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



Archives for Technology:


A Couple Handy Online Image Editing Tools

   May 29th, 2013 Brian Herzog

It's been awhile since I've talked about image editing tools. My favorite website for quick and easy editing (cropping, resizing, etc) is still Pixenate, but I recently read about Clipping Magic - and it is amazingly awesome.

Here's how it works: upload your image, draw a green line through the part of the photo you want to keep, draw a red line through the background you want to remove, and you're done:

clipping magic demo

The live preview on the right lets you adjust your lines to get as close as possible to what you want - and since you can change your line size and zoom in on the image, you can really fine-tune it.

I've been using Photoshop for years to do exactly this, and this is way quicker. Photoshop is still better of course, but like Pixenate and other web-based tools, I have access to this no matter where I am in the library (Photoshop is only installed on the computer on my desk in the office, which I rarely actually use).

Unfortunately, it looks like Clipping Magic is only free while it's in development. Hopefully it'll stay that way, but try it out while you can.



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Readers Advisory Initiative at the Chelmsford Library

   May 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

QR code labelThis is a neat thing, but is such a large project that I'm still not exactly sure how to explain it all.

At the end of last year, my library created a new position for a dedicated readers advisory person. Since this was a brand new position, we've had to reconfigure the way we do things. Another benefit, though, is that it got everyone in the library thinking about how we can improve readers advisory across the board.

Our Childrens Room really upped their game in this area. They'd long maintained in-house readalike lists, both for specific books and for subjects. Eventually these lists migrated from papers in binders to online lists created using our catalog's "bookbag" feature.

Which is all well and good, but what they really wanted to do was improve access to these lists, and make it easier for patrons to find them on their own.

The best way to promote these lists, they felt, was to print out labels with the list URLs (and QR codes) on them, and stick them in each book that was on the list. I know other libraries use QR code labels in their collections (notably the Dover [MA] Town Library), but I don't know how many are mass-sticking the actual books. And they're trying to stick them in the books as close to the end of the story as possible, so that patrons find them immediately after finishing a good story:

QR code label in book

Along the way, we ran into a few snags that had to be dealt with, and I think our solutions worked pretty well.

Our catalog's bookbag URLs are pretty messy and unfriendly (ie, https://chelmsford.mvlc.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=53439;page=0;locg=18;depth=0), so we wanted to use a URL shortening service to clean them up. The Childrens staff first started with Goo.gl, and reviewed a few others, but hit a major roadblock: with those services, once a short URL is created, you can't change the destination.

This was a problem for us because not too long ago, we had a catalog upgrade that changed the URLs of every single one of our bookbags. This meant that if we had stuck QR code labels in thousands of books, they would all have to be redone with new labels for the new bookbag URLs.

I looked around for an alternative, and found an open source solution yourls.org (Your Own URL Shortener). That was awesome, and with instructions from Lifehacker, I had it up and running on our web server in like fifteen minutes.

However, it kind of defeats the purpose of a URL shortener when you're starting with a URL as long as chelmsfordlibrary.org, so we decided to get a whole new domain name for this project. We kicked around a lot of ideas, but the best one we came up with - short(ish), and memorable - was readmore.in.

Now, the .in is the country code for India, but readmore was available at the domain name service we used, so we went with it. But best of all, it makes for great readers advisory URLs: readmore.in/adventure, readmore.in/magictreehouse, etc. Even though those aren't super short, they're easy to remember, and that's the important thing.

With yourls running on the readmore.in domain, now we can always point readmore.in/poetry or whatever to the right place, even if the underlying bookbag link changes.

And to make the QR code creation process easier, I also installed a open source QR code creator (phpqrcode) on our web server. There are lots of free services out there, but hosting our own lets us pre-set all the output settings, so all staff need to do is paste in the URL, click "create," and then right-click on the QR code to paste it into the label template. It's already the right size, encoding, and everything else.

I admit there was a lot of technical playing to make this happen - but, now that everything is set up, staff is whizzing through the creation and labeling process. Of course, this is an on-going project, but we're hoping it is something from which patrons will really benefit.



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Text Message App for Public Libraries

   May 1st, 2013 Brian Herzog

I received a marketing email recently about TxtReads, a new text message service app for libraries. My immediate reaction was quite mixed.

Technically, it looks like a great thing - it allows patrons to interact with their library account via simple, plain-English text messages. So if they want to look up a book, place a hold, etc., it's very easy for them to do - and without having to log into the catalog.

So, all good, right? Well, I spotted some negative points, too.

When I visited their website, their primary marketing message kind of shocked me:

TxtReads will change your next trip to your local bookstore. Simply use your mobile phone and send two text messages: One to see if the book you found is available at the library, and the second to place a hold.

Certainly this sort of functionality is possible with existing library apps and mobile sites (I've even built it into my library's mobile website), but promoting it so prominently like this kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Showrooming is such a problem for brick-and-mortar retail stores that some are charging people to even come into their store, and refunding it only if they buy something.

Libraries and bookstores are not competitors, and in fact have the opportunity to enjoy close relationships. But this activity - and blatantly encouraging it - could kill real-life bookstores, which in turn will hurt the book world and, as a result, libraries too.

Secondly, this text feature is so good that it makes me mad that our catalog doesn't already have this functionality built into it. I would much rather have integrated features than a mish-mash of third-party addons - I know that's hardly the reality, but still something to strive for. So, before signing up for this app, my first stop would be to check in with out ILS developers to see if they can make it happen internally.

I suppose that right there is its own type of showrooming - oh well.

At any rate, neat features in a clean-looking app. Just, I don't know, I don't like their marketing approach.



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/21/13

   April 27th, 2013 Brian Herzog

emailreceiptA patron came up to the desk, saying she had an email question.

After a bit of a convoluted story, it boiled down to this: she was applying for a job, and emailed her information to their HR person. But she never got called for an interview, because the HR person said she had never received the patron's information. The patron wanted to know if there was a way to prove that the HR person did get it, because she knows she sent it.

The patron seemed to be fairly knowledgeable about computers and email, but I explained anyway that it is certainly possible for something not to get delivered, or get blocked for whatever reason, or go into a spam folder, etc.

Having a message in her own Sent folder would indicate when it was sent. That can probably be manipulated so I don't know if it'd be admissible in court, but in this case it might be good enough if the HR person was willing to listen.

But what the patron really wanted was confirmation that the HR person received the email. I didn't know how to find out after-the-fact (other than subpoenaing their server logs), so I told her about delivery receipts and read receipts. These are the little confirmation messages that come back to let you know someone got and opened your message.

Since it was the closest thing to what she wanted, we went into her email account so I could show her how to use them. However I explained that these aren't foolproof either - not all email clients will honor them. In fact, the email client I use offers a setting to ignore them.

receiptoptionhorde

She had both a Gmail and a Yahoo account, and it turns out - much to my surprise - neither one lets you request receipts.

I did some quick checking online, and it seems like Yahoo doesn't offer receipts at all, and Gmail only with their business accounts (not the free version).

Well, like I said, I was surprised. I tried searching for ways to make it happen anyway, and it looks like there are only two options: use an email client like Thunderbird or Outlook (which, for a patron using a library's public computer, isn't actually an option), or use one of the many email receipt services out there. Another website I found had some trickier solutions, but were too complicated for our purposes. There's also Boomerang for Gmail, but since that needs to be installed in the browser, it likewise wasn't appropriate.

Until this day I didn't even know these existed, so I have no idea how well they work. The patron was interested in the free web-based services, but only future-tense. Unfortunately, it looked like she was out of luck with her original question. I think she knew that before she even asked, but hoped librarians had some magic we could work - I hate disappointing patrons.



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Massachusetts State-wide Ebook Platform: Coming Soon!

   April 24th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Library EbooksHere's something that will hopefully have a significant impact on libraries in the future: there's a state-wide ebook initiative getting underway in Massachusetts.

This project was begun after hearing about the Douglas County (CO) Libraries "host your own ebooks" platform (and why). However, instead of just a single library system, Massachusetts wants to involve all the libraries in the Commonwealth.

Also, the end goal is a little different than Douglas County. Instead of hosting all the content we buy ourselves, the Massachusetts Library System (who is spearheading the project with support from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners) is looking to develop a "discovery layer" interface that can search multiple vendors' ebook catalogs.

That way, patrons will just have one place to search all available ebooks, no matter which publisher or vendor they come from. This is good because the project includes all types of libraries - public, academic, school, special - which all have different ebook requirements. In the public world, people like to download fiction; in the school world, simultaneous online access to textbooks is required. This model is designed to accommodate the gamut.

My library is one of 50 pilot libraries that will begin testing this summer. The initial collection should be approximately 10,000 titles, negotiated directly with as many content providers as possible.

The current status of the initiative is, I believe, that proposals from vendors are still coming in. The project seems like it has a very quick timeline (see the project timeline & FAQ [pdf]), but I think that's a good thing.

In addition to the Colorado project, the Califa Consortium in California is also engaged in a similar endeavor. The Massachusetts project is unique in that it is the only state-wide program. Hopefully, as projects like this become larger and more numerous, libraries across the country will be able to adopt or join to give libraries a larger voice in the future of ebooks.

This is definitely something I'll be talking more about in the future. It's still early days yet (for the pilot libraries), but we're excited to get going.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/31/13

   April 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Hello.  Have you tried turning it off and on again?This wasn't a very difficult question, and although it didn't have a great ending, I thought it was interesting anyway - and happy we could help because the patron had no where else to go.

A patron walked up to the Reference Desk and asked to use the phone. We generally only let people use desk phones to call for rides or other quick things, mainly to make sure phones are available for staff to answer incoming patron calls.

Since it was fairly early in the day, I asked him if he was calling for a ride, and he said,

No, I need to call email tech support. I called them last night to help with my email, but he said I needed to be in front of the computer. I don't have one at home, so I always use the library computers. I don't have a cell phone either, but I think this computer here in the corner is close enough to the Reference Desk that I could stretch the phone cord across the aisle while I talk to him. It should be a quick call.

Okay, by the time he was finished speaking, all kinds of red flags were waving for all they're worth.

I sympathize with people trying to use technology without actually owning their own technology - libraries are great, but obviously some things are much easier to do at home. However, also obviously, I couldn't allow this patron to:

  • block an aisle way by stretching a cord across it
  • engage in a phone conversation at the public workstation, since we routinely ask people doing this very thing to take their cell phone call in a different area of the library so as not to bother the other computer users near them
  • tie up one of the Reference Desk phones for this long a time - no tech support call in history has been "quick"

Hoping to avoid this situation entirely, I asked the patron what he was trying to do, and if I could help. His answer kind of surprised me:

I've always used Hotmail, but now I'm switching to Gmail. The Gmail people said they were able to import everything from my Hotmail account, except what was in my Drafts folder. But when I went in to move those myself, I accidentally deleted some, so I called Hotmail to see if they could be restored.

First, I had no idea that Gmail offered a migration service, but they do. Neat. Secondly, I think he's right in that he'd need Hotmail tech support to recover deleted messages. I did check his account with him, just to see if there was something he overlooked, but from what we could tell the draft messages in question were gone.

And so, this left us with the original question of how he could use a phone and a computer at the same time. Eventually it dawned on me that he could borrow one of the laptops we loan to the public, and the Reference Desk's cordless phone,* and sit in an area of the library where his talking wouldn't bother anyone. It seemed like a good solution, and he was happy.

45 minutes later(!) he came back, a little dejectedly, and said Hotmail couldn't recover his messages after all. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason, but by this point had accepted it. The messages weren't critical, but he certainly would have preferred to have them. I apologized and we commiserated a bit about technological dependence, then he thanked me for the library being able to accommodate his situation, and left.

So in case anyone was wondering, the digital divide is still alive and well. It also made me wonder: do any libraries loan cell phones to patrons? I'm not an expert on cell phone technology, but I think there are the the kind where patrons could just pay to put minutes on them, so it wouldn't cost the library anything. It would have been helpful in a case like this, or if a patron was going on a trip or something and wanted the security of being in touch. It seems like a good idea, but I'm sure I'm overlooking some vital flaw.

 


*Our Reference Desk has two phones at the desk (and two computers), as well as a cordless phone in the Reference Office behind the Desk. We carry this with us when we know we'll be away from the desk, because it sure beats trying to sprint back to the desk when the phone rings while you're in the stacks.



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