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

Some Highlights from #PLA2014

   March 20th, 2014 Brian Herzog

pla2014It's been a long week already, and I'm still getting caught up. But for anyone interested, here are some of the highlights I took away from PLA2014 last week in Indianapolis. Well, besides that it was a great conference and I got to meet a lot of neat people.

Handout and slides for the programs are available on the conference website - search or scroll to find the program, and then they're available on the right in multiple formats.

Website Tips

  • instead of doing one grand website redesign every five or so years, and keeping things frozen in between, use the iterative design process (like Amazon, Yahoo, etc): always be making little changes to improve the website. Don't make changes just to change things, but don't be afraid to make minor improvements any time, instead of waiting for years
  • perform a content audit to identify your site's important content, organize it, and then build your site's navigation and design around that
  • break up webpages and avoid big blocks of text - use headings, vary paragraph lengths, make bulleted lists, and use line-spacing of 1.5
  • avoid passive voice, use "we/you/us," instead of "patrons" and "the library"
  • 50% of the content on most websites is never used - focus on search, hours, locations, events, and contact information, and use newsletters to distribute other content
  • When it comes to CMSs, ExpressionEngine, although not free, is definitely worth a look - it's powerful but can be made to be easy to use

Engaging Patrons and the Community

  • look at the expertise of your staff (professional strengths and personal interests), and then grow that by sending them to outside groups - if you have someone interested in craft beers, have them join a craft beer group and have them be a resource/library liaison, and grow them into "community specialists"
  • if you have a problem/opportunity in the library, use that as a hiring guideline for the future. For example, if your library has a problem with rowdy teens, seek out a YA librarian who is great at teen programming; if you have high mystery circulation, hire someone who can do great mystery readers advisory
  • use technology to free up staff time - get self-checks to allow circ staff to spend more time helping
  • train volunteers to run programs and offer services staff can't (tech drop-in times, in-depth genealogy research, etc)
  • if you want to attract a certain demographic (20/30 year olds), tailor programming and marketing to them. Don't advertise a program as "for 20 and 30 year olds," just advertise it where they're likely to see it - flyers in pubs, gyms, coffee houses, day care centers, and engage them in social media. Also, focus on programs that would interest them and fit into their schedule: retro-movies or popular television marathons (Big Bang Theory) on Friday nights, adult craft time (like LifeHacker or MAKE Magazine - and even suggest they bring their own supplies), "intergenerational storytime" (having Darth Vader read to kids)
  • reach out to the business community: go to chamber of commerce or business association meetings, give presentations on how they can benefit from databases, hold programs that support and highlight them

Vendor Highlights

I spent a lot of time in the vendor hall this year, and learned about some neat new things:

  • 3M self-checks can integrate with NoveList Select, which means you can print reading suggestions on receipts based on what patrons are checking out. This is awesome, and I wish it worked with our regular ILS receipts. Requirements are a 3M self-check (with a Windows 7 computer), NoveList Select subscription, they recommend a 19" monitor, and after the first year the integration costs $249 (from 3M)
  • Envisionware LPT:One integrates with PrinterOn for print-from-anywhere service. We have both of these products, LPT:One for our public printing in the library and PrinterOn for allowing patrons to print to the library from home, but right now they are separate. This integration means print-from-home jobs can show up right in the normal print queue, so patrons don't have to have staff release their print jobs for them
  • I know I've seen this before, but the idea of StackMap.com is great - putting a "Find It" button in your catalog next to the call number, and showing patrons a floor map to help them find their item in the building. This is something else I wish was just a natural part of library catalogs
  • An update to people counter technology - at least to me - was SenSource, which has equipment cooler than just the electronic eye by the front door. They have that, but a few fancy twists I learned about were:
    • a wifi-enabled sensor, which doesn't need to be hard-wired into the network. This will allow putting sensors just about anywhere your wifi network reaches, and also can be networked between different buildings, and can be monitored all from one central location
    • a thermal sensor, which doesn't just count the number of times a beam is broken, but actually counts the heat signatures of people passing below it. Theoretically, this should be much more accurate
    • an "active" sensor, which is really a video camera (pointed straight down from the ceiling). Their software can then detect and count shapes, and is even sensitive enough to differentiate tall from short people, to get a rough adults-to-kids ratio. Another feature is "audit" mode, which allows staff to go back and review the video, and count people manually, so verify the software's count is accurate. The salesman did say that since this camera is pointed straight down, it's really not useful as a security camera, but I thought it was pretty neat anyway

One negative about this conference was that so many of the sessions were packed-full, and people were getting locked-out of things they wanted to see. I know it's hard to anticipate what will be the big draw, but it's still frustrating not to go to something you really want to see.

Whew. It's hard to recap an entire conference, because many of the most valuable conversations were those in the hall between sessions, or over lunch, or even in the elevator. But I hope this is helpful - another tip is that Indianapolis is a really nice city.

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 3/9/14

   March 14th, 2014 Brian Herzog

coffee containerUsually I post Reference Questions of the Week on the weekend, but I wanted to be sure to post this one on Friday, 3/14. (Remember this if you're playing along at home, because it could help out.) This isn't one of my typical reference questions, but I enjoyed it and I thought others would too (unless you've heard it already).

Last week, I emailed a colleague to ask for some tech help on an issue we were having. In his reply (which was above-and-beyond helpful - thanks Chris), he also posed the following question:

In the meantime, here's a trivia question for you:

What does this mnemonic help one remember?:
May I have a large container of coffee

No cheating. I'll give you clues if you get stuck.

This of course was much more fun than doing work, so I sat and thought about it for awhile. I tried using the first letter of each word to see if it was a mnemonic for a common sequence - planets, presidents, things like that - but it could be something like countries in a certain region or the underwater peaks of the Challenger Deep. So, I emailed back and ask for a hint to help narrow it down - at least, down to a subject.

In reply, Chris sent me this hint:

OK, the subject for the mnemonic is math. Some more hints: it's not a normal mnemonic. Think about this: why is the word "container" used rather than just "cup"?

Okay, math. And "container." To me, a math container is something like parenthesis in a formula, so it might be something like

May I have a large (of coffee).

Or both Container and Coffee could represent the parenthesis, so it'd be just (of); "I" could be 1, or an imaginary number, but thinking of this as a math formula also made me think that "have" could translate as =. So it could be

M i = A L (O)

Obviously, I was going nowhere. Which made me feel bad, because lately I've been watching a lot of old Sherlock Holmes episodes on YouTube (with Basil Rathbone as Holmes), and I feel like I'm letting him down by not figuring this out.

So, Chris sent me another hint (keep in mind that these hints were sent in the same messages in which we were talking about my tech problem, so we really were working too):

OK, to clarify my hint: in what ways are container and cup different? The words, not the objects.

I thought about that for a minute, and then it hit me and I figure it out. Fun!

If you're ready, you can find the answer here.

Funny Book-Related Photos

   March 12th, 2014 Brian Herzog

I'm heading to PLA today, and will try to post highlights of the conference over the next couple days. In the meantime, here's some random photos I saw online recently:

Bringing book covers to life...

acting out book covers


This seems so much better than calling the Police or a collection agency...

grim reaper book collection


I know we've all felt this way at one time or another...

blue book display

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 3/2/14

   March 8th, 2014 Brian Herzog

disney family crestI think this takes the cake for "most ridiculous-sounding reference question that actually ended up having a legitimate answer."

I feel slightly bad making fun of a reference question, but I didn't know what to think when a patron walked up and asked me,

Can you find me the phone number for the Disney World Historical Society?

The rest of story, she continued, was that she had gone there 20 years ago with her grandson. One of the places they stopped was in the historical society in the park, who would research your genealogy and print and frame your family crest. She had done this, but then gave it to a family member who subsequently moved to the Gulf Coast and then their home destroyed in a hurricane and lost everything. So now the patron wanted to contact Disney World Historical Society to get another copy of the family crest.

She knew it had been at the Epcot Center, so I started looking. When using keywords like "disney world" and "historical society," I found http://www.thehistorycenter.org and lots of other Orlando-area historical societies (and of course lots of sites on the history of Disney), but nothing like what she had described. Since I wasn't making any progress, she asked I just give her the main Disney phone number so she could call and ask them. I did, and she went back to her computer.

I kept working on it though, trying different combinations of search terms (disney historical society, orlando history), and finally got lucky with "epcot genealogy" - but only kind of.

I found a page which gave me the name "Heritage House" and described it as:

Across Liberty Square from Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe, just to the right of Hall of Presidents (when looking at it) a shingle swings above the entryway to the Heritage House, Historical Research Center. How much of a "research center" it is, is up for debate, as most of its space these days is taken up with Jack Skellington gear rather than the American history souvenirs that it used to carry. However, tucked away in a back corner you will still find a desk dedicated to looking up your "family crest."

The family crest part is exactly what the patron described, so that was great. But now the bad news: the page also said the Heritage House had closed on January 4, 2014. Missed it by weeks!

I kept searching for Magic Kingdom Heritage House, and eventually found more pages describing it, and also verifying it had closed. The I found a Disney news page that linked to a blog post with the promising title, Heritage House Reopens as MyMagic+ Service Center.

Some research into the MyMagic+ program makes it look like it's some kind of park experience package, of which the Heritage House services are just a small part.

The patron was still in the library, and seemed happy I found more. Although she had already moved on to a different project by this point, and so just said thank you and when back to her work.

I guess she wasn't as impressed with the search as I was, because she knew from the very beginning that this place existed. I don't mind saying I found this trail of breadcrumbs pretty remarkable, because I had little hope of finding anything at all based on the initial question.

Welcome! to the Library

   March 5th, 2014 Brian Herzog

It's been awhile since I've found any interesting scrap paper art left behind by a doodling patron, so I was happy to come across this one recently:

welcome to the library scrap paper

Book worms are indeed cool.

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 2/23/14

   March 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

coinbox0Have you noticed that Bitcoin has been in the news a lot lately? I think that's where this question came from.

A patron walked over to me at the Reference Desk, from the general direction of our print station, and asked,

Can I pay for my printouts with Bitcoin?

I think he was just being funny, but he did it completely deadpan so I wasn't sure. In any case, I told him we do not accept Bitcoin. He then responded with,

Okay, I'll pay with my credit card.

To which again I had to say no, the pay-for-print machine is cash-only. He may have been actually disappointed about the credit card, because he had to go across the street to the bank machine to get some cash. Luckily we have a bank machine so close by, but I still feel bad every time I make someone do this.

Incidentally, we don't accept Paypal either.