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

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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Maybe LCSH isn’t so bad…

   December 20th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Insulation and Weatherizing book on Amazon.comIn preparation for this colder weather, my library had a book display about home insulation, heating efficiency, and weatherizing. This prompted me to purchase a few new books, but I found something I never expected.

When looking for books similar to what the library already has, one of the tools I use is Amazon.com. That might be library blasphemy, but between Amazon's various suggestion services, its subject categories, and a greasemonkey script for directly checking our catalog, it's a quick and dirty way to find what I'm looking for.

As you might think, it's certainly not 100% reliable. But this time, I happened across one book with subjects that puts even "cookery" to shame.

The book in question is Insulate and Weatherize, by Bruce Harley. My library already has a copy, and I was looking at it on Amazon for updates. But I was astounded when I came to their subject listings (keep in mind, this is a home improvement-type book on insulation and weatherizing a house):
Amazon Home Insulation Subjects

"Cloning?" "Babysitters?" "Juvenile fiction?" And my favorite, "Life on other planets?" I know Amazon's sole function is to push as much stuff as possible at visitors to maximize sales, but come on. At least it was good for a laugh.

amazon, amazon.com, chelmsford, greasemonkey, headings, libraries, library, public, subject, subjects

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Providing Access to Information, with a Shovel

   December 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Outside Shoveling - Be Back SoonLike much of the country today, Chelmsford was hit by the "fast-moving, intense" snow storm. And, throughout most of the storm, my library stayed open.

Even though I do not know what they are, the powers-that-be in Chelmsford Town Hall decreed that we remain open until 5:00 pm. For eastern Massachusetts, that was five hours into the storm, after dark, and after about six inches of snow. Wouldn't it be better to send staff home before the storm, so they can drive home before rush hour, in the daylight, and not in a blizzard? But I complain.

Anyway, we stayed open, and I spent most of the afternoon shoveling the steps and walks, making sure patron still had the regular access to information that it is a librarian's duty to provide. A few pictures from the day are shown here:
Library in Snow 12-2007

The Library Is Open

blizzard, chelmsford, closing, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, shoveling, snow, storm

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