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


Reference Question of the Week – 7/28/13

   August 3rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

parade fire truckI just ran across this saved reference question, from the week before July 4th. It would have been a little more appropriate to post it then, and I don't know how I forgot, considering I have a memory like a steel sieve.

But anyway. So, a program we offer at my library is called "conversation circles," which are available in a few different languages. They are informal groups, lead by a volunteer, open to anyone trying to learn the same language. It's not a formal class, just a casual opportunity to practice something you're learning.

Our most well-attended conversation circle is for people learning English, and most of the attendees are recent immigrants from a variety of countries. As such, the volunteer leaders help them learn American culture in addition to English.

The week before the Fourth of July, I got an email from our volunteer coordinator:

[The volunteer leader of the English circle] is looking for some suggestions to help teach the folks in the Conversation Circle about the town's 4th of July celebration. They all currently live in Chelmsford but are from China and Russia, so I thought if she could refer to a holiday they celebrate in their countries it might help her explain our 4th of July more easily. The folks she works with have none (or very limited) English skills.

We actually have a DVD documentary about our Town's July 4th parade made by a local filmmaker, and our local cable station's website has online videos of past parades, too. Another immediately-to-mind resource is our Town's Parade Committee's website.

Those visuals should give a good portrayal of what an average American parade is like, but not exactly explain why we celebrate that particular day. The best way to answer that seemed to equate it to a comparable holiday in other countries, so the first resource I went to was our print copy of Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary.

Unfortunately it didn't give a ton of information, but I was able to get the names of some holidays to further research online - which lead to:

Neither Russia nor China really have a comparable independence day - celebrating the birth of their nation by fighting for independence from a colonial power. But these two holidays both seemed close, and the way they celebrate them are similar as well. Both are celebrated with parades, fireworks, and parties nation-wide (although I don't know if they have cookouts and hotdogs).

This wasn't an especially difficult question, and since it was just a quickie answer, I may have missed a few other options. But I thought I'd share this anyway because I really enjoyed it - not just the mental exercise of the self-reflection of July 4th in terms of what and why it is, but also looking for parallels in other nations to bridge cultural gaps. I had never heard of either of those holidays, so yay for learning something new.



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/18/09

   October 24th, 2009 Brian Herzog

flagpoleOn my drive in to work this past Thursday, I noticed the Fire Stations in town had the American Flag flying at half-mast. I wondered why, but forgot about it by the time I got to the library.

Shortly after we opened, someone walked up to the desk said he saw some Flags at half-mast, and asked why the Library's Flag wasn't. No one on staff knew, so I went online looking for some kind of government Flag-flying website. I found all kinds of useful resources.

I didn't find any government proclamation lowering the Flag that day, but I did find a few half-mast calendars, as well as many flag companies that offer email notification reminders of when to lower the Flag:

Flag Flying Calendars & Notifications

It was also interesting (to me) to read about when the Flag could be flown at half-mast. Lots of pages offered general information, including the Flag Code:

General Flag Information

However, none of this answered my question about why some Flags in town had been lowered and some hadn't. I called the Town Manager's office, to see if they knew of (or had issued) a proclamation, but they were as puzzled as I.

So I called the Fire Department, since it was Fire Station Flags I had seen lowered. The person I spoke with there said the Stations lowered their Flags because a former Fire Chief had died, and they were honoring him.

Okay, so that answers that question. I'm not sure this is permitted under the Flag Code, but I wasn't going to push it. In researching this, I did learn that it was okay to put a black ribbon on a Flag to mourn someone's death (or when a fixed Flag can't be lowered), which I hadn't known.

And being the person I am, my favorite finds of the day were Flag Code Violations in the News and American Flag Wall of Shame, which detail prominent gaffs of people who really should have known better.



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It’s Official: I’m Not A Terrorist

   October 9th, 2008 Brian Herzog

FOIA LetterLast year, I read a blog post giving instructions on how American citizens could request a check into your personal flight history, to find out if your name appears on the "no-fly" list. So I did.

The website seems to be gone now, but it was a simple form that submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Homeland Security. I'd never requested anything under FOIA before, and my personal history seemed like a place to start. I thought it was a good exercise, both as an information professional and as a private citizen.

So I was happy when, earlier this week (almost exactly one year later), I received a letter from the US Customs and Border Protection saying,

A search was conducted of the [Automated Targeting System] database, and we were unable to locate or identify any responsive records.

Which means I am flying under their radar (until this request, probably).

Not that I thought there would be anything untoward in my flying patterns, but these days, you never know. Now all I need to do is take my official "he's no terrorist" letter to the nearest TSA worker for a smiley face.

[To request your own, try starting at CBP's FOIA webpage]



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ALA’s New 404 Page

   October 2nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

ALA's new 404 page screencaptureMost of the talk about ALA's new website redesign has died down, but I noticed something this week I want to comment on.

On the whole, I think the new site is a vast improvement over the old one. And with any new site, I understand they're still shaking out the bugs, and dealing with lots of dead links.

But: for my previous post, I wanted to find information from the ALA about library activity rising in time of economic trouble. A search on Google linked to something sounding exactly like what I was looking for on the ALA site. However, the link was broken.

By searching the ALA site itself for the title displayed in the Google results, I ultimately found the article's new location. Which is fine, but I have to say I am disappointed with the new website's 404 page.

When the 404 "Page Not Found" page loads, the most dominate thing on the page is the search box right in the center. So of course I clicked on this to search for the page I wanted. But - surprise - it's not a functioning search box. It's just an image of what the search box at the top of the page looks like. Of course the text above this image tells you to use the one at the top, but who reads? I don't - especially when a dominate image draws my attention away from the text.

So ALA, how about making the search box in the center a functioning search box, instead of just teasing us? It would add utility to the page, and make the 404 page incrementally just that much more user-friendly.

But otherwise, I think this is a pretty good 404 page, as far as they go. It customized and nice-looking, and gives some tips for finding what you're looking for. It also includes an email address to contact a person for help, which is great. I think I only noticed this because I talked about library website 404 pages before, and gave my library a fancy-pants 404 page.

I don't understand why it doesn't show up all the time, but maybe that's in the works, too.



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