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

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 2/16/14

   February 22nd, 2014 Brian Herzog

guernseyThis week's Reference Question was actually sent to me by another librarian, Brenda Guernsey, just after the Reference Question Contest last year. I wanted to share it because it's such a great "right place at the right time" story.

I mean, hopefully any librarian could have helped them with the basics, but it's always a proud feeling to get to share some value-added personal experience too - and this is the most extreme example of that I've ever heard of.

A father and daughter were at the catalog computer, searching and seemed to be struggling to find what they wanted. I went up to them and asked if they were finding what they needed. They asked how to limit a search, that they needed only nonfiction books on a topic and were only getting fiction results.

I asked about their topic: the daughter had read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society book for a school assignment and now needed to give a speech about the Isle of Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands. And they couldn't find anything in our catalog about that.

Well, if you took note of my last name, it was one of those "in the right place at the right moment" times. I helped them find what I could in our small branch (one of the smaller in our system), pointed them to some valuable online resources that I knew about, told them about Guernsey cows, Victor Hugo's stay on the island, and a few other details.

My father-in-law had visited the island in the 70s, having traced the family history back to the island, and had recently given us all of his information (brochures, maps, two books of history about the island, and other miscellaneous items). Since the student's project was not due until Thursday (yay for a student working ahead and NOT the night before!!), I told them that I would bring all the materials in on Monday, and they could peruse them if they needed to.

So the "after school" crowd included them yesterday (the mother and daughter, and later the father) and they sat in the library with those materials, all studying and taking notes. I wish I could be there when the girl gives her speech!

The only thing about the interchange that made me sad is that my father-in-law recently passed away, and I wished I could have called him and told him how those materials helped someone outside our little family circle.

Awesome. I'm still waiting to encounter the patron looking for information on the Isle of Herzog.

Comic Book Explains The Transpacific Partnership

   February 19th, 2014 Brian Herzog

After shoveling until 11pm last night, today's post was going to be about the relentless tyranny of snow - but happily, here's something more interesting.

Yesterday, BoingBoing pointed to a new comic book called The Transpacific Partnership and "Free Trade," that explains, in understandable comic book fashion, the secretly-being-negotiated-behind-closed-doors Transpacific Partnership trade treaty. If you've been picking up on the snippets of news about the TPP that have been leaked in the past months, you may have a general feeling that the TPP is A Bad Thing. Not unlike the relentless tyranny of snow.

Bad, but how? Well, this comic does an excellent job of explaining - not only why it's bad, but how. And how bad. Here's one example, about Intellectual property:

TPP comic

The 27-page comic is by Michael Goodwin and illustrated by Dan E. Burr, and really is excellent. Even for someone with no economics knowledge, it helps breakdown how international trade works, what "free trade" is and is not, and how the TPP would fit in. It also examines the current political environment in which things like this can exist.

Even if you don't read the whole thing, at least read up to the part where corporations can dictate laws in other countries by suing those governments that have laws the corporations don't like.

Spoiler alert: this already happens under NAFTA. Also under NAFTA, it snows. A lot.

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 2/9/14

   February 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

I would say right off the bat that this post is NSFW, but it happened to me at work so it must be okay. Just, be warned(ish).

One slow afternoon, after school, a girl who was probably about fourteen came up to the desk and asked for books on learning to draw. Specifically, she said, she wanted to draw people.

No problem - in fact, the 740s are right near the Reference Desk. I walked her over, skimmed the titles, and pulled one down called Step-by-step guide to drawing the figure. Sounds promising, right? The cover shows artistic-looking sketches, no problem there, and just what we're looking for.

No, the problem came when I flipped open the book to see if the inside was what she was looking for. Hover your mouse over the image below to see the first page I flipped to*.

The patron didn't seem phased, but it's not often I show naked pictures to fourteen year old girls. Not just an image, mind you, but an actual photograph of a naked woman. I know this is perfectly normal in the life of a librarian, but, I don't know, it just took me by surprise and felt weird.

But it did turn out to be what she wanted, so the patron took that book and another one we found, and she seemed happy.


*I have two theories on why I was able to flip right to this page:

  1. Either I have an uncanny ability to find naked women, or (and more likely),
  2. This is the most popular page in the book and the spine has been broken by previous readers (perhaps fourteen year old boys)

February 11, 2014: Fight Mass Surveillance

   February 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Mass surveillance is clearly an attack on free speech and other freedoms we enjoy. We were able to defeat SOPA and PIPA by working together, but freedom needs constant vigilance and action.

From BoingBoing:

In America, we're demanding that Congress pass The USA Freedom Act, restoring the Fourth Amendment protection that Americans have enjoyed for hundreds of years. If you have a website (a Tumblr, a blog) then you -- like us -- can add the code to your template today, and on the 11th, it will go live.

fight mass surveillance

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 2/2/14

   February 8th, 2014 Brian Herzog

syllabus shirtLate one morning, a male patron in his twenties comes up to the desk with what looks like a college course syllabus. He points to one of the assignments, which is listed as a 400-1000 word essay, and asks me if the computer can count the words for him.

Okay, that's easy. I walk back over to his computer with him, have him open Word, and show him the counter in the bottom-left corner.

The patron thanks me, and says that he's nervous because the essay is due that night.

After walking back to the Reference Desk, I glance over at him as I sit down, and his computer screen is visible to me. In just the time it took me to walk across the room, he'd already opened YouTube and was watching some clearly-non-homework-related video.

Study breaks are part of the learning process (it was Minesweeper that got me through library school), but it's funny to take them right at the beginning.

My Taxes Pay Your . . .

   February 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

tax billHere's a sentiment that has bothered me ever since I started working in libraries: the idea that an accountable portion of everyone's tax bill goes into the library budget, and that anyone could dictate exactly how "their" portion is spent.

It bothers me because it is the exact opposite of how community-funded resources work, and it's difficult to convince someone of this who is dead-set on it.

Recently one of our patrons requested we purchase a specific book. However, it didn't fit our collection development policy*, and was kind of expensive anyway ($55), so I had to tell the patron that the library wouldn't be purchasing it.

There were copies in libraries not too far away, but they were all reference copies, so I couldn't even request it for her. It's unfortunately when a library can't fill a patron's request, but it does happen.

However, this patron was upset with my decision, and came back with the argument that she was a tax payer, and she wants her tax money to be used to purchase this book.

This got me wondering just what an average resident does "contribute" to the library's budget, so I did some rough calculations:

  • Library budget is roughly $1,500,000
  • Chelmsford population is roughly 33,000
  • So, $1,500,000 / 33,000 = $45

These numbers are very rough, but I was surprised the contribution was even this high - and that it happened to be so close to the price of the book in question.

But if we did allow this sort of earmarking, it would mean that this patron's entire year's library privileges, plus part of next year, would be tied up in this one book. If this system was used, she couldn't use any other library resource: no other books, DVDs, etc, she couldn't come into the library and use our electricity or heat, and she wouldn't be entitled to any assistance from staff. For more than a year.

This is why this kind of micromanaging is impossible in community-funded resources. Taxes stop being "my taxes" as soon as they're paid to the Town, and then become "our resources." That money is then spent by responsible stewards - librarians, Town Clerk, DPW workers, etc - in a way that best benefits the town overall. Everyone in town, who are all treated equally, regardless of how much their tax bill is.

I apologize for the rant - I know this is all basic Library 101 stuff, but maybe only to librarians.


*It was a genealogy book about early settlers of Jamestown, VA, and no sources I consulted drew any connection to Chelmsford, MA. We only collect local and regional resources, and this just didn't fit. Plus, since we have a limited budget, purchasing it could mean that two other items more relevant to Chelmsford don't get purchased. This is why collection development policies are so important.