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


Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/13

   February 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Oscar the GrouchEarlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.

And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.

This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.

First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.

Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."

Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.

Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.

All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.

This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."

This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.

Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.

This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.

Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.

The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).

But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.

Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.



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Another Take on the End of Borders

   July 26th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Borders sign: No Public Restrooms - Try AmazonLast week, the owner of Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, NH, sent a message to all his customers about the closing of Borders. There are primarily only two big bookstores in Concord, Gibson's and a Borders, so you might think this would be a celebratory message.

It's not. It's a very somber analysis of how the closing of Borders has the potential to have a widespread negative impact on the bookworld at large. I know there has been lots of articles and posts about Borders closing, but I thought this was worth passing along - thanks, Michael:

Book lovers love to go to bookstores. That’s always been true, and always will be.

Most people remember the first time they went to a book superstore, to encounter what seemed like acres of space, visual interest everywhere, beautiful art on the shelves, infinite discoveries awaiting the explorer, symbols of learning and entertainment as far as the eye could see. And room for like-minded explorers to gather and celebrate their love of books, often with coffee, that drug of choice for the serious reader.

It was Borders that pretty much invented that concept in their flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was Borders that spread it across the nation. And today, with Borders going out of business, book lovers are upset and worried. What does this mean for the future of the book industry and of reading in general?

Let me get to that answer in a roundabout way, through a little local history.

When I bought Gibson’s - Concord’s oldest retailer, and now the oldest independent bookstore in New Hampshire - in 1994, it was my belief that Concord was too small a market for chain bookstores to enter. Amazon was still just a glimmer in a Wall Streeter’s eye. There were other small bookstores in the area. I thought we could coexist, serve our market in different ways, and grow.

Borders entered the area in 1999, right after we had doubled our space and added Bread & Chocolate as our café and retail partner. I was surprised and, frankly, worried for the future. Borders was like another independent, that was the buzz, except they were eight times larger than you, had a limitless supply of cash, had whole teams of people working on issues you could only tackle after you’d put the kids to bed, and - the killer - they had a real literary culture. It was hard to find a weakness there. It was hard to convince yourself that you had a future. All you could do was believe in yourself, in your book and business smarts, in the people you had around you, in your public, and in your luck.

Gibson’s took an immediate 25% hit when Borders opened. This was standard and inevitable. We were prepared for it. What we weren’t prepared for was that we would never climb back. Between Borders, the rise of Amazon, loss of parking, and various recessions, we were hard-pressed to stay in business at all. It wasn’t money but pure stubbornness that motivated me, to be honest. That, and the fact that I just loved books.

What did we do? Whatever we could do with no budget, because, frankly, sales were lousy. We introduced a loyalty program, we started doing more events and attracting bigger authors to the area, we built our newsletter and our presence on the Web. We did as many offsite events as we could handle, partnering with dozens of non-profits and schools. We became active in trade organizations, and through networking and staff development we improved what we do in the store.

Adversity made us better. Not richer, but better.

Over the same period, what did Borders do? They continued to attract great bookselling talent at the store level, here in Concord and across the nation. But at the management level, in Ann Arbor, they lost their focus. They frittered away a great brand. Injudicious long-term leases meant that they were stuck in many unprofitable locations. Their business model of the 1990s - relying heavily on CD/DVD sales, encouraging people to lounge for hours without buying - didn’t translate well to the 2000s, and the folks at the top didn’t come up with a viable new approach.

The Borders board in Ann Arbor hired team after management team with no book experience, and not a lot of their innovations worked. Outsourcing their online sales to Amazon, during such a critical time, was a mistake that will be studied in business schools for years to come. Aggressive “upsells” of Borders rewards cards alienated many customers (not to mention booksellers who were disciplined for not meeting their targets). “Category management,” a philosophy imported from the supermarket trade, didn’t translate well to the book industry. And that “make books” program - in which every bookseller in the chain was obliged to hand sell a particular title, as if it was his own favorite - was off-putting to readers who expected to get real recommendations from the talented booksellers they met at Borders.

And so the machine ground to a halt, and a once great chain eventually went out of business. Not because of e-books, not because of Amazon, not because of tough conditions in the book business, but because bad decisions made them vulnerable to those tough conditions.

How do we feel about that? Not good. Sure, Borders made our life difficult, and they didn’t make good decisions over the past decade, but let’s face it, the book industry has just lost millions of square feet of display space at a critical time. Even though e-books have not made the apocalyptic inroads that you might believe from news reports, the industry needs showrooms. The industry needs physical bookstores. No one has figured out how the industry can sustain itself, not to mention how writers can put food on their tables, without physical bookstores, and now all but a few thousand have disappeared.

This is not good news. So even though meeting payroll has just become easier, and maybe we’ll now have the resources to improve what we do here, we at Gibson’s are not as happy as we thought we’d be. The loss of a bookstore is sad for all, and the loss of 500 sadder still. Many of these were beautiful stores, a reader's dream. And they were staffed by thousands of people who love books just like we do.

We don’t know what the future holds. We might expand, we might sit tight. Another chain bookstore might move into the area, or they might not. E-books might take more than the 20% of the market we predict. The situation is in a terrible state of flux.

All we say is this: we are committed to the art of bookselling in Concord. We believe that the independent bookstore is a model not only from the past but for the future. Despite the rise of e-books and the cultural challenges facing our nation, there has never been a better time to own an independent bookstore. Readers still want physical books, and they want to shop in bookstores that are staffed and lovingly curated by local book people. We want to craft the best possible store to showcase the best the book world has to offer. We want to build it so they will come.

To do that, we need your help. In the next few weeks, we’ll be sending out emails describing some new initiatives we’re either contemplating or implementing. Please send us your ideas, too. And above all, buy books from us, if you want there to be an independent bookstore in Concord. That’s all it takes. The future, in large measure, is in your hands. If you want this store to stay in business, give your business to this store. We promise to do our best to earn it.

--Michael Herrmann & all your friends at Gibson’s



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Reference Question of the Week – 12/7/08

   December 13th, 2008 Brian Herzog

I Assure You We're Open sheet sign from Clerks movieDue to the ice storm that came through the area on Friday, there is a tie for most popular reference question today:

Hey, are you open?

and

Do you have internet?

My answer all day has been, "we're open, we have lights and heat, and everything is working normally except our internet connection is down*."

Needless to say, it's been a quiet day: not unbusy, just quiet - most of our work tables and all of our comfortable chairs are filled with people researching and reading, which all but goes unnoticed on a regular day. And because lots of area residents are still without power, there's even a couple people napping in the corners, just happy to be someplace warm.

The next most popular reference question has been:

Do you know how I can keep my pipes from freezing?

Most area residents lost power on Friday, 12/12/08, and although many homes are now back on, there are still plenty who are looking at two or three days without power. Temperatures are predicted to be in the teens and twenties for the next few days, so freezing pipes is a major concern.

The best advice came from Home Maintenance for Dummies. Before loaning it out to the first person who asked this morning, I photocopied the necessary page to keep a "reference copy" at the desk. It recommends:

A faucet left dripping at the fixture farthest from the main water inlet allows just enough warm water movement within the pies to reduce the chance of a freeze...

Insulating pipes that are above ground (those that are most susceptible to freezing) prevents them from freezing during most moderate-to-medium chills - even when the faucets are off. This includes pips in the subarea or basement and especially any that might be in the attic.

If your kitchen or bathroom sink faucets are prone to freezing, leave the cabinet doors open at night. This allows warm air to circulate in the cabinet and warm the pipes.

The last tip won't help much for a house that is at 39 degrees, but it's good to keep in mind anyway.

Hopefully the power to my house is back on by the time I get home, otherwise I might sleep at the library tonight.


*I'm sure you're asking, "No intertnet? Then how'd you post this?" As a reference librarian, I know the laundromat up the street has great wireless internet.



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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

</whine>
blizzard, chelmsford, closing, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, shoveling, snow, storm



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