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

With Friends Like These

   May 5th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Support The Library car magnetA few months ago, I mentioned that our town budget, and subsequently my library, were facing major cutbacks. Thanks to our Friends of the Library group, the library's situation has improved dramatically.

The Town Manager's original budget proposal included cuts that would have crippled the library, because we would have lost our state certification - and thus the ability to participate in reciprocal borrowing, use resources paid for by the state, etc.

In response, our Friends group mobilized, big time. They started email and letter campaigns to get people to write to the Town Manager expressing their support of the library. They set up a table in the library to collect signatures to a petition, which was staffed by Friends volunteers for weeks. They posted an open letter on their website, along with a funding FAQ detailing our situation.

And it paid off. Their efforts prompted thousands of people to write or sign the petition - pretty significant in a community of 32,000. In fact, staff at Town Hall said they've never gotten this much public input on an issue before.

When the Town Manager's amended budget was released, library funding was restored to the level where we'll at least qualify for a state aid waiver - which means we wouldn't lose certification. This budget was voted on - and approved - at the Town Meeting last week, and that is good, good news for the library.

So thank you, Chelmsford Friends of the Library. This shows why Friends groups are important, and how dedicated volunteers can shape their community.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/22/09

   March 28th, 2009 Brian Herzog

A patron called in and said:

I was coming back to Chelmsford from Boston, and on the highway I saw a sign that said "Fish Brook." I didn't know there was a Fish Brook in Chelmsford; do you have a list of all the brooks in town?

The only thing I could think of that would have the names of brooks on it was a map of town. I pulled out two that we have in Ready Reference and started reading to her all the names of the brooks, streams and rivers. This was a problem for two reasons:

  1. When I read a name the patron was unfamiliar with, she insisted I describe where in town the brook started and ended. It turns out that this is very difficult to do, and proves that a picture really is worth a thousand words (or at least a good five minutes)
  2. Some of the streams had different names on the different maps. This didn't seem too unusual to me for New England, but the patron would not accept it - she wanted only the official names

I told her I'd find out what the official names were and I'd call her back. But after I thought about it for a few minutes, I realized I had no idea how the official names were decided. I'm sure the names originally came from the early settlers and later residents, but if something had more than one name (or more than one spelling), I thought there would have to be a single official name for everything (for example, there is a pond in town called both Heart Pond [because it is shaped like a heart] and Hart Pond [because the Hart family owned it long ago]).

I emailed a member of the Town's Conservation Commission, thinking they would know all about the natural features of town, and the process by which a name becomes official. The response was prompt, but a little surprising:

...It is pretty much rule of thumb that the USGS map will have the most accurate information. I would guess that the names were created by the original settlers and referenced on the very first maps of the town...

...from my experience streams, ponds and lakes are often named unofficially by local residents through common usage over the years. And those names may or may not end up on a map. Rivers may also be named in a similar way but since they cross municipal boundaries the names more than likely come from the state level. However, locally the town officials may officially name a body of water. For example the Board of Selectman renamed Chrystal Lake, Freeman Lake in honor of one of our former State Representatives, Bruce Freeman back in the '70's I believe...

The email had the USGS map of Chelmsford attached, which I emailed to the patron. I didn't hear back, so hope that means she got her answer - but none of the maps I used showed a "Fish Brook" in Chelmsford. In fact, they didn't show water of any kind where she described seeing the sign.

And I guess that email answers my question - I just thought there would be more paperwork involved. It looks like the only time there's any kind of official name is when local politicians want to make history by changing the historical name to honor someone.

Otherwise, what something is called is just what it's always been called - even if that is more than one thing (incidentally, Freeman Lake is also known as Newfield Pond).

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/1/09

   March 7th, 2009 Brian Herzog

harrington elementary t-shirtThis week's reference question isn't actually very good, but I'm using it to illustrate a point.

Last week I got a call. The patron says,

There's an elementary school in town named after Charles D. Harrington - what information do you have on who he was and why the school was named after him?

This wasn't something I couldn't answer right off, so I took his name and number and told him I'd call when I found something. The problem is, the more I looked, the less I found.

What I Could Find
With local history questions like this, I didn't think I'd find much in the library's catalog, but I checked there first anyway. It turns out, Charles D. Harrington was listed as an author of the official program from Chelmsford's tercentenary celebration in 1955. That was more than I expected, but it was all I was able to find in the library - nothing in our vertical file under "schools," nothing in the other local history books.

I thought the school itself must have a history on their website, but I couldn't find one. So I called their main office (albeit about a half an hour before school let out), but was told that no one in the office had been there for more than a few years, and they had no idea.

The local historical society and historical commission both have online archives, but all I came up with there was a history of the fire department [pdf, 6.53MB] which mentioned Charles D. Harrington serving on a committee in 1947.

To find out when the school itself was built, I searched the town's online assessor's database, and learned it was built in 1968 [pdf, 26KB].

All of these dates provided a rough idea of when he was alive, but still not enough to search for an obituary (and our obituary database only goes back to the mid-80's).

So I gathered these bits of information and contacted the patron. In addition to the above, I also gave him the contact information for the historical society, Town Clerk, and the local paper's obituary office. He thanked me for all the work, and assured me that what I found was very helpful to him.

Why This Should Have Been Better
Despite what he said, I didn't feel like I helped very much. This should have been a very easy question. Any one of the students in this elementary school should be able to answer it, and yet I couldn't.

Which is why the Town-Wide History Project we started last year is so important. The need to be able to answer local history questions like this isn't just something for reference librarians, but for anyone who lives - or will live - in town. Sadly, due to recent budget and staff cuts, the project has stalled. But it hasn't died - we're still slowly moving forward, as are other groups in town.

That's the good thing about historical projects - delays don't really hurt, they just give history more time to unfold and create more information and materials for the project.

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Online Polls, and Voting for the One Book

   November 4th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford One Book logoFor the third year in a row, my library is conducting a One Book program. The way we choose the book is to have a committee narrow down all suggestions to three finalists, and then let townspeople vote (today, election day) to decide the winner.

The voting is done by visiting the schools and passing out ballots, and also by setting up tables at some of the actual polling places around town. We do this not only to get the townspeople to vote, but also to raise awareness of the program and the library.

This year, we're also doing online voting. We created a "ballot" on our website (more on this below), and also set up a "voting booth" just inside the the library's front door. We evaluated five different options for free online polls, and in the end decided to use PollDaddy (it's also what Elizabeth Thomsen recommends).

[Note: for the purposes of this post, I'm linking to example polls, not our real polls - I don't want our totals being thrown off, after all]

Review of Online Poll Options
PollDaddy logoI want to point out that all of these polling websites provided the code to embed the poll right in our website (an example of making the library website more interactive and interesting by providing "information in context").

Each poll also had pros and cons, and here's a quick rundown of what we liked and didn't like. Keep in mind that these preferences are based on our needs for running a voting project - for a different kind of poll, we'd have different criteria.


  • Pro: control over layout (can add book covers or catalog links); prevents repeat voting
  • Con: results loads in different page (includes ads)


  • Pro: most visually-appealing
  • Con: requires flash plug-in; interface slightly confusing; can't change look; links to other peoples' polls; does not prevent repeat voting


  • Pro: control over layout (can add book covers and catalog links); prevents repeat voting
  • Con: results loads in different page (includes ads)


  • Pro: most features and options
  • Con: have to create an account; too powerful for this simple application


  • Pro: randomizes order; results shown on same page; prevents repeat voting; can add book covers
  • Con: can't change layout after selection style; have to create an account

Library's One Book Voting boothOne Book Online Voting
So based on these criteria, we went with PollDaddy. The only major omission after I got everything set up was that there was nowhere to include summaries of the books (unless it was part of the book cover image). Because of this, each ballot had to be two columns, one with summaries and one with the voting. Not perfect, but acceptable.

Something else I liked about PollDaddy were all the options it offered, and we had to use them differently in this case. Although our website ballot and library voting booth ballot essentially look the same, I had to create different polls to run each. The reason for this is that we don't allow multiple votes on the website ballot, but since we're using the same computer for the library voting booth (shown here), we did need to allow multiple voting.

Other settings we're using for these polls are to randomize the answers, set a closing date of midnight tonight, turn off comments (un-2.0, I know, but comments are not needed in this case), and to embed the book covers to make checking the right radio button easier. I really like that the results are displayed on the same page as the ballot, so the patron is always within our website, and isn't exposed to someone else's advertisements.

So far, the polls have been open for about four hours, and the voting is going well. The library voting booth is definitely attracting attention. Not only am I looking forward to finding out which book won, but also how many votes we get through the website.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/27/08

   August 2nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Library behind barsIt's pretty rare that we get reference questions by USPS mail, so they usually earn special attention. This one in particular ended up receiving a great deal of special attention.

Postmarked 24 May 2008 and addressed to the library Attn: Reference, two things immediately stood out about the envelope - it was written on a typewriter, and the return address was Bay State Correctional Center, Norfolk, MA.

Getting letters or reference questions from prison inmates isn't too unusual, and despite most peoples' initial reactions, they are treated like any other reference question. This particular patron introduced himself as a student enrolled in a correspondence course from a Boston university. For his geology course, he was writing a paper on structures and monuments made from granite quarried in New England, and was asking us for help locating information on Chelmsford granite, a stone native to this area.

The question itself wasn't really a problem; we have a book in our local history collection entitled Chelmsford Granite, a vertical file devoted to the Fletcher Granite company which has quarried here since the 1880's, and we also found a few websites mentioning Chelmsford granite.

Between printouts and photocopies, we ended with quite a thick sheaf of papers. As I was packing it to mail, I faintly remembered someone sometime saying that prisoners cannot receive paper clips or staples or rubber bands, or anything I might use to organize the papers I was sending. It'd be unfortunate for this research not to make it to the patron, so I called the correctional center to see what rules they had about inmates receiving mail.

After a brief conversation with the guard, who had to consult with another guard a few times on the rules, I learned that 1) no metal or fasteners of any kind were allowed, and 2) inmates are limited to four sheets of paper per envelope.

The four-page rule certainly changed things. I selected what I thought was the most useful bits and did some double-sided photocopying to maximize space, and also typed a cover letter explaining what we found, what was sent, what wasn't sent, and other organizations he could contact for additional information.

I felt bad not being able to get him everything, but I thought this would end here.

About a month later I received another letter from this patron, thanking me for the material. Also, he said that I had been misinformed about the four-page rule, and such policies were being challenged on Constitutional grounds. In addition, he said he would try to make other arrangements to receive whatever materials I couldn't send the first time, and that an associate of his would be contacting me for the information.

A few weeks after that, I got an email from his academic advisor at the college, saying that I could mail whatever additional material I had to him, and he would get it to the inmate. I still had all of the information in a folder, so typed up another letter explaining what it was and how it fit with the first batch, and mailed it off.

That was just last week, and I haven't heard back from either person. Hopefully, everything got where it needed to be, and the patron was able to continue with his research project.

It was a happy and interesting reference exchange, and I don't mean to be glib, but I just have to point out the irony of helping a prison inmate research granite and stonework.

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Using The Tools At Hand

   July 15th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford Volunteers logoA project we've been kicking around at my library for a long time is creating some kind of town-wide centralized volunteer listing. The library is a natural place for such a resource, but it's a big project.

To fill this need, we just launched ChelmsfordVolunteers.org. The end product was not really the goal we set out with - and I don't think it's the last version of the resource, either.

Originally, we wanted a tool that would list groups in the area that need volunteers, and also a calendar of upcoming events with volunteer opportunities. We also wanted the local organizations to be able to update their listing and event information themselves, without any library staff intervention.

As part of a grant, a local high school student explored a few different software options. We started with a WordPress version, then a Drupal version, then a WebCalendar version, but we kept running into the same problem: the tool did either the database part well, or the events calendar part well, but not both. Each solution also had other pros and cons, which is why we kept looking at different options.

The current iteration of volunteer listing actually uses two existing tools, which are combined under one domain name (chelmsfordvolunteers.org). From a single web page, we link to each tool, but tried to make it look like it was all integrated together.

The two tools are the Community Information database, which is run by the consortium and is (supposed to) list all non-profit groups in all communities of the consortium. I edited the records of the Chelmsford organizations to make sure they all had a reference to "volunteers," and these records provide all the contact information for the groups.

The other tool is the Calcium Calendar from Brown Bear. The library has been using this as our main events calendar for years, so it was easy to set up another one just for volunteer events.

Between these two tools, we've got both an events listing and an organizations database, although they are not connected. Using Comm Info is nice in that we don't need to maintain two records for each organizations, but we are limited at the same time to only non-profit groups - which excludes some hospitals and other businesses that offer volunteer opportunities.

Another drawback of the current setup is that the organizations do not have direct access to update their information and events. We set up two web forms to handle submissions and updates, but it's an extra layer and more of a hassle for everyone involved than it needs to be.

But it works, and it's better than nothing until we find the ideal solution. So if anyone knows of a tool that will fill this need, or another library doing something similar, I would appreciate hearing about it.

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