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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DNC Launches McCainpedia

   May 20th, 2008 Brian Herzog

McCainpedia logoI thought this was an interesting approach to organizing political information: the Democratic National Committee has created "McCainpedia."

McCainpedia is a wiki intended to serve as the hub for opposition research for the upcoming presidential race. It's interesting because it is a example of a large and important organization using a wiki to communicate with (not to, but with) its members.

As far as the world of politics goes, it seems like a pretty novel idea to make information public like this. But I like it. I just finished reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which talks a lot about how making things public actually makes them more accurate and more secure.

In the book, the topic is computer encryption. The reasoning is that if the encryption technology is made public, much smarter people than its creators will try to break it - if no one can break it, then you know it's secure. But if you keep it secret, you'll never know about its vulnerabilities until it's too late.

I like that a political party is bringing information to the public in an easy-to-use format, instead of doing all their research and strategizing in the proverbial smoke-filled, locked-door war room. It would be even better if the information wasn't just anti-McCain, but compared his positions to the democratic nominee.

I'm sure both republicans and democrats will be scrutinizing the information published here, and reporting any errors or omissions. This will lead to better information, which leads to a more informed public.

And even though the information is obviously biased, I still would consider this a trustworthy source. You always need to take the source and its slant into account when using information, but because the DNC is putting its name on this and taking responsibility for it, I would trust them to be accurate.

Via Huffington Post, via Politico.com



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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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New Massachusetts Library Directory

   January 17th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Massachusetts Libraries logoThe Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has just launched mass.gov/libraries, to go along with a new public awareness campaign for Massachusetts libraries.

Sometimes "top-down" efforts like this end up being a waste of time and resources, but I actually do think I will use this new website. For one thing, it is simple and clean, which makes it easy to see what information is available. I like that.

Also, it is very limited in scope: it is information about the public libraries in Massachusetts and the services those libraries offer. So even though their slogan is "There's something for everyone," they don't try to be "everything to everyone" - no subject listings, no web search boxes, etc.

The target of this website is Massachusetts residents, and the focus is to connect those people with their local library - or better yet, its online resources - and to maybe answer a few library questions along the way.

Here's what this site offers:

  • A directory of Massachusetts libraries, searchable by Town name or zip code
  • The contact information of the libraries, their hours, and whether or not wi-fi is available
  • A single login box for subscription databases funded by the state government
    (with one particularly neat feature being that when I logged in, the site knew I was logging in with a Chelmsford Library card, so it also automatically offered me a search of the Chelmsford catalog in addition to the subscription databases [though I didn't like they called it "Primary Search" instead of something more obvious and logical like "Library Catalog"])
  • A link to MassAnswers, our 24/7 online "chat with a librarian" service
  • Some basic general library-related information, contained in "Fast Facts" and "FAQ" sections. The Fast Facts were a lot of statistics, ie:
    • number of libraries (370), branches (106) and bookmobiles (4)
    • total holdings: 43.8 million books, magazines, videos, etc.
    • reference questions per week: 99,529

    Some examples from the FAQ are:

    • How can I get a library card?
    • Can I borrow from other libraries in Massachusetts?
    • How do I find library materials online?

They even included an article about why using library resources is better than Google for homework and student research.

I can see a lot of librarians using this, simply to find the contact information of other libraries, but I also like the single login box for database searching.

I also think patrons could easily use this website, too, but the key there is in the patrons finding it. This is the first year of a three-year marketing campaign, but aside from emails sent directly to librarians, I haven't seen anything.

awareness, campaign, libraries, library, ma, marketing, mass, massachusetts, mblc, public



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