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

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.

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 1/26/14

   February 2nd, 2014 Brian Herzog

elevatorbuttons320Working with the public every day allows lots of opportunity for just weird interactions.

Our federal instruction booklets finally arrived, and I was wheeling boxes of them upstairs to put out for the public. Both the 1040 A and 1040 EZ instructions were delivered on the same day, so I had quite a few trips up the elevator with boxes stacked on a two-wheel dolly.

On one of the trips, when the elevator door opened upstairs to let me off, there was a woman standing smack in front of the elevator, waiting to get on. Obviously I had to get off first to make room for her, so she had to step back to let me pass. I didn't think twice about it or look back, but I presume she then got on the elevator.

I didn't have far to go to drop the boxes off, and since I had to go back downstairs for more, I was back at the elevator in just a minute or two. When I pressed the button to call the elevator, the door open immediately, and that same woman stepped out.

She looked around, looked at me with the dolly, and said,

Don't bother, this elevator doesn't work.

I really couldn't tell if she didn't remember that I had just gotten off of a successful elevator ride not two minutes ago.

I said something like, "Oh really? That's strange." and proceeded to get in anyway. She followed me in, and said,

Yeah, I wanted to go down, but when I press the "door close" button, nothing happens.

And of course, she pressed the door close button - and the door closed. So, trying to be both helpful and tactful, I said,

Oh - in this elevator, you need to press the "downstairs" button to go down.

I did, and the elevator descended. We rode down in absolute silence. When the door opened, she walked off, I went to get more tax form boxes, and I never saw her again.

6 Terms that Instantly Reveal You as a Librarian

   January 30th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Your Jargon Is Too Much For Me signHere's something fun: the recent post on iLibrarian (one of my favorite blogs) covers "6 Terms that Instantly Reveal You as a Librarian."

I'm as much a fan of stereotypes as the next guy - especially in the "your language is your identity" theme - and some of these really made me laugh for how spot-on they were:

  • Ephemera
  • Primary Sources
  • Monograph

The only people I've heard use "primary sources" are academics, or students of academics who were told to find primary sources but have no idea what they are.

I would submit a few more, too: serials, definitely (and even periodicals for that matter); databases; pathfinder; bibliography.

What kind of librarian jargon do you think makes us stand out?

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 1/19/14

   January 25th, 2014 Brian Herzog

hand to the lightHere's something nice about librarians: we know that one of the best ways to self-medicate is with information. One of my co-workers told me this story - it could have happened to anyone, but since she approached it in a librarian way, I figured other people would enjoy it too.

My coworker was talking to her sister recently, who had hurt her arm and was required to sleep with her arm propped up. Which sounds normal enough, but this idea struck terror into the heart of my coworker.

One of her childhood fears, that has stuck with her all her life, is sleeping with her arms propped up. It stemmed from reading a book of Christian stories in her dentist's waiting room - the story was about how Jesus knew you were dead and ready to be taken to Heaven if you were in bed with your arms propped up.

She decided to search to see if she could re-locate whatever story this was - because no one else remembered reading it. She searched for various combinations of keywords (jesus dead holding up hand childrens story), and eventually she found it!

It's called Jesus Understood, and I agree with her that the whole thing comes across now as pretty creepy. I had never heard of this propped hand = Heaven idea, but I can see why the last sentence might stay with a child:

jesus understood

It's a short story (just three pages), so read it and see what you think.

Anyway, I thought this was a very librarian way to face a childhood terror - go back and find the source, and see how it reads as an adult. Hopefully my coworker can now sleep peacefully.

DMCA Notice in Google Search Results

   January 23rd, 2014 Brian Herzog

rise of the sea dragon coverHere's something a coworker relayed to me that I thought was interesting. We just got a copy of Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon into the library - she thought the cover looked familiar, but couldn't place it, so she searched Google for "rise of the sea dragon cover looks like."

Her logic, quite sensibly, was that someone else might have noticed a resemblance to an existing cover, and commented on the two looking alike.

But here's the interesting part: when she scrolled to the bottom of the first page of results, she noticed this message:


Here are those two links:

It doesn't really surprise me that a search for DVD cover art would bridge the gap between the casually legal and copyright-infringement, but I had never seen this before. And clicking into the complaint itself is the first time I've actually seen what the complaints look like (and that they apparently allow made up words, like "commulative").

From my reading, it looks like Well Go USA Entertainment owns the copyright for this item, and Remove Your Media LLC is submitting takedown notices to Google, presumably on their behalf. Or rather, "remove from search results" notice - I didn't actually visit any of the 521 "Allegedly infringing URLs" to see if they were still live. And I have no idea which of those 521 was the one site removed from these search results.

I thought this nicely dovetailed with the EFF's Copyright Week last week. Copyright isn't just some esoteric notion, it's really happening every day.

And I know there's a lot to it, but here's what bothers me most about DMCA and takedown notices: it seems to be built on the idea of "guilty until proven innocent."* It's not unlike my neighbor going to the police and saying, "hey, that's my bike," and without question they take it away from me - and in order to get my bike back, I have to prove that I own it. I don't like that the burden of proof is on the accuser in our justice system, but is the complete opposite online.

After a quick skim of those "allegedly infringing URLs," it wouldn't surprise me that if there is lots of copyright infringing going on. However, I hate the idea that the solution to rampant piracy is the rampart revocation of freedoms.

And: I got so caught up with the novelty of this notice that I completely forgot to ask my coworker if she figured out which cover this one reminder her of.

Update: Maybe this one.


*And don't even get me started on the TSA.

Reference Question of the Week ¦ 1/12/14

   January 18th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Abuse of Power Michael SavageI don't like applying the label "victim mentality" to people, but sometimes, it really fits. In this case, it seemed like this patron delighted in being "subversive," and all the government-sponsored persecution it might entail.

Late one afternoon, a patron walked up and said something about big brother. I didn't catch it all, partly because some of it was nonsense. I asked if I could help, and she said she didn't think so, because the powers didn't like what she was doing on the internet.

Still a bit at sea, I asked if she was having trouble with one of our computers. She said she was having trouble with all of our computers, because They didn't want her hearing the message. Because the powers don't like it.

We had a little back-and-forth for a few minutes. Sometimes I wish my library had security cameras, just so I could replay for people conversations like this - because there is just no way an after-the-fact description can do them justice.

Eventually I figured out this patron was watching videos on the Michael Savage website. But when she did, our computers would shut down. According to the patron, she had tried multiple computers over the course of a week or so, and all of them did the same thing. The video would start, then the computer would shut down. I see this as a technical issue, but she was convinced the government didn't want her hearing Michael Savage's message, and so was turning off the computers deliberately.

Ironically, perhaps, I believe she was coming to me for help, despite me being a government worker and possibly part of the conspiracy to keep her down.

Anyway, I tried to approach this from a technical "videos sometimes crash browsers" aspect (like I do many times a week because that's just how the internet is), but she refused to hear any explanation that didn't involve black ops. I kept asking questions, trying to diagnose the problem - did it happen on other websites, were there popups, did it happen right away or after a bit of time, etc.

Finally, she let slip some actual information that helped: the videos would play for about ten minutes, and then the computer would restart. She figured this was how long it took for the government censors to catch on, but I knew ten minutes is actually how long we have Deep Freeze's inactivity limit set for.

So now this should be an easy fix - and it's not actually uncommon. Since our computers are public and we want them to reboot automatically if someone walks away and forgets to end their session, we have Deep Freeze do this reboot after ten minutes of inactivity. If someone is watching a video, usually they're not typing or moving the mouse or anything. The computer interprets this as inactivity=patron walked away, so it reboots.

I tell the patron all she needs to do is move the mouse every so often when watching a long video, to let the computer know she's still there, and it won't reboot.

Simple! Problem solved? Nope!

See, this answer didn't involve President Obama, so I think it was difficult for her to accept. After a few more minutes of explaining though, I think I convinced her it was worth a try next time she came in.

She hasn't come back up to the desk since then though, so either it worked, or the government stopped its monitoring.