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


Reference Question of the Week – 7/15/12

   July 21st, 2012 Brian Herzog

Tornado Shelter signThis was kind of a fun question. Earlier this week, we received the following email message from a patron:

I have been referred to you by Town Hall. I am hoping to find some archived material relating to the tornado that hit Chelmsford on 21 July 1972. I am quite interested in learning more about the precise path the tornado took through town, the response by the town, and, since I am a meteorologist, more about the weather situation on that day.

This was actually the first time I'd ever heard of this tornado. I knew we wouldn't have any books or anything on such a local phenomena for this time period, so the first place I looked for information was the library's secret weapon, the Vertical File.

A few years ago, staff indexed our vertical file into an Excel spreadsheet, so doing a word search for "tornado" was a snap - and produced these two news clippings:

  • Tornado hits town; Chelmsford Newsweekly, 7/27/1972; article; photographs
  • Tornado strikes Chelmsford; Chelmsford Sentinel, 7/26/1972; article

We also have the entire newspaper from this time on microfilm, which might also contain additional information.

Of course, both of these resources require the patron to come into the library. The Town of Chelmsford's Annual Reports are available online (thanks to the Boston Public Library and the Internet Archive), and searching the 1972 annual report for "tornado" turned up a few matches concerning the Town's response and the overall cost.

I wasn't sure if NOAA would have any information on this storm, but a general web search found http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com, and their entry for this storm gives a very general storm track (zoom out one level).

I emailed all this to the patron, who was very appreciative. He had actually already found some NOAA/NWS information, and sent me the link to the storm summary [pdf, page 9] from the National Climatic Data Center's Storm Data and Unusual Phenomena data files:

1972 tornado summary

This is now one of my favorite reference questions, because:

  • I was able to provide the patron with helpful information
  • I got to answer it using both new and traditional library resources
  • Useful resources were located quickly using a finding aide developed by library staff
  • I got to share a new library resource (online annual reports) with a patron, who may use it again in the future
  • I learned something about the history of my community
  • The patron participated in the search, even sharing his findings with me
  • I learned of a new and useful weather resource from the patron
  • I was able to add to our Vertical File the information the patron shared with me, thus improving our own resources
  • The timing was so perfect that I get to post this question on the 40th anniversary of the tornado

All good stuff. The patron said he'd be into the library soon to take a look at the news clippings, and I'll be ready and waiting with the Vertical File when he comes.



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Librarians in the U.S. from 1880-2009

   June 21st, 2011 Brian Herzog

It's not too uncommon for me to receive ideas or suggestions for posts through my contact form. Sometimes they can be pretty sketchy, but this one looks legitimate - and interesting.

Oxford University Press recently release a survey of census data detailing Librarians in the U.S. from 1880-2009. Even if you just skim the graphs, I think you'll be hooked.

While I wouldn't call most of the findings exactly shocking, I was surprised to learn a few things:

  • The number of librarians in 2009 (212,742) is roughly the same as 1974 (the year I was born) - and down almost 100,000 since the peak in 1990
    OUP - Number of librarians
  • My home state of Ohio, which always seems like a hotbed of library activity, isn't one of the states with the most librarians nor the most librarians-per-capita
  • Today, only 17% of librarians are male - by my math, that works out to 36,166 of us. In other words, if we average 6' tall and were laid end to end, we would stretch for about 41 miles

    Librarian Gender
    OUP - Librarians by gender

This part of the conclusion also stood out to me:

[T]he internet seems to be having an effect on the field, as it has faced a significant decline since 1990. That decline seems to have slowed substantially since 2000, as librarians adjust to and find new roles in the internet age and the extensive increase in information that it has brought about.

That's interesting - I had chalked up fewer librarians to wave after wave of budget cuts and hiring freezes. I know people sometimes ask, "we have the internet now, why do we need librarians?" but aside from factual reference questions, my library is still as busy as ever. Our Town Hall has never said, "your stats are down, so you don't need as many employees" - instead, they've said, "every town department is being cut 5%, and probably more next year." Maybe that is why I hadn't drawn a direct correlation between the loss of jobs and the rise of the internet - nor that the decrease in jobs would stabilize once we find our information age niche.

If anything, I could hire more staff specifically to serve as a information technology help desk, to support all our patrons who end up with devices and online services they don't know how to use. Maybe that is the new role we are looking for. Really, I don't think the decline in librarians can be as simple as that, but it is an interesting correlation.

Thanks to OUP for mining and compiling this data - and to Lauren for the heads-up.



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Displaying Circulation History in the Catalog

   May 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Catalog card with commentsMy last post and peoples' comments got me thinking about displaying the circulation history of items, and how it might make items more interesting.

I don't know how many library patrons consider the fact that other people have used an item before them (unless, of course, they find some evidence of that use). But if we started showing the cost-per-circ, it might prompt some people to wonder about the X number of people who also were interested in the same thing as them.

Obviously, libraries couldn't cross any privacy lines, but I do think there are ways to highlight the "shared resources" aspect of the library, and to emphasize a sense of community among our patrons.

Some ideas for what could be shown:

  • Detailed stats on cost-per-circ (including a breakdown on the library's cost for that item - price we paid for it, processing cost, etc) - and, as Walt said, this would be particularly interesting for databases
  • Number of local checkouts vs. ILLs and network transfers (along with current number of holds)
  • Along with number of checkouts, calculate the popularity ranking vs. total library items checkouts
  • Date the item was added to the collection, and date of last checkout (and check-in)
  • Some catalogs by default have an opt-in reading history for patrons; they should also have an opt-in way to make their checkout history public, on an item-by-item basis
  • Some catalogs, and some third-party plugins (like ChiliFresh and LibraryThing for Libraries), allow patrons to include their review and rating for items right in the catalog record
  • Ebook readers should be able to leave comments and notes in the ebook, which subsequent patrons could either turn on or off depending on if they wanted to see them

Some of this information is available in our staff view, and I use it all the time - why not make it available to the public, too?

One drawback to making this kind of item information available is that we might get a lot more "weeding suggestions" from patrons, on items they don't feel have provided enough value to the library (or that have been used too much). Of course, I get this to some degree already, so it's just a matter of having - and employing - a good collection development policy.

Does anyone's catalog include features like these? How do patrons like them?



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CIL2011: Cool Tools – Measuring, Visualizing, and Analyzing What Libraries Do

   March 23rd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Darlene Fichter, Research Services Librarian, University of Saskatchewan
Jeff Wisniewski, Web Services Librarian, University of Pittsburgh
Michael DeMars, California State University–Fullerton

 

Darlene - Counting is easy, knowing is hard

We must looks for signs of success, and places where we're falling down.

Good tools for detailed information:
Type in your library's name, and it searches the web to find comments posted about that you
it also shows trends/frequency of postings (be sure to use all phrases/names your patrons might call you)

Good tools for snapshot information:
Provides an overview of how many times you are mentioned on different sites

  • howsociable.com - gives raw numbers by social took
  • addictomatic.com - builds pages on the fly of the most recent results from various websites
  • socialmention.com - smaller userbase, so only really valuable for larger organizations, but it's one of the best. this also measures:
    • Strength: likelihood of being discussed
    • Passion: is there a fanbase that repeatedly talks about you
    • Sentiment: ration of positive mentions to negative ones

    Since we don't know what metrics they use, it's better to follow these as trends than as absolute numbers (if numbers change dramatically, something big must have happened - what?)

Also, just type your library's name (and variations) into Bing and Google and see what comes up - are people saying positive or negative things? What do your sites say about you?

 

Jeff - Tools for reviewing activity

Google Analytics In Page analytics

  • Available from content section
  • Visualizes activity by overlaying it on your webpage

Facebook Insights

  • Quantitative: fans, users, page views
  • Engagement: likes, comments

Klout

  • measurement of overall online influence
  • from 1 to 100 with higher scores representing a wider and stronger sphere of influence
  • pulls data mainly from Facebook and Twitter and other large social sites

Mywebcareer

  • discover, evaluate and monitor your professional online brand
  • gives you a FICO-like career score (350-850) for your personal brand

twendz

  • tool that analyzes activity and sentiment using keywords on Twitter

Google Places

  • Activity: views, impressions
  • Actions: maps, driving directions, clicks to website
  • Be sure to officially claim your small business listing, to make sure it is correct

Hootsuite

  • social media dashboard - lets you post once to multiple social outlets (Twitter, Facebook, etc)
  • recently added analytics so you can track effects related to your updates (again, in one place, instead of having to go to all of them to check)
  • there is a pay and free, and even though a lot more is in the pay version, the free is pretty good

 

Mike - Using web metrics tools to inform web design decisions

Answering the question: who are they, where are they, and what are they thinking?

The website redesign project - use a formalized process with patrons as center stage, instead of just sitting around a room arguing about which font to use

Google Analytics - it's worth setting up

  • they give you a small bit of code that you past in your site, and instantly starts tracking activity
  • it gives you rich data on how your site is used - activity, times, locations, popular resources,
    this gives you actual numbers, so you don't need to rely on national standards which may not actually reflect the makeup of your community
  • gives you real data to make decisions, instead of basing everything on anecdotes (where people come from, what their connection is, how people are finding you [search engines, keywords], etc) - this gives a voice to the patrons you never see
  • having a short time-spent-on-site metric is a good thing, because it means people are coming to your website, finding the database/website/resource they need, and linking out to it
  • it will tell you what device people are using, and thus if you need a mobile website (and which devices to focus on)


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An Anecdotal Experiment With Privacy

   March 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

For the last few years at my library, our public computers all looked the same - Windows XP with a custom wallpaper displaying instructions on how to print. Our setup looked like this:

Wallpaper with printing instructions

A month or so ago, we upgraded to Windows 7, and thought we'd also change the wallpaper.

Our goal in this was to improve patron privacy. The timer software we use is Time Limit Manager (TLM), by Fortress Grand (the little "Time Remaining" clock at the top of the screen above). I like this software because it is very customer service oriented, and patrons don't need to log in with a barcode to start their session - they can just sit down, click "I Agree" to our policies, and go. The timer is basically a courtesy reminder, and for the most part we can get away with using the honor system (TLM does offer additional features for when push comes to shove).

But the main problem we were seeing wasn't that people wouldn't leave the computer - it was that patrons weren't ending their session when they left the computer. This set up the scenario where a second patron could come along and just continuing using the session of the previous patron.

This never caused a real problem in my library, but the potential was there, so we thought the upgrade would be a good time to address it.

With the Windows 7 rollout, we designed new wallpaper, hoping to prompt people end their session when they were finished with the computer. The new wallpaper looks like this:

Wallpaper with privacy reminder

The result? Absolutely no change whatsoever.

I didn't do a scientific survey, but just from the number of times staff has to end the session at an abandoned computer, the privacy reminder didn't seem to affect anyone at all.

I can't believe people aren't seeing this message, so it's tough not to conclude that, at least in my library, most patrons don't care much about their privacy.

So, I wanted to ask the question here - what do other libraries do to get patrons to end their session?



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Interesting Database: Dabbledb

   May 21st, 2009 Brian Herzog

daddbledb.com logoA few weeks ago I was searching for a quick and easy online database, and stumbled across DabbleDB.

It looks like it's been around for awhile, and after watching their 8-minute demo video, I was really impressed. It seems incredibly easy to use, and excels at turning those flat spreadsheets into the databases we all want them to be. Plus, being online, it is amazingly easy to create simple and powerful web forms to work with the data.

I was looking for an online database to create a searchable catalog for our Town-Wide History Project. After looking around and talking with the other groups involved, iwe're going to use PastPerfect Online instead, but I'm kind of sad not to get to play with DabbleDB. For a little more tech info on it, check out this post on TechCrunch.

If you've got 8 minutes, watch the demo video - it's all good, but my favorite parts are towards the end: how easy it is to move data around (the email example) and their interface for building web forms. I can hardly wait to get some time to develop an online search tool using DabbleDB - hmm, maybe our Vertical File?

Update: found another video on YouTube:

And I also remembered that we're building a spreadsheet of obituaries that have appeared in the local newspaper - another perfect application for this database.



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