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




Hello (again) World!

   June 18th, 2014 Brian Herzog

open for business signHi everybody. Swiss Army Librarian has been out of commission for a couple a months, but now is almost back to normal. I should be able to start with new posts again next week, but if you're interested in the details of what's happened since The Crash, read on.

In the middle of April, the server that hosts swissarmylibrarian.net crashed. It also turned out that the server had not been performing successful backups since August 2013. We had hoped that some of the August-April data would be recoverable, but it wasn't. Too bad.

My friend Chris, who runs the server, rebuilt with all new hardware, and now has gotten WordPress reinstalled along with all my posts from before August 2013. And happily, he found an alternate source for the posts since the last backup (his RSS reader's archive), but it was text only - no images. I'll work on adding those in as I can find them.

In the meantime, WordPress needs all the recent updates installed, and then I'll be back. I (really) enjoyed my two-month vacation from blogging, but I'm happy to be back too. Thanks to all the well-wishes and offers of support - I truly appreciate it.

And the moral of the story: just having a back-up service isn't enough - you need to make sure it's really backing everything up.



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Reference Question of the Week ¦ 4/6/14

   April 12th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Alfred E NeumanI never know what is going to make me laugh - but quite often, it's when I find out I was wrong about something.

Now, it isn't that I actively stereotype people, but when people ask you questions everyday, sometimes you notice patterns. People who ask to use the Value Line or Morningstar often fit a type. When a guy asks for help finding something to read, and he responds to, "so, what topics are you interested in?" by saying "history," that's not a surprise. Most of the people asking for help finding the biographies are older women. And people looking for the bathroom all look alike.

But I had one question this week that totally took me by surprise. A woman maybe in her late thirties came down the stairs, holding in her arms a baby of about one. She looked like a perfectly normal mom-with-young-child. I would have expected her to ask for books on food, health/diet/exercise, kid issues, home improvement, or relationships. She even walked right past the desk over to the 300s like she'd been there before, so I didn't think much of it.

A minute or so later I walked over there on my way to somewhere else. She was staring up at the call number ranges at the end of the aisles, as if she had a call number for a book she was trying to locate. I asked her if I could help her find anything, and she said,

Yes, do you have MAD Magazine?

Huh - I never in a million years would have pegged her as a MAD Magazine reader, but there you go. Well, there I go, maybe, for trying to guess peoples' interests just based on their appearance.

And our magazines aren't really near where she was (not that she would know that), so I was strictly thinking book topics. But that was great, and I was happy to walk with her back to the YA section to show her our MAD collection. She thanked me and later on I saw her carrying a few upstairs to check out.

After I thought about it, I realized that I don't remember anyone ever asking me for MAD before, so her being the first is great. Plus, I get to laugh at myself for being so far off in my preconceived idea of her interests. Every reader their book!




Calling in Sick

   April 10th, 2014 Brian Herzog

cough dropFor the last few weeks, we've had more staff out sick at my library than usual. Infirmaries vary, but this week, whatever is going around really hit us - on Tuesday alone, almost half of the staff was out.

I called in sick Monday and Tuesday, and have been getting by with a lingering cough since then.

Personally, I think a bad enough cough is a good enough reason to call in sick if you work at a public service desk. Even if you feel fine, coughing makes helping someone an unpleasant experience for everyone. (Maybe I'm biased because this means more days at home reading for me, but I don't think I'm off base here).

My library has an informal policy of, "if you're sick, stay home so you don't infect everyone else." Of course we scramble to cover all the desks at times like this, but it's probably better in the long run to have a few people out for a few days than a lot of people out for weeks on end.

I'm sure studies have been done on this very topic, but I'm not feeling well enough right now for that kind of research.




Reference Question of the Week ¦ 3/30/14

   April 5th, 2014 Brian Herzog

clockmakerA question this week reminded me of another one of my library pet peeves - which is, when a patron asks for something very specific and slightly esoteric, and you're able to put the exact thing they asked for in their hands, and then they look at you and say, "no, that's not what I'm looking for."

A girl who was in the fifth grade, her mom, and her little brother came up to the desk. The kids then almost immediately wandered away, so the mom asked me to help her find information on Simon Aaron for her daughter's report.

I had never heard of this person, so I asked who it was as I typed in his name to the catalog. The mom said he was a colonial clockmaker, but since she was going off something her daughter had written down, she wasn't complete sure of the details.

Nothing came up for Simon Aaron, so I tried searching for clockmarker information at the same time the mom noticed that "Willard" was written on the paper too. So was that Simon Aaron Willard? Or someone named Simon and another man named Aaron Willard? Neither of us knew.

It turned out to be that Simon Willard was a colonial clockmaker, and Aaron Willard, his brother, was also a clockmaker. They both lived in Massachusetts, but since I'd never been asked by a student about this particular person (the schools do a biography project every year, so we get this type of question repeatedly), I was skeptical that we'd be able to find much about him.

However, the first search result seemed like exactly the right thing: a book titled A history of Simon Willard, inventor and clockmaker. Unfortunately it was in our Local History Room, which meant they couldn't check it out, but of course she could take notes and photocopy important information.

The mom was happy, and she called her daughter over (away from a computer she was using), and I took them to the find the book. Granted, a book from the Local History Room probably doesn't look too exciting to an eleven year old, but if felt like treasure to me. I pulled it off the shelf and handed it to the girl, showing her the title so she could see this was a book all about the person she was researching. She flipped through a few pages and said,

No, that's not what I'm looking for.

Ugh. Too many words, and what she wanted were pictures. This book actually had quite a few illustrations, so I left it with them to look at the pictures it did have while I went back to the desk to keep looking.

I tried variations on his name, colonial craftsman, and clockmakers, and did find one book that had photographs of his clocks, so I got that and came back to the desk.

It was at this time that the brother came up and said YouTube wasn't working, so I fixed that for him.

I went back over to the mom and daughter, who said they couldn't find anything useful in the first book. What the daughter wanted was photographs of his workshop - but the inside of his workshop, not the outside (which were in the book). And so, since they were looking for details of the workshop, the second book I found, which was just about the clocks themselves, was also useless.

The girl went back to the computer to search online, and I went back to the stacks - looking in 973.2 and 681.1, hoping to find a general book on making clocks or colonial life that might have more illustrations of tools. No luck.

So I tried the databases. Biography in Context had a nice article about him, but it was just text. I showed it to the girl, still thinking it might help with her report, but no, she didn't want information about him, just pictures. She had found a book at another library title The craft of the clockmaker, so I helped her request it. She handed me the book from the Local History Room since she didn't need it, and just in case they missed something, I flipped through it slowly, looking at every illustration.

Halfway through the book I found a line drawing of Simon Willard's workbench and vice. That seemed useful, so I showed it to the daughter and mom, and still the girl wasn't impressed. She needed pictures she said. However, after I explained that cameras hadn't been invented yet, she was willing to photocopy the illustration.

That made me feel a little less useless, and also steeled me for implementing My Last Resort: going to the Children's Room.

I again just used the tactic of browsing the shelves for the Dewey numbers 681.1 and 973.2, and found about five promising books about colonial craftsmen. I took them back downstairs and gave them to the girl, explaining they may have useful illustrations of tools and clockmakers. Kids books are much more visually-engaging, and when I left she was flipping through them with interest. I was only a few steps away when I heard her say, "oh, clockmaker!"

About ten minutes later she walked by carrying two of the books, saying she was going to make more photocopies.

This whole interaction took about 30 minutes (on a slow Friday afternoon), and I think they managed to find enough for her project. They came back up to the desk before they left, to bring the books back and to thank me, and they all seemed like they were in a good mood after a productive library visit. At least, I hope so.




Bringing Library Policy In Line With State Laws

   April 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

shushactionfigureMy library probably updates its policies as frequently as most libraries - that is, when something happens that absolutely necessitates it. Not too long ago, a patron had a question about our privacy policy, and it turns out ours dated to 2003.

But more recently, a post on the Massachusetts Law Updates blog caught my eye - it was titled You can get jail time for making noise in a Massachusetts library.

Turns out, Massachusetts General Law chapter 272, section 41 states:

Whoever wilfully disturbs persons assembled in a public library, or a reading room connected therewith, by making a noise or in any other manner during the time when such library or reading room is open to the public shall be punished as provided in the preceding section.

And the punishment from the preceding section was eye-opening:

...imprisonment for not more than thirty days or by a fine of not more than one hundred dollars, or both...

We had no idea this law existed. However, at their meeting last night, our Trustees voted to change our Acceptable Library Behavior policy to reflect this law. They felt having a policy not in line with an existing law was legally-indefensible, so we'd be leaving the library open to litigation.

So from now on, any patron who "wilfully disturbs persons" in my library is going to jail.




Reference Question of the Week ¦ 2/23/14

   March 29th, 2014 Brian Herzog

portable dvd playerAn email question was waiting for me when I got to work Friday morning:

I'm not sure this falls under reference, but we are going on a long family car trip and I was wondering if the library had and lends out portable dvd players for kids to watch in the car? Thank you for any information.

Of course, I think everything falls under reference, so I thought this was a good question. However, I knew right off that we don't have any portable DVD players like this - although it sounds like a perfectly reasonable thing for a library circulate.

We share our Evergreen catalog with 35 other libraries, so it was easy of me to find out if any nearby libraries did in fact have them. Very easy, in fact - our catalog offers an "Equipment/Toys" Item Type limiter, and a search for "dvd player" with that limiter produced six matches.

Although not all were perfect matches. I read through the catalog records to make sure they were portable DVD players with a screen, not the kind you connect to your television. Some of the records contained model numbers, which made this verification easy.

I noticed though, that none of the records contained "policy" information - like, could non-residents borrow them, how long do they circulate, etc. A call to the owning library quickly answer that question. Oh, that was the other great thing - the owning library was just two towns over from us. Yay, Groton Library!

My email back to the patron explained that I had found some nearby, but that she'd have to go there to pick them up. I wasn't sure when she was leaving, so I sent her their website, directions, and hours, as well as their phone number in case she questions about the devices. I never got a reply, so I hope that helped her out and they have a good trip.

More about the Equipment/Toys limiter, and what lies within

I've known about the Equipment/Toys limiter since it was implemented, but really don't use it very often (this might be my second time, in fact). So I got curious just what other "equipment/toys" libraries in our consortium offer. Evergreen allows "termless" search, and doing that returned 575 total results - here are the results for different keyword searches:

Skimming these records felt like I was going through the library's basement - all the unusual stuff we don't use often ends up here. I'm guessing a lot of it is in-library-use-only, but still, I found this very interesting to see what other libraries offer.