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




Check to ALA from 1919

   June 10th, 2010 Brian Herzog

1919 check written to the ALAIn 2008, Chelmsford started a town-wide history project, to index the historical records in all the various locations around town. We're still chugging along, and a volunteer found something interesting in the library's archives.

This check for $1.50 was written by the treasurer of the North Chelmsford Library Association to the ALA Publishing Board in 1919. The back of the check is interesting, too. We're still discovering things in the archive, so I'm hopeful we'll be able to figure out what this check was for.

There's three more things about this, if you're interested:

  1. The signature on the check is Stuart MacKay, brother of Anna C. MacKay, who the Anna C. MacKay Branch Library in North Chelmsford is named after. North Chelmsford has been, and is now, very supportive of the library, and I like this continuity of history. Also interesting that he was working on Christmas Eve.
  2. Also uncovered in the archive are circulation records from the early 1900's - including every book each patron checked out. An interesting philosophical question is this: at what point do library records go from being a matter of patron privacy to a matter of historical record or curiosity?
  3. For our indexing project, we're using Past Perfect, and will be providing access through Past Perfect Online (but nothing's been uploaded yet). Until that's ready, we're using a Google Custom Search Engine to index all the existing online resources we could find. It works well enough for the time being, and I know this is going to be a long-term project, but I'm looking forward to having a real index available.

Neat, huh?



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/28/09

   July 4th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Chelmsfords mapHere's an appropriate reference question for the Independence Day weekend:

One quirk about living in New England is that many communities got their names from olde England. As such, about once a month my Chelmsford Library is contacted by someone who mistakes us for the library in Chelmsford, Essex, UK*.

To wit:

To: askus /at/ mvlc.org
Sent: Friday, June 26, 2009 6:52 AM
Subject: Thanks!

On Tuesday I visited Chelmsford with the aim of exploring the surrounding countryside and history. Unfortunately there was no easily found visitor center, or indeed a map with a "you are here" spot on it.

Fortunately I found the public library, and given some wonderful suggestions and a town map. I promptly forgot the name of the young lady working at the help desk who provided all this information, but please thank her very much and possibly consider a supplementary income for her as a town ambassador?

I had one of the nicest afternoons of English countryside I have ever experienced and it would have not happened without her enthusiasm and knowledge.

Once again, thanks a million. I more future visitors to your town have a great day like I did. Cheers!

A very nice message, but the "English countryside" phrase indicated he contacted the wrong Chelmsford Library.

Whenever this happens, I reply to the person saying that while we're always happy to help however we can, they're probably better off contacting the other Chelmsford Library. I also included a note encouraging him to forward his message to them, because feedback like this is important to libraries.

Shortly thereafter, I got this message back:

To: askus /at/ mvlc.org
Sent: Friday, June 26, 2009 11:17 AM
Subject: RE: Thanks!

Ah! You librarians are a special breed. Thanks for your googling, forgive my ignorance and have a wonderful day. To think that us Antipodeans love to poke fun at a perceived American lack of geographical knowledge. And I email the wrong continent. If you're ever in London Brian, have lunch on me.

It's nice that after 200+ years, we in the colonies are getting the recognition we deserve.

But best of all, he included a link to the restaurant he owns in London. I removed it here for privacy reasons, but that's definitely more than enough incentive to hop across the pond.

The rewards of being a librarian are boundless. I'm telling you, fortune and glory.

 


*We even once got an email from someone in Mackay, Queensland, Australia, because our branch is named the Anna C. MacKay Library.



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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.

AddPoll:

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

FlexiPoll:

  • 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

PollCode:

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

SurveyMonkey:

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

PollDaddy:

  • 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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