (thanks to being in a consortium)
  • Give them our guide to accessing databases from home
    Also very helpful when I'm having trouble locating resources in the library, but this of course is limited to people who have internet access at home. I always give my speech about how databases are not an "internet source," and also write down the specific name of the databases that will help. If there is time, I show the parent how to search the database and that there is relevant information - and if we get this far, I always email one of the articles we find to them from the database, to remind them when they get home to use it
  • Tell them to have the student call or come in if they need more help or have questions
    Of course, it is ideal to work directly with the student, even if it's just on the phone. Sometimes students come in the next day after school, but I have had kids call later that night after their parents got home, asking where in the books they brought home is the information they need. I walk them through using the book's index and table of contents, and that is often enough to get them started

I'm curious to find out what other tactics are useful for this situation - it's something we face all the time, so please share your success stories in the comments.

 


*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I've been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography. Generally this confession comes from the student rather than the parent, but I probably hear this once or twice a month. I mentioned this to a middle school teacher who tutors a lot in the library, and she was shocked - enough that she said she'd bring it up at the next curriculum meeting.



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Update on Eliminating Our Reference Collection

   April 7th, 2011 Brian Herzog

What the former reference area looks like nowThis might be my longest post ever, but I've got a lot to talk about. My library just finished a major project I mentioned earlier this year - the three parts of this project were:

  • Revamp the reference collection, to make the majority of it circulating and interfiled with the regular non-fiction collection
  • Use the space formerly housing the reference collection to make popular subjects easier to find and use
  • Build new study rooms

Because we were moving so much material around, all of this had to happen at the same time (although it dragged out a couple extra months because of problems with the building contractor). A breakdown of what we did is below, and you can see photos of the construction, and some "before" pictures.

Rethinking Reference

For the last few years, it was pretty clear that our reference collection was underused (which is an understatement). There were many times I would take a patron over there, hand them the book and point to the information they were looking for, but when they found out the book couldn't leave the library, their response was, "nevermind, I'll just look it up on the internet."

That drove me crazy, but also illustrated that our collection no longer met the needs of our community. For better or worse, books they couldn't take home were useless to them, and for me to keep spending thousands of dollars on it was wasting their tax dollars.

So the plan we came up with was to convert about 90% of the "reference" collection to books that could be checked out and taken home. The only thing that remained as "library use only" are our current encyclopedias (Britannica and World Book), almanacs (The Old Farmer's Almanac and the World Almanac), statistics books (Statistical Abstract of the United States), and also our ready-reference collection.

The rest of the reference collection fell into one of three categories:

  • Weeded - I'd estimate that at least half of our collection went this route. We had a lot of space for reference books, so I tended to hang onto them much longer than I should have. Also, for the last couple years I was buying more for non-fiction than reference, so in quite a few instances we had a newer edition in non-fiction than the reference edition
  • Converted to regular non-fiction - about 20%-40% of the collection were converted to regular non-fiction books. I made an effort to put as much into this category as I could, because these would be the most useful to patrons
  • Made "7 Day Loan" - this was a new item type we created as a result of this project. Into this category when all the big sets, expensive books, or books that we used a lot but not enough to keep as ready-reference. Each of these books got a bright red "7 Day Loan" sticker on the spine, and circulate under three caveats:
    • They circulate for 7 days - by allowing limited circulation, they will be more useful to patrons, and we'll get a better value for the money we spend on them
    • They are non-requestable - because we're part of a consortium, making them non-requestable means they're more likely to be available when a local patron or staff needs them. However, if another library calls and asks us to set a book aside for a patron because they're coming to pick it up, we will
    • They are non-renewable - again, the goal here is to make sure there is turnover on these books, and that they are available to most people most of the time. We did need to create a new "24 hour waiting period" for checkouts though - when a patron returns a 7 Day Loan book, they need to wait 24 hours before they can check it out again - otherwise, one patron could monopolize a resource, and I wanted to avoid that

Since the non-fiction collection would be absorbing a lot of newly recataloged books, the Reference staff spent months weeding that collection also, and got rid of a ton of outdated or underused books. Then, as Tech Services recataloged books either as regular non-fiction or 7 Day Loan books, Reference staff would interfile them with the regular non-fiction collection.

This is really my favorite part of the project, because it means all books on a topic were in one place, instead of having to show patrons the non-fiction books, then walk them across the room to show them the same Dewey number in the Reference Collection.

Space, and How to Best Fill it

As the Reference area cleared out, we had a lot of floor space we could now repurpose. I had two ideas for this.

1. More Study Rooms
View from the Reference Desk of the three new study room being builtBy far, the biggest unmet need in my department was for quiet study rooms. We had one room that people could reserve, but it was always booked. It was definitely a hot commodity, and we sometimes had mild altercations between tutors or students or parents, who all wanted to use the room.

This need had been growing over the years (and especially in the summers), and money finally became available in our budget to build new study rooms. Given the space available, we decided on three new 8' x 8' rooms. Each room had two chairs and a work counter along one wall - this maximized table space, without actually putting a table in the room (which would have required the rooms to be bigger to make them ADA-compliant). We also wired all the rooms with power outlets and ethernet jacks (above the counters to make them easy to access), and put a clock and recycle bin in each room. For security, the fronts of each room are floor-to-ceiling glass, which many tutors actually thanked us for.

These rooms are now almost constantly in use, and being able to accommodate the needs of our patrons - instead of always apologizing for our limited resources, feels really good.

2. Subject Tables
New study tablesWe built the study rooms along the back wall of the Reference area, which left open floor space between them and the Reference Desk. Into this space went three new index tables (basically, a table with a book shelf down the center). I like these tables because they let you combine a book collection with a work surface. They are also low and open, and therefore inviting and easy to use.

These three tables became "subject tables" for some of our commonly-used collection areas - career resources, auto repair, genealogy, and maps (continuing what we started in 2009).

The tables were lined up in such a way that each section got its own little pod, along with clear signage. We also created new call numbers for each subject, so patrons searching the catalog would know they were in a special section. The system we used is roughly:

  • Career/331.702 and Career/650.14 - plus a few stragglers from other Dewey numbers
  • Car Repair/629.287
  • Genealogy/929
  • Maps/910 and Maps/911 - plus a few others, with more to come including a lot of atlases that ended up being banished to the Oversized collection

By just appending logical subject words to the beginning of the Dewey numbers, we were able to make things easier to find without reinventing the wheel. This allowed us to get things recataloged quicker, and kept my Cataloger from tampering with my car's brake lines.

A couple happy results of the layout of our building and the tables: the table closest the Reference Desk is where I put the remainder of our Reference collection - the encyclopedia, almanacs and statistical books. This is the best place for them, so I was happy it worked out. On the other end of the tables is where I put the Genealogy books, which just happens to be right outside of our Local History Room. Again, not exactly just a happy accident, but really the best place for them considering the patrons that use both of those collections.

So Far, So Good

The project took longer than it should have, and the transition period was rocky at times. The biggest complaints (from both patrons and staff) were:

  • weeding so many books in such a short period
  • letting expensive books be checked out
  • not having a reference collection
  • building study rooms instead of spending that money on something else

Through it all, I kept coming back to my bottom line: the needs of our patrons have changed, and we need to change too. No one uses reference books, and everyone wants quiet study rooms.

Now that things have been in place for a month or so, I think everyone is adjusting to the changes. I honestly still do cringe any time I see a middle school kid walking out with a Grzimek's volume under his arm, but I also know that patron is far better served by being able to take that book home.

One last detail: total cost for the construction of the three study rooms, plus purchase of the custom-made wooden subject table and chairs, ran about $16,000. This doesn't factor in all the staff time involved in weeding, shifting, recataloging, or other duties, but I think this is not only a great investment, but a small price to pay to make sure our library evolves to continue to serve the needs of our patrons.

I'm sorry this post was so long, and sorrier that I know I left important parts out. If anyone has any questions about this project, my goals or logic, or how things have been going, please let me know.



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