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


You May See An Increase In Patrons

   October 14th, 2010 Brian Herzog

IRS logoI'm sure everyone has heard that the IRS is not going to be mailing 2010 tax forms to peoples' homes next year.

I don't blame them for looking for ways to save money, and it's good to be moving towards more efficient processes. But this isn't exactly a gentle nudge - this is a sharp push, which will be especially painful to people without internet access or few computer skills.

This also means, of course, that libraries will see even more demand for tax forms next year (and probably hear from many annoyed patrons). To warn us, the IRS sent out the following email through their Tax Form Outlet Program - forgive me if you've seen this, but the bold line below was too priceless not to share:

IRS TFOP ALERT: NO IRS TAX PACKAGES
10/01/2010

TO TAX FORMS OUTLET PROGRAM (TFOP) PARTICIPANTS:

Thank you for your participation in TFOP. The IRS announced that individual[1] and business[2] taxpayers will no longer receive paper income tax packages in the mail from the IRS. These tax packages contained the forms, schedules and instructions for filing a paper income tax return. The IRS is taking this step because of the continued growth in electronic filing and the availability of free
options to taxpayers, as well as to help reduce costs.

There are numerous FREE OPTIONS available for your patrons to obtain tax products, tax preparation and assistance in filing their tax returns:

  • Download Forms and instructions online[3] at IRS.gov
  • Visit an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC)[4], participating libraries and U. S. Post Offices
  • Individuals making $49,000 or less can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance[5] program for free tax preparation and, in many cases, free electronic filing
  • Individuals aged 60 and older can take advantage of free tax counseling and basic income tax preparation through Tax Counseling for the Elderly[6]
  • IRS Free File[7] provides options for free brand-name tax software or online fillable forms plus free electronic filing. For more information, visit IRS Free File[8] on IRS.gov

YOU MAY SEE AN INCREASE IN PATRONS

Although tax products are available online[9] at IRS.gov and IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs)[10], you may experience an increase in patrons visiting your location for tax products.

The IRS mailed postcards[11] to individuals who filed paper returns last year and did not use a tax preparer or tax software. The postcard provides information on how to get the tax forms and instructions they need for filing their tax year 2010 return.

ASSISTING YOUR PATRONS

Your TFOP order form lists the most commonly used tax products. Use the order form to order additional stock of any of these products, if necessary. Your order form lists Publication 1132, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions/ and Publication 3194, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms /- Laminated Version. These publications contain the most commonly used tax products that, if available, can be photocopied by your patrons. Tax products will become available beginning January 2011.

Thank you.

IRS TFOP Administrator

I think "you may see an increase in patrons" is a bit of an understatement.

So to prepare, I'll be making signs to put up near the tax forms explaining the situation, and will also try to get the local newspaper to run a notification article or two before tax season starts. I will also quote to them from the CNN article:

Those who prefer hardcopy documents can still find them at libraries, post offices and walk-in IRS offices around the country. After Jan. 1, they can request a mailing through the IRS toll-free number, 800-829-3676.

Yes, it should be a fun one this year.



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Tech Trends from MLA2010

   April 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Locked BikeI was at MLA2010 yesterday and participated in a panel discussion of Top Tech Trends (it was good, and if I find the other talks online I'll link to them). The two trends I chose aren't exactly new, but are two things I think will have an impact at the reference desk. They deal with ownership of the resources we offer to the public.

[note: this post might not be news to anyone, but the links from which I drew my information are worth reading]

Trend One: Subscription Databases
This has been a pretty happy segment of the library world for a long time, and libraries probably are familiar and comfortable with subscribing to and offering this kind of content. But in the last couple years, new exclusive deals signed between publishers and database vendors has limited access to many popular periodicals (this also happened last year with Consumer Reports).

EBSCO was the focus of much criticism, but Library Journal reports that the publishers are also interested in exclusive contracts. I don't mean to vilify them, because businesses will always act in their own self-interest. But I couldn't tell what bothered me more: loss of access to these periodicals, or corporate press releases [pdf] saying these contracts were in libraries' best interest - there is a difference between "all libraries" and "libraries that are our customers," which is a distinction database vendors don't seem to make.

We non-customers can't afford to keep buying more and more subscriptions because these exclusive deals demand it, so our patrons lose out. The bottom line is that it took resources away from many libraries, and I'm sure this isn't the end of it.

Trend Two: Ebooks
People might be sick of hearing about ebooks* already. However, since it contains the word "books," there is a natural expectation for libraries to offer them, so you can either jump or be dragged into this discussion.

The problematic trend is that the "e" part of ebooks makes them an entirely different animal from print books. Lots of people are trying to figure out how libraries can offer them to patrons, but ebooks have the potential to drastically change the publishing industry (including a power struggle within the distribution chain), and there's no nice model right now that seems to include libraries.

Another problem (for libraries) is that the two most talk-about ebooks readers (the Kindle and the iPad) are also the most restrictive. Like publishers and database vendors, Amazon and Apple are companies acting in their own self-interest, and what they're interested in is sales. Their tactic to maximize their sales is to control where the customers can get ebooks - which excludes libraries.

At least right now: the same thing was true with the iPod and Overdrive audiobooks - when we initially signed up with Overdrive, they did not work on the iPod (which is what all of our patrons had). Eventually Apple relented, so I'm hopeful they'll also eventually open up the iPad to outside ebook sources.

However, there is a case to be made that the iPad is not designed for reading anyway.

Statistics for the Future
Ebooks are popular, but right now they only account for 2-5% of overall book sales. That seems small, but library sales are about 4%. Ebook sales will definitely grow, whereas library sales probably will not. Since the future of ebooks will hinge on decisions made by businesses, libraries will need to speak up to make sure we have a role in this market.

Bonus Trend: HTML5
Something I forgot to mention in my talk also related to the iPad: watching videos online using Flash might be a thing of the past, because the iPad does not support Flash (per Steve Jobs). Instead, the iPad is looking to HTML5, and so is Google. The most obvious impact will be in Flash-based like Youtube and Hulu, but it's worth reading about HTML5 to get an idea of what the web might look like in the next few years.

 


*I don't know if there is an official style guide for these things, but I decided to always spell "ebooks" the same way I spell "email." If it starts a sentence the first letter gets capitalized, but otherwise it's always all in lowercase, as opposed to eBooks, e-books, etc.



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CIL2010: Well-Organized Sites and Portals

   April 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Well-Organized Sites & Portals
Mr. Chris Jasek, UCD Portfolio Manager, Elsevier
Emily R Shem-Tov, Research Portal Program Manager, Global Market Research & Planning, Adobe Systems, Inc.

Jasek offers best practices on how libraries can organize all of the features that their websites offer. He shares a five-step process that explains how to get from understanding users and the main tasks they come to accomplish to making the right choices on links or features to present. He recommends broad categories for organization of tasks/content to help web browsers find exactly what they need by improving the overall organization of features offered. Shem-Tov presents a case study of how a team of special librarians collaborates to provide services through a taxonomy- and search-driven research portal, physical and online libraries, information skills training programs, and a variety of social media tools. Find out how they continue to push the limits of what they can do by incorporating new technologies and tactics to better serve their customers and raise awareness of their offerings and of better information skills in general, and how they tie in the different elements through coordinated campaigns.

Chris Jasek:

Well-organized refers to

  • page layout, visual design, perception
  • user's mental model, user's tasks, intuition

"People don't come to a website to admire in, they come to get work done."

5 Steps to a well organized site

  1. Research your users Understand their needs and tasks, why they're coming to your website and what their abilities and expectations are.
    • Allow for multiple ways to locate information (by name, by suject, by material type)
    • provide detail (people want description, fulltext, and good suggestions)
    • Need help in recovering from wrong paths
    • Use words they understand
    • They want speed
  2. Survey similar sites Look at how other libraries are doing it. But don't blindly take ideas - test it with your patrons.
  3. Follow best practice design
    • Use page real estate wisely (top left is most important) and cut down on junk/ads/noise
    • Minimze number of clicks - shoot for 2-3 clicks
    • Use consistent navigation
    • Treat links according to convention - don't get fancy with colors and underlines. It's easier for patrons if your links look like what they're used to, and all of yours should be the same
    • Be consistent with design elements (provide help and contact links in upper right corner)
    • Use minimal colors and fonts
    • Make sure your site is accessible
  4. Test your design with users
    • Getting feedback is key, and make sure stakeholders and decision makers observe user tests
    • Plan first before development
    • do usability studies - observation is the best
    • Track stats
  5. Address issues and repeat
    • Identify problems, not solutions (figure out what is wrong, don't implement a fix that doesn't address the why
    • Multiple iterations are important - prioritize and realize that you are never done


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CIL2010: New and Hot: The Best of Resource Shelf

   April 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

CIL2020 Gary PriceNew & Hot: The Best of Resource Shelf, with Gary Price, Publisher, ResourceShelf

Keeping up with all the changes in our industry and staying one step ahead of our clients require solid strategies to deal with this challenge. Our popular expert shares his ideas, learnings, top tips, and techniques from the search and search engine world to ensure that you stay in step with the fast-changing online information world.

Complete list of links at http://www.resourceshelf.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/bor2010cil.html, but I have some annotations below:

Web searches

Ready Reference

  • Wordnik - shows word-based results: definition, number of mentioned, examples common usage, etc.
  • Wolfram Alpha - educators are focusing on this as a replacement for almanacs and also as a computational engine. They're always adding and updating data.
  • MRQE - Movie Review Query Engine - reviews coming from traditional and social sources
  • AllMusic - info on singers, albums, groups, songs, and it also provides "related songs" and "influenced by" suggestions. Now all features are available without login. There's also allmovie.com and allgames.com.
  • Lyrics Wiki - great for song lyrics. One of the first spinoff wikis hosted on Wikia.com by a specialized group of Wikipedia editors
  • Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection - the go-to place for maps in the news, for education use, map research, or for general use

People Search

  • NNDB Notable Names search and biographical information. And NNDB Mapper is a visualization tool that shows relations between people.
  • Whitepages.com - like a typical people search, but uses public data to build a personal profile, including ages and neighbors
  • Muckety.com - similar to NNDB, but does it for business and business relationships between people

Go to http://www.resourceshelf.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/04/bor2010cil.html for more useful links



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CIL2010: Experience Design Makeover

   April 12th, 2010 Brian Herzog

CIL2010 David Lee KingMy first session at Computers in Libraries 2010: Experience Design Makeover by David Lee King

Have customers said your website is confusing? Does your website desperately need an experience design makeover? This session guides you through a real-life library website extreme makeover, focusing on experience design elements used. It provides five ways to jump-start your own experience design makeovers and leaves you with solid ideas to use on your own website!

Review of Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library website

  • Their website uses Expression Engine, will likely move to Drupal in the next interation
  • Modern websites should allow comments and provide feeds
  • Have Subject Feeds with new resources in those subjects, including Delicious bookmarks and new books
  • 240 staff person maintain 20+ blogs, YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook web presence

How did they get there? Ask.
Staff: What do you like? What don't you like? What do you see patrons struggling with? What would you change?

What would you change?

  • Too noisy - too many tabs, too much movement, too busy
  • Content - need to separate out emphermiral blog content from permanent library services info, too much jargon
  • Catalog - needs to be more Amazon-like (more like everywhere else on the web)
  • Functionality - doesn't print well, not kid-friendly (not a parents page about kid information), footer is wasted, accessibility (need text-only)
  • Services - not everything is listed on website

Patrons: will do focus groups with the same questions as above

It's good to surprise people with how cutting-edge you are. It doesn't hurt the people who don't care, but it will really impress and involve the people who do.

Once you decide what you want, you need staff with the right skills to get you there. Just like you need the right staff at a service desk or branch library, you need to think the same way about your website.

Maintenance is key - staff need to be taught how to write for the web, use a digital style guide, train staff on Web 2.0 tools so they're using them correctly, delineate responsibility

5 Ways to Jumpstart Your Own Makeover

  1. Write an Experience Brief - the experience what you want people to have when they visit your website. Think about what you want it to be, and then plan for it and find the tools to support it. Think about target audience, what their needs are (from their points of view), how to put the information they need where they'll find it in terms they'll understand, including things relevant to them that they may not have thought of (classes, magazines [“deep web” subscription resources])
  2. Take a Touch Point Journey around your website (“touch point” is every time a patron comes in contact with the library) - “Get an Account” should be “Get a Library Card” (with prominent link text); form shouldn't be text-heavy - just use a picture of a library card
  3. Conversation is Experience - visors want to talk. Are you providing this ability? Do you answer them? This goes for your website but the rest of your online presence - Twitter, Facebook, etc.
  4. Answer the Why Questions - Put yourself in the patron's shoes and ask, Why should I read this? Why should I care about this page? Why should I attend this event? Do I care about “databases” or know what they are?
  5. Focus on the patron - Flip design from “staff-centric” to “patron-centric.” You can train staff, but you can't control patrons and you'll lose them quickly. Use patron-centric language, services, etc. Website should be as easy as a light switch to use.

Questions
How do you handle department responsibilities for content management?
We don't really have a gatekeeper - we train the staff and then trust them.

Can you eliminate the RSVP link in Facebook events?
We don't really use it. But there is a website for how to design a Facebook fan page.

How do you decide to cross-post and cross-promote everything?
We have a marketing director who handles most of that, but she does look at stats to see who our target audience is and use the appropriate tools

Cross browser-problems?
We have fewer problems with this, but we do check them

How do you get staff doing content?
Management team included “digital branch” in strategic plan, so creating content is a priority for staff (ranked in with shelving books and everything else)

Do you do usability testing?
Yes, we use focus groups just for questions, but we'll do limited “watching” of tasks



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/21/10

   March 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

2010 censusThis was a challenging question, because it took place over the course of a week and because I kept getting conflicting information.

On a Thursday, my Director asked me where we were keeping our 2010 Federal Census forms. Town Hall had been referring people who to us for a new form after they made a mistake or destroyed the one they received in the mail. I told her we hadn't gotten any Census forms, but I'd look into it.

On the 2010 Census website, I didn't see anywhere to download or request blank forms, so I found their Contact Us page and called our local office (but oddly, the regional offices have since been removed from their contact page). The woman I spoke with there said there will be no generic blank forms people can pick up. She said every Census form has a personalized barcode on it, so if anyone makes a mistake and needs a new form, they have to contact the closest Census Call Center to request a new barcoded form - but that information wouldn't be on the website until Monday.

I emailed Town Hall with this information, and they forwarded back the email that they received saying these forms are available at the library (emphasis mine):

> From: ana.m.morla.vargas@census.gov
> Sent: Friday, March 19, 2010 9:07 AM
> Subject: RE: Census form
>
> Hello,
>
> Before calling to request a form, we ask that you wait until April 12 to allow
> sufficient time for the questionnaire to be delivered to your address. If you
> still have not received your form by April 12, then you may contact one of
> our 2010 Census Toll‐free help lines.
>
> o English: 1‐866‐872‐6868
> o Chinese: 1‐866‐935‐2010
> o Korean: 1‐866‐955‐2010
> o Russian: 1‐866‐965‐2010
> o Spanish: 1‐866‐928‐2010
> o Vietnamese: 1‐866‐945‐2010
> o TDD (Telephone Display Device for the hearing impaired): 1‐866‐783‐2010
> o Puerto Rico (in English): 1‐866‐939‐2010
> o Puerto Rico (in Spanish): 1‐866‐929‐2010
>
> You can also complete a Be Counted questionnaire if you have not received
> your form. Beginning March 19 through April 19, Be Counted
> questionnaires will be available in public locations, such as libraries
,
> within your community and at Questionnaire Assistance Centers where census
> workers will be available to answer questions. Beginning March 18, these
> locations will be posted on 2010Census.gov.
>
> Direct link: http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/
>
> Thank you

The Direct Link wasn't yet working, so I looked around the Census website and found another reference to these "Be Counted" forms on their Questions You May Have page under the question "Is there another way to get the form other than the mail?" When I searched the internet for that phrase, I found a Census faq [pdf] from the Missouri State Government that stated,

The Be Counted program makes census forms available in many different public locations in areas that have been historically undercounted by the census. These locations include community centers, health clinics, convenience stores, churches, businesses and other.

Okay, within that context, the information started to make sense. Chelmsford is a fairly typical upper-middle-class small town, and the residents probably are not "historically undercounted by the census." I emailed other librarians in my consortium, and sure enough, a couple libraries in large cities with significant immigrant, migrant or homeless populations had received these forms.

I tried the http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/ link again the following week, and this time it listed the Questionnaire Assistance Centers - and as expected, they were clustered in larger cities.

Just to verify I had everything correct now, I called the main Telephone Questionnaire Assistance phone number (866-872-6868). When I finally got a live person* she gave me this summary:

  • everyone gets mailed a census form at their house, and these have
    personalized barcodes on them
  • there are public assistance centers throughout the country, which do have blank Be Counted forms (as well as scheduled times census workers will be available to answer questions). A map of these sites is available at http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/ - if you're not already one
    of these sites, you can't get any blank forms to pass out
  • if someone needs a form, they can either use the map to find a location to pick one up in person, or else call the Telephone Questionnaire Assistance listed at http://2010.census.gov/2010census/contact/index.php (different numbers for different languages)
  • participating in the Census is required by law: Title 13 > Chapter 7 > Subchapter II > § 221 (also). Anyone who destroys or ignores their Census forms because they feel it's an invasion of their privacy will be visited at home by Census workers to answer the Census questions in person (privacy info and video)

All very interesting. And since I spent a lot of time on the Census website, here's a few of the pages I found most useful:

 


*The menu system at this number is kind of annoying, but I learned that you can say "operator" at any point to circumvent the system and speak to a live person.



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  • Hiya. My name is Brian Herzog, and I am, among other things, a reference librarian at a public library in MA, USA. more about me...

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