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

Reference Question of the Week – 6/16/13

   June 22nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Nuns with gunsI work in Chelmsford, MA, and the Town is in the process of establishing two "cultural districts" in two of our local historical village centers. It's similar to a historical district, but instead focuses on what makes Chelmsford culturally-distinct: art, architecture, programs & events, etc.

The group asked me to help create a map of both districts, labeling all the different locations of interest. I've played a little with custom Google Maps before, and this seemed like the perfect application to try out all the different features.

Creating the maps (check out the current working drafts) was pretty straight-forward. One of the committee members found a great site for custom map icons (which also explained how to make them work), and the text for each point of interest came from a variety of sources.

It was researching each location for a descriptive blurb for the map that produced this week's reference question. I was asked to add St. John The Evangelist Parish church to the North Chelmsford map, so I went to their website looking for something interesting to say about them. What I found was hands-down the most interesting thing I've read in a long time:

The earliest Catholic families living in Chelmsford, Dunstable, Lowell, Tyngsboro and Westford wanted a church of their own. St. Patrick's, Lowell was a five to ten mile walk. The families purchased the Meeting House of the Second Congregational Church of Chelmsford at the corner of Middlesex and Baldwin Streets, Lowell, in 1859. [...]

Men, who toiled in factory, foundry or farm, hurried to the holy work each evening. They struggled to move the building with the aid of horses and log rollers, a few yards at a time, for a distance of two miles along Middlesex Street. "Know Nothing" citizenry, a violent anti-Catholic group, made threats to burn the building and gained court injunctions to stop the building’s movement. The two mile journey was made with at least four men, armed with shotguns, and guarding the Church each night.

Holy smokes, now that is dedication. Researching local history rocks.

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Readers Advisory Initiative at the Chelmsford Library

   May 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

QR code labelThis is a neat thing, but is such a large project that I'm still not exactly sure how to explain it all.

At the end of last year, my library created a new position for a dedicated readers advisory person. Since this was a brand new position, we've had to reconfigure the way we do things. Another benefit, though, is that it got everyone in the library thinking about how we can improve readers advisory across the board.

Our Childrens Room really upped their game in this area. They'd long maintained in-house readalike lists, both for specific books and for subjects. Eventually these lists migrated from papers in binders to online lists created using our catalog's "bookbag" feature.

Which is all well and good, but what they really wanted to do was improve access to these lists, and make it easier for patrons to find them on their own.

The best way to promote these lists, they felt, was to print out labels with the list URLs (and QR codes) on them, and stick them in each book that was on the list. I know other libraries use QR code labels in their collections (notably the Dover [MA] Town Library), but I don't know how many are mass-sticking the actual books. And they're trying to stick them in the books as close to the end of the story as possible, so that patrons find them immediately after finishing a good story:

QR code label in book

Along the way, we ran into a few snags that had to be dealt with, and I think our solutions worked pretty well.

Our catalog's bookbag URLs are pretty messy and unfriendly (ie, https://chelmsford.mvlc.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=53439;page=0;locg=18;depth=0), so we wanted to use a URL shortening service to clean them up. The Childrens staff first started with Goo.gl, and reviewed a few others, but hit a major roadblock: with those services, once a short URL is created, you can't change the destination.

This was a problem for us because not too long ago, we had a catalog upgrade that changed the URLs of every single one of our bookbags. This meant that if we had stuck QR code labels in thousands of books, they would all have to be redone with new labels for the new bookbag URLs.

I looked around for an alternative, and found an open source solution yourls.org (Your Own URL Shortener). That was awesome, and with instructions from Lifehacker, I had it up and running on our web server in like fifteen minutes.

However, it kind of defeats the purpose of a URL shortener when you're starting with a URL as long as chelmsfordlibrary.org, so we decided to get a whole new domain name for this project. We kicked around a lot of ideas, but the best one we came up with - short(ish), and memorable - was readmore.in.

Now, the .in is the country code for India, but readmore was available at the domain name service we used, so we went with it. But best of all, it makes for great readers advisory URLs: readmore.in/adventure, readmore.in/magictreehouse, etc. Even though those aren't super short, they're easy to remember, and that's the important thing.

With yourls running on the readmore.in domain, now we can always point readmore.in/poetry or whatever to the right place, even if the underlying bookbag link changes.

And to make the QR code creation process easier, I also installed a open source QR code creator (phpqrcode) on our web server. There are lots of free services out there, but hosting our own lets us pre-set all the output settings, so all staff need to do is paste in the URL, click "create," and then right-click on the QR code to paste it into the label template. It's already the right size, encoding, and everything else.

I admit there was a lot of technical playing to make this happen - but, now that everything is set up, staff is whizzing through the creation and labeling process. Of course, this is an on-going project, but we're hoping it is something from which patrons will really benefit.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/3/13

   March 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Boston Post Cane from Winthrop, MAI think this is my absolute favorite reference question so far this year. It took a few days before the final answer emerged, and it all started with a patron sending in this message from our ChelmsfordHistory.org website's contact form:

Does Chelmsford have a Boston Post cane, if we do who is the lucky holder?

I've lived in New England for about twelve years, and have heard of these canes. What I knew about them was just that some towns had them and some didn't, and they were handed out around the turn of the last century by a newspaper or magazine.

I've been in Chelmsford for seven years, and never heard of one of these canes in connection with Chelmsford. I did a bit of research, and then replied to the patron:

I haven't heard of a cane in connection with Chelmsford. I found a list online of the communities that have them, and Chelmsford isn't included:


I think when the canes were passed out by the Boston Post, Chelmsford was a much smaller town than now, and perhaps didn't make the cut of the original 700 towns that received them. I'll check with the Historical Society to be sure, and let you know. Thanks.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

From this website, I learned more details about the canes: in 1909, they were given to 700 towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Rhode Island, by Edwin A. Grozier, Publisher of the Boston Post newspaper. The tradition was to give the cane to the oldest living resident in town, and then it was passed on to the next oldest when that person died. The cane itself belonged to the town, administered by the Selectmen, but was always supposed be held by the oldest resident. Of course, as towns grew, this became harder to track, and many canes were lost or retired and put on display somewhere.

Anyway, I emailed the Historical Society to be thorough, and while waiting for a reply, continued to check our vertical file and local history resources. I wasn't able to find anything about a Chelmsford cane, so I was surprised by the message I got the following day from the Historical Society:

We have it at the Historical Society now, but I don't think it is on display yet. It went missing for many years but turned up at the Senior Center a couple of years ago. [One of our members] has more details on the mystery if you are interested.

Holy smokes - do you know what this means? The internet lied to me!

I was certainly happy I checked with them. I emailed the patron the good news, but also followed up with the other Historical Society member to see what else I could learn about the cane. The next day, I heard back:

Hi Brian,
You can find out all about the cane in Judy Buswick's book Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst. I'm sure the library has a copy. There is a chapter on the cane.
Take care

Looking Back with Eleanor Parkhurst coverOops - we do indeed have multiple copies*, and it wasn't one of the books I looked in. The title of the chapter on the cane is "Mystery defines cane's history," which is why this book didn't come up when I searched the catalog for keyword combinations that include Boston or Post (however, a search for "Chelmsford cane" produces this book as the only result).

So, bad on me for not conducting a more thorough search on my own, but I'm glad my reaching out to an expert resource directed me back to the right place.

This chapter, which was originally published as a newspaper article in 1996, detailed the Chelmsford cane's history, from the first few recipients through it being lost, and then suddenly turning up one day at the Senior Center. After that it made its way to the Historical Society for safe keeping, and another Historical Society member said that it is in fact currently in a display case there.

Again, I emailed the patron with what I had learned, including letting him know we have this book in the library. A few days later he came in to pick it up, and we had a nice little talk about the canes, and his interest in them.

Apart from me dropping the ball and not finding the right book when I should have, this was a great reference question. The internet was wrong, local resources were vital, I learned something about local history, and the patron got exactly what he wanted. But best of all, I get to email the people who run that Boston Post cane website to have Chelmsford added, doing my little part to make the internet a better place.


*This book is also available for purchase from the Chelmsford Historical Society.

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This Is Why I Like Working In A Library

   February 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

My library's One Book Chelmsford selection this year is Townie, by Andre Dubus, and the kick-off event was last weekend.

To promote the book with patrons, we decided to hang up a punching bag right next to the circulation desk, so it's the first thing people see when coming into the library. Pretty neat, huh? Plus, since we didn't want to permanently attach it to the wall or ceiling, they let me build a stand for it:

It's nothing fancy, but I like woodworking and carpentry, and any excuse to use power tools is a good one. The wood and hardware cost about $30, and we bought the bag itself on Craigslist for $15, so it's not too much money for a pretty eye-catching display. And in how many other jobs would I get to do something like this?

Patrons seem to really like it too - especially kids. We encourage people to try it, and I'm pretty sure it won't fall over (we tested it). We still haven't decided what to do with it afterwards, but we've got a few months. Who knows - maybe we'll just catalog it and add it to the circulating collection for people to check out.

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How To Address An Envelope

   December 19th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Nicely serendipitous with last week's reference question, the library recently received this envelope in the mail:

Envelope addressed: Chelmsford P. Librarian, Chelmsford Public Library, 25 Boston Road, Chelmsford, MA 01824

I'm not sure if this was deliberately done by a person, or just a computer filling in empty fields - either way, this sort of thing can brighten my entire day.

I hope everyone has a good holiday season - I'm visiting family in Ohio for Christmas, so I'll be off until next week. Oh, and regardless of your religion or tradition, be sure to search for Festivus on Google - enjoy! (hint: look to the left, and scroll down)

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/7/12

   October 13th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Sign for The Higgins Moonlite Drive-In, still operating in TennesseeThis was funny. A patron walked up to the desk and asked,

Do you have any information on the drive-in theater that used to be in Chelmsford?

I've been here for about seven years, but had no idea there had been a Chelmsford drive-in. I told the patron this, and he relayed his story:

I've just moved to town, so I was online checking out the area and seeing what was around. I like drive-ins, so I went to this website to see if there were any nearby. I put in "Chelmsford" and it found one listed for Chelmsford. But the weird thing was that when I looked at the address, it was the same address as where I live! My condo complex was build in the early 1990's, and it turns out they tore down the drive-in to build the condos. Do you have any other information on the drive-in?

Now that's bizarre - but also the kind of thing you hear in libraries.

Unfortunately, the 1990's are the doughnut hole era when it comes to historical research. Not old enough for most archives and books, but still too far back to be in online databases. Luckily, there is always hope.

A new book on Chelmsford history was published this year, History of Chelmsford : 1910-1970, and we have a copy right at the desk in our Ready Reference collection. Even though it's supposed to only go to 1970, the editor wisely included an appendix with lots of more recent information (wisely, because he wasn't sure when the next history book would be written). In that appendix was a paragraph on the drive-in, which said it was built in 1957, torn down for the condos in 1994, and gave a little more information. But no photos.

I also suggested this patron contact the Chelmsford Historical Society, which has an extensive photo archive of the area. I gave the patron their contact information, and he was excited to get in touch with them. There are some photos on the drive-in website, but he wanted more.

And when talking about property questions, there's always the Town's tax records. I suggested that to the patron as well, but since we already knew the date range of the drive-in, we didn't think the tax records would offer much.

So, although I didn't actually help this patron very much, this is one of my favorite questions so far this year - this only happened Wednesday, and already I've told this story about ten times. Yay, libraries!

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