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


Reference Question of the Week – 7/3/11

   July 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Abortion protest signs: pro-life and pro-choice side-by-sideThis question was just kind of strange from start to finish.

A patron comes up to the desk with two articles photo copied from the Boston Globe - one from June 10, 2011, titled Americans conflicted on abortion issue, survey shows, and the other from July 2, 2011, titled Judge puts Kansas abortion law on hold. She slides them over to me and says,

Now this first article I know is from June 10th, but I don't know the page number. In this second article, this judge is mentioned [US District Judge Carlos Murguia] - can you tell me what President appointed him?

Okay, fair enough. For the page number question, I show her where we keep our newspaper back issues, and tell her than while she looks through them for June 10th, I'll look online about the judge. She's happy to be involved, so I walk back over to the desk (which is literally four feet away).

I know it won't take her long to find the newspaper, so I do the quickest search I can think of - just search for US District Judge Carlos Murguia, scan for the Wikipedia article (which are reliably in the top few results), scroll to the Sources section at the bottom, and click through to the Federal Judicial Center's Biographical Directory of Federal Judges entry for Judge Murguia* - which tells me he was appointed by Bill Clinton.

Just then the patron walks up and says she can't find the June 10th paper - she can find back to the 12th, but that's it. Usually, we keep old papers for a month, but really how far back we keep depends on how much space we have on the shelf, and I think the person who manages our newspaper archive just ran out of room and had to get rid of the 10th.

I ask her for the article so I can try looking it up in our Boston Globe database - but then notice the byline says it's an AP article, which aren't included in the database. I apologize for not being able to get this for her, she says she understands. A line of patrons has formed by this time, so she lets this question go and goes back to her computer.

I get busy after that, helping patrons in-person and on the phone. At one point while I'm helping a phone patron, I notice this newspaper patron walk up to the desk speaking over-loudly on a cell phone - she stands across the desk from me talking for a minute, then wanders away. I never would have guessed this patron would have a cell phone at all, let alone whip it out and use it in the library, but there you go. I continue helping people.

A little while later, when there is a break in my activity, this newspaper patron comes back up to the desk. She said she had called the Nashua Library (about 20 minutes away from us, across the border into New Hampshire), and they said they do have the June 10th paper. She slides me a piece of paper with Nashua's phone number on it, and three names - Katie, Katy, Kathy. She asks if I can call them and have them email me a copy of the newspaper, and the librarian's name is something like one of those she wrote down, but she can't remember.

I ask her if it's okay if I just ask them what page the article is on and they tell me over the phone, but she says no - she needs "documentation."

So I call Nashua, and, guessing, ask for Katie at the Reference Desk. I get transferred and when I say who I am, Katie laughs and said she had an idea why I was calling (knowing this patron, Katie probably got an earful on the phone).

Anyway, any librarian knows that photocopying a newspaper article can be difficult, not to mention trying to include the page number on the photocopy - not to mention trying to email/fax it when you're done. So Katie suggests she email me confirmation that she found the article and what page it is on, essentially providing a testament for the "documentation." This sounds good to me, and if the patron still needed more, then we could figure out a way to actually get a copy of the paper.

A few minutes later, the following email arrives:

I located the Associated Press article "Americans conflicted on abortion issue, survey shows" in the print edition of The Boston Globe for Friday, June 10, 2011 (Volume 279, Number 161). The article appears on the right hand side of page A2, and does not continue to any other page. This is the News section of the paper, and the article falls under the subsection heading "The Nation."

I print it and give it to the patron, and she is pleased and thanks me.

I can hardly take credit however - I had already given up on the question, since we didn't have that resource in the library, and there were too many other patrons waiting for me to try to track it down outside the library right then. I think it's kind of funny the patron contacted another library on her own, and I'm very grateful to Katie for being willing to provide an answer with the proper documentation.

This might be the single biggest thing I love about being a librarian - cooperation. Being able to have a short phone call with a colleague (a colleague, yes, but a complete stranger, too) in a different state, and within minutes have the exact right answer delivered to me - it really is just amazing. Sorry LinkedIn, library service desks are the single best professional network around.

 


*The Sources, References, and External Links sections alone make the entire Wikipedia project worthwhile. Even if the articles themselves didn't exist, simply compiling authoritative web links on just about any subject is the kind of topic-based bibliography directory librarians have always loved about the internet.



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Ethan Zuckerman and Bridge Figures

   October 21st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Bridge FigureAt NELA2010 on Monday, I got to see Ethan Zuckerman speak again. I blogged his "The Internet is NOT Flat" talk two years ago, and although this year he spoke on the same theme, he is dynamic enough to always be both interesting and energizing.

His goal is to broaden people's view of the world, to get us thinking globally as well as locally. Something new in his talk this year was the concept of "bridge figures" - those people in an organization or community that serve as "bridges" between cultures, nations, people, departments, groups, ideas, etc.

These people are valuable because they can make connections others can't, and can move projects forward in new ways via collaborations. They are usually found in the "structural holes" in organizations - the positions that aren't explicitly defined, or the spots where many otherwise divergent areas overlap.

Because of their unique place, they can see things from multiple points of view, see how something will affect different groups, and see what skills each of the different groups can contribute to a situation. They are less susceptible to homophily than most of us (who tend to exist in [and not think beyond] our own social group, department, organization, etc.), and so are better able to develop solutions that address the concerns of all the stakeholders involved.

Libraries often serve this role in general. But can you think of any Bridge Figures within your library?



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/17/10

   January 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

B-17I thought this question was interesting for three reasons:

  1. The question is unusual
  2. I hardly played a role at all in answering it
  3. Despite #2, the patron got an excellent answer

Here's what happened: an email came to the reference desk from someone in the Netherlands, who is writing a book on the Allied pilots who took part in the air war over his country during WWII. In his book, he wants to focus on the lives of the men as people, instead of them as soldiers, and so is trying to track down things like what they did before the war, who their wives/girlfriends were, what growing up was like for them, etc.

Through his research in identifying and tracing the crews of planes shot down in his area, he found that one of the men was a Chelmsford resident. He sent me the man's name and date of death, and asked us to find out whatever we could about his life before the war.

This sounded like an impossible question, especially since we don't have the staff to research something like this. However, I forwarded it to the local genealogy club (with the patron's permission), as they often have volunteers who are willing to work on projects like this.

Within a day, a genealogy club volunteer located an obituary for a descendant of the Chelmsford WWII flier (which mentioned the deceased WWII flier by name), and the obituary also listed the names of living relatives. The volunteer looked up the relatives in the phone book, contacted them, explained about the book the man from the Netherlands was working on, and gave them his contact information. They said they'd be delighted to provide information for him, and would contact him as soon as they organized some photos and other information.

How great is that? I hope the author has this much success in locating information on the other airmen in his book, and I'm happy that there are other organizations in town I can rely on to pick up where the library leaves off.

This is another example of the reference librarian's motto: "you don't have to know the answer to every question, you just have to know where to find the answers."



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Where Is A Library’s Community?

   September 29th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Here's an interesting situation - so interesting, in fact, that I find my self in agreement with both sides of the issue.

Concord (NH) Public LibraryThe Concord (NH) Public Library found that it couldn't afford to purchase all the books it wanted. So, it started a program where patrons could purchase and "donate" a copy of a book from the Library's wish list.

Great idea. They explained the program on their website, set up wish lists on Amazon, and waited for the books to roll in. Good use of Web 2.0-ish technology, right? Patrons could just click and pay for the book, and it would be shipped right to the library. Kudos to the library for being creative and proactive and making it easy for the public to support the library in a very useful way.

But after four weeks, only four of the 30+ books on the wish list were purchased.

Gibson's BookstoreLast Thursday, the owner* of the independent Gibson's Bookstore in Concord sent out a message to his customers. He explains very well what he feels the library did wrong, and appealed to his customers to support the local library buy purchasing the books locally. He even created a duplicate click-to-purchase wish list for people to use to donate books to the library.

The result? In less than 24 hours, all of the remaining wish list books were purchased to be donated to the library (which is why the wish lists are now empty).

This benefits the library, right? And it benefits local business, which benefits the tax base and the local workers, and everyone is happy, right? So why didn't the library just do that in the first place?

I wonder: could the library have done anything differently? I think the Amazon wish list was a good idea, but it wasn't successful. I don't know what kind of promotion it got, but perhaps the library's website just doesn't get enough traffic.

Also, the idea of a library partnering with a local business is a bit of a sticky wicket**. Being a non-profit government department, libraries usually cannot do anything that would imply it favors one business over another. But I suppose it would have been okay if the library approached all the bookstores in town - which I think is limited to Gibson's and a Borders, anyway.

This then starts to make the program more complicated and difficult to manage, to make sure patrons don't purchase duplicate books. But by opening the program up to the customers of the stores, the library would have been able to reach more members of the community.

Library communities are not just the people who come through the door, and certainly not just the people who visit the website. When libraries reach out to the community, we have to go to where the community is, and not just wait for them to come to us.

UPDATE: Article and reader comments at the Concord Monitor newspaper

UPDATE 10/1/09: The Concord Library created a second wish list, and distributed it to Amazon, Gibson's and Borders (in-store lists only). That's the best way to get it filled quickly, by distributing it as widely as possible to get the message to the patrons. And then, as Michael from Gibson's says, "It's up to us to convince you to shop at Gibson's--as it always has been."

 


*Full disclosure: the Director of my library is married to the owner of Gibson's.

**I love that phrase.



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