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


Reference Question of the Week – 10/26/08

   November 1st, 2008 Brian Herzog

Election Information iconThis question is kind of predictable, but still very important:

Patron: Do you have a copy of Tuesday's ballot?

We don't, and I'm not even sure they let actual ballots out ahead of time. Absentee ballots are available at Town Hall, but I think only for people voting early, and that's not what the patron wanted. He just wanted to see what choices were going to be on his ballot.

We found two websites that offer this - the Elections Division of the MA Secretary of State's Office, and ImagineElection.com. Both allowed us to type in the patron's street address, and in addition to all of the candidates and questions on the ballot, they gave us the precinct number and polling location.

Beyond this, there were pros and cons to each. The State website is of course reliable, but it also provided a lot more information that ImagineElection. The extras the State provides are:

  • the party of each candidate
  • the running mate for each presidential candidate
  • indicating if a candidate is an incumbent
  • providing a summary of each ballot question, and what a Yes or No vote would mean

ImagineElection.com logoHere's what ImagineElection had going for it:

  • it was way more easy to read

The State site is a no-nonsense utilitarian text listing - which is not surprising for a government website. But that is a sharp contrast to ImagineElection's use of colors and indentions to visually organize the ballot. The overall feel of their site was kind of a web 2.0 generic theme vibe (which made me question its reliability), but the ballot itself was leaps and bounds beyond the State site.

The patron, an older man, thought so, too. However, he preferred the additional information provided on the State site. What would have made both ballots better would have been information about each candidate (or links to information), to help people decide and make educated votes. I'm sure that is a can of worms, and the information is available elsewhere. But it's inclusion here would have made for a much better one-stop-shopping information gathering place for a voter.

So while I'm always happy to see content triumph over design, this is a very clear case of why design is important. I'm not sure where ImagineElection gets there data, but I imagine the additional information could also be included. And it doesn't surprise me that a government website is basic and no-nonsense, but a little html/css formatting could go a long way towards better serving the citizens.

Also: at the risk of sounding like the patriotism police, I want to remind all Americans to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 4th. It's important.



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NELA2008 Session Highlights

   October 23rd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Ethan ZuckermanI was at the NELA 2008 conference this week, and spent yesterday and today going over my notes and trying to get caught up. Lots of good stuff, but here are a few of the highlights from the sessions I attended:

Ethan Zuckerman
If you ever have a chance to see Ethan Zuckerman speak, do it. Not only is he interesting and entertaining, but his work using technology to bridge cultural divides directly relates to what we do in libraries. He also approaches things from a global "big picture" viewpoint, which is a nice change from my generally myopic "what's going on in my community" point of view. I learned a lot from Ethan, both library-related and otherwise - read the complete notes from his "The Internet is NOT Flat" session.

Men in the Library
Being a male, I was curious about Nancy Davis' program called "The Vanishing Male: Guy Stuff That Lures and Hooks." It was a discussion about why men generally use the library less than women, and what libraries can do to attract more male patrons:

  • Men are "seekers" and not "browsers" - they want to go in, get their stuff, and leave. Libraries should have signage that caters to this, and be more open, so men don't have to wander around looking or ask for help
  • Book groups don't work for a lot of men because men don't like "sharing" - to get men to a book group, have it "led" by a scholar or other authority (male book groups prefer non-fiction books), and that way the men feel they're getting something out of it
  • For programming ideas, try anything tool-based, such as "greening" your house, installing solar panels, bike repair & maintenance, etc. Men also like father/son programs, like building a bird house or a "dads and donuts" story time early Saturday morning
  • To get guys to come to programs, promote them in places where guys go: the hardware store, the transfer station, etc.
  • Also, make sure you have men on your staff and on your board of trustees - it's easier to attract males if they feel comfortable in the building, and book displays are more likely to appeal to them if the books are chosen by other guys

NOTE: Keep in mind that most of these are generalizations

Genealogy Core Collection
Cindy O'Neil, a certified genealogist with the Manchester (NH) City Library, explained the resources she felt were essential for libraries to offer their patrons doing genealogical research. Her handout was a bibliography important genealogy resources, and I tried to include as many of them as possible in my session notes on the NELA conference blog. Definitely worth checking out and comparing to your resources.

Of course I got a lot more out of the conference, but these were the things that stuck with me that I wouldn't have gotten if I didn't go. A lot more information on the other sessions are available on the NELA 2008 conference blog.

Update: I don't know how I could have left this out: For people wanting a real hands-on demo of how to very quickly improve their library's website, Lichen Rancourt's presentation on how she converted the Manchester (NH) City Library's website from static to Library 2.0 is a must see. Even while working within the City's content management package (which means these changes apply to any website management tool), she brought the real spirit, vibrancy and interactivity of the physical library to the website. The improvements include a flickr badge, a WordPress blog feed for up-to-date news and information, and an events feed.



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MA’s 2008 Statewide Ballot Question 1

   September 30th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Information for Voters booklet coverThis post ended up being much longer than I expected, so I added subheads in bold. I ask librarians to read and comment on the first part, and the rest of the post is background information.

When Does A Library Become Biased?
Last week on my library's blog, I posted information about the three questions on Massachusetts' statewide ballot in November. One of them, Question 1, calls for doing away with personal income tax in Massachusetts.

I feel the duty of libraries is to present unbiased, timely and reliable information. However, Question 1 potentially has a huge impact on Massachusetts libraries, and I'm really torn on where to draw the line on this one.

In the post, I include summaries of each question, and what a Yes or No vote would mean. However, for Question 1, we also decided to include a link to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners' stance. We did this because, since so many library services are funded by the state, if this initiative passes, library services may revert to the way things were in 1889 - yes, 1889 (read the MBLC stance to find out why).

It doesn't feel like biased information, because it is timely and from a reliable source. However, since there is such a self-interest involved, it feels kind of unseemly. Does including the link to MBLC overstep the library's role? Are libraries allowed to present the case for their own existence?

Question 1, and Why I Don't Like It
First, I have to say a few things:

  1. A similar issue was narrowly defeated in 2002
  2. New Hampshire doesn't have income tax, or sales tax, and they seem to do fine
  3. It appears my job could very well be on the line because of this initiative

In a broad sense, I can agree with parts of the initiative - Massachusetts' state government does seemed to be wasteful, and I do feel over-taxed. But this initiative seems, I don't know, kind of myopic and not realistic.

In the Information for Voters booklet [pdf] from the MA Elections Division, Carla Howell, Chair of The Committee For Small Government lists points in support of doing away with income tax:

  • Your "Yes" vote will create hundreds of thousands of new Massachusetts jobs
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT raise your property taxes NOR any other taxes
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT cut, NOR require cuts, of any essential government services

I haven't completly researched this issue, but I see no facts or logical basis that support the first point, and the last two seem mutually-exclusive. By taking away a major source of revenue and not replacing it, they are essentially forcing the government to cut services, many of which will be essential services.

The actual text [pdf] of the question itself also seems, I don't know, less-than-professional. The biggest goal seems to be to label Massachusetts state government as "Big Government," and repeat that phrase as many times in the question as possible, as if just by establishing that label they are assured victory.

Question 1's Impact on Patrons and Libraries
And this issue seems especially poorly-timed, too. In times of economic troubles, the idea of not having to pay income tax certainly appeals to a base sense of self-preservation. But it is precisely in times of economic troubles that the use of libraries increases.

It seems to me that, especially in times of trouble, a community is better served by comprehensive services provided by a stable government, rather than by self-interest.



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Library 2.0 For You

   September 18th, 2008 Brian Herzog

NELA 2008 conference logoIn my last post, I mentioned that at this year's NELA annual conference, I will be part of a panel called "Library 2.0 For You." A few people asked me about it, so here's what it is and how it came to be:

The description from the NELA conference program [pdf]:

Flickr isn't just a bird, delicious isn't just your NELA luncheon, and WordPress isn't a new kitchen gadget. Find out what these things are and how these popular Web 2.0 applications (and more!) are being used in real-world libraries. L24U offers a panel of three experienced Massachusetts librarians: Paige Eaton Davis from the Minuteman Library Network, Brian Herzog from the Chelmsford Public Library, and Elizabeth Thomsen of NOBLE. They share their expertise with applying Web 2.0 technologies to help promote your library's resources, programs, and materials. The program sponsor is ITS whose business meeting is included in the program.

Sounds great, huh? This program came about because there seemed to be a need for almost a how-to session for Library 2.0 tools. Lots of programs at past conferences and seminars were either general overviews of this technology, or very rah-rah Library 2.0 cheerleading. Which were great, because they raised awareness and interest, and got people excited about exploring these tools.

However, when people left the conference, they knew they were interested but didn't know where to begin. So in L24U, we're hoping to show a few examples of what can be done with a few Library 2.0 tools (using actual working examples from libraries), and explain what the steps were to implement these tools.

It won't be hands-on training, but attendees will hopefully leave the session with an understanding of how to put these tools to work for them as soon as they get back to their libraries.

That's the plan, at any rate. Even if we just end up answering peoples' questions, it should still be interesting (that is, once I get past my fear of public speaking). So if you're going to NELA 2008, look for this program on Monday at 1pm.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/20/08

   July 26th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Beijing 2008 Stamp mockupThis reference question is just funny. A coworker and I were sitting at the desk when the phone rang. She answered it, so I only heard her half of the conversation:

My coworker: Reference desk.
[a few seconds of silence]
My coworker: No, I'm not.
[a few seconds of silence]
My coworker: Sorry, no, I don't.
[a long time of silence]
My coworker: Well, I'm not sure. I don't think there is actually a list, that anybody keeps. Maybe you could put an ad in the paper?
[a few seconds, then the patron hangs up]

After the call, my coworker turns to me, smiling, to fill me in. Apparently, the patron first asked if she, my coworker, was going to the Olympics in China later this year. When she said no, the patron asked if she knew of anyone who was going.

With my coworker answering no to that as well, the patron explained her question. Apparently China is issuing special postage stamps for the Olympic summer games. The patron's grandson collects stamps, so the patron was looking for someone who was going to Beijing for the games and could mail him a postcard with one of the special Olympic stamps affixed.

Which is a very nice thing to do, but I'm not sure why she thought the library maintained a list of people going to the Olympics. I thought the suggestion of putting an ad in the newspaper was a pretty good one - you never know who responds to newspaper ads, but it just might work.

In looking for a picture of the stamp in question, I found a few websites that might interest philatelists:



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/20/08

   January 26th, 2008 Brian Herzog

U.S. Elections '08A patron came up to the desk and said:

I keep hearing on the news about other states' primaries and caucuses. I know it's for the President, but what's the big deal? We don't vote until November, right? What's the difference between a caucus and a primary? What happens if you don't win them? Does Massachusetts have one? And I keep hearing good and bad things about all the candidates - who is winning?

I love easy questions like this.

I knew the Massachusetts primary is coming up, so the first thing I wanted to do is search the state's website for information on that. While doing that, I tried to give a brief description of the whole primary/caucus system: candidates win delegates in each state, who then cast votes in the party conventions to decide who actually runs for President...

By this time I had found a few Massachusetts resources:

  • MA Elections Division, which listed the primary's date (Feb. 5th), as well as lots of information on both state- and national-level elections
  • The Voting Process website, which explained how to register, how to apply for an absentee ballot, what do to and where to go on election day, and more

At this point, the patron confessed that she was far more interested in who was winning than in how the process itself worked. A website I found a few weeks ago is perfect to answer this: CNN Election Center 2008.

I like this website for the same reason I don't like USAToday - it breaks everything down into easy to understand chunks, and does so with lots of colors and graphs. It lists who has won each primary/caucus so far, and how many delegates each candidate has earned.

It also explains the major issues and where each candidate stands, has an easy-to-use calendar for upcoming primaries and caucuses, shows which candidates have dropped out, how much money each candidate has raised and spent, and more.

All in all, it seems like a fairly complete election coverage source. And it satisfied the patron (actually, it outright delighted her to see Ron Paul has won more delegates than Rudy Giuliani even though Giuliani has spent $30.6 million to Paul's $2.8 million). She wrote down the url and promised to read more about the issues before Feb. 5th.

I was curious, though - even though I think CNN is a reliable source, I also wanted to see what other election coverage and resources were available. I spent some time searching, and here's what I came up with, broken down by type:

Election News Coverage:

Campaign Finances:

Election/Voting Resources:

Political Parties and National Conventions:

I didn't bother linking directly to each candidates' website, because many of the sites above do that. In fact, since they're all reporting on the same thing, most of the information on these sites is duplicated. I guess the point is to pick at least one resource you trust and stay informed.

2008, campaign, candidates, election, elections, libraries, library, politics, president, presidential, public, question, reference, reference question



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