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


Reference Question of the Week – 1/6/13

   January 12th, 2013 Brian Herzog

The Lowell SunThis reference question happened before Christmas. As I came into work one afternoon to start my evening shift, the staff person I was replacing had to pass off to me a patron she had already been helping for a little while.

The patron was looking for an article she had read in the Lowell Sun (a local daily newspaper) within the last couple months - she couldn't remember the title, author, or date, but knew it had something to do with with how changes in Social Security will affect the pension the spouse of a state employee will receive.

The patron had called the newspaper and they told her they didn't know exactly which article it was, but it probably would have run on a Thursday.

When I came in, the patron was going through a stack of newspapers, looking at Thursdays issue-by-issue, working backwards. My coworker had already spent time searching our Lowell Sun subscription database, but neither approach was succeeding.

After my coworker left, and since the patron was still using the physical newspapers, I thought I'd try again with the database. Different people use different search techniques, so perhaps (and hopefully) I'd find something my coworker missed.

I started with just keyword searches for combinations of "social security" "pension" "spouse" and a few other things, limited to the last 3 months, but none of the results really seemed to fit the patron's description. I opened it up to six months, then removed the date limiter all together, and still nothing. Then I stopped combining keywords, and just searched the individually - still nothing.

I knew the database wouldn't contain AP stories or articles from other sources, but the patron was pretty sure it was a regular column of a local writer. She knew what he looked like too (from his headshot running along side each column), so she was hoping that she could at least find one of his columns and then we could get his name.

Since I wasn't having any luck in the subscription database, I thought I'd try their website's searchable archive - it's not full-text, but an index of authors and titles could still be helpful. However, the only thing coming up were the same articles I'd already seen - and the website said "Generally, the material is current 24 hours after publication," so it should have been up-to-date with no embargo.

Just then, the patron came over very excited - she recognized the columnist's picture in one of the papers. It wasn't the right article, but at least we now had his name: John Spoto.

While she was looking over my shoulder, I searched the database for author/byline=John Spoto, and oddly, only two matches came up. Odd because there were so few for a regular columnist, and because they were both dated July 2012. I did a keyword search instead of an author search for his name, and then got 55 results - much better (however, slightly annoying).

But we still had a catch, because the most recent was dated September 9th. The patron was sure the article she read was more recent than that, but no matter what I tried I couldn't find any other articles by this person in the database (nor on the website, which indicated it was current).

However, when I started reading the dates - September 9th, August 26th, July 29 - I noticed that most were Sundays. Because the paper had told her this column ran on Thursdays, she had only been looking at Thursday's papers. So, the patron went back to check the Sunday editions, and hit the jackpot on Dec 2nd.

The column was titled "Public pensions do affect Social Security benefits," by John Stopo. We both thought it was odd this didn't come up in the database, so I tried searching by the title - guess what? No luck.

It looks like the database hasn't been updated in awhile, at least for this writer's columns.

Regardless, I helped the patron photocopy the column*, and while we were doing that she talked about the importance of perseverance and how you can do great things by taking only little steps at a time. It seemed to me that, in this case, the work the patron put into finding the article made it that much better when she did find it - if she came in and found it right away, it would have been a whole different experience.

Not that things need to be difficult, but it's nice to appreciate the results of extra effort.

 


*Helping patrons photocopy odd-sized newspaper articles, that don't readily fit on legal-size paper, is a reference question unto itself.



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#PLA12 NewsBank Database Usage Study

   March 15th, 2012 Brian Herzog

NewsBank has been conducting a study with 100+ libraries of various sizes, to look closely at how library databases are used. Here are my notes on the presentation, and the short discussion afterward.

  • As daily newspaper shrink (in page count), archiving shrinks as well (many newspapers are posting more to their websites than they put in print, and they are not archiving that content)
  • The trend of investment is going to "first-to-web" systems model, mobile and social network integration, and paywalls and metering systems
  • Library databases appear to be ~80% remote usage
  • Majority of use is for older content, not current news - 80% of articles accessed are more than 90 days old. Of that 80%:
    • 18% = 1-4 years old
    • 32% = 5-9 years old
    • 50% = >10 years old
  • Majority of searches are for local news: people names and local topics (political issues, crime, businesses, development of schools, etc)

As a bonus, the local NewsBank rep explained how to properly order a Philly cheesesteak:

  1. Specify the quantity you want
  2. Specify your cheese:
    • Wiz = cheese wiz
    • American = American cheese
    • provi = provolone
  3. Specify fried onions or no:
    • Wid = with onions
    • Widout = without onions

So, an order for one cheesesteak with cheese wiz and onions would be:

One - wiz - wid



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Online Newsstand Makes Databases Fun

   March 7th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Update 3/30/12:
Library Journal published an article on the project, EBSCO's objection, and the process of working towards a resolution.

Update 3/20/12:
Good news: EBSCO and Steve have been in contact, and they are currently exploring the possibility of developing a service comparable to the Online Newsstand that would be acceptable to publishers.

Update 3/12/12:
EBSCO contacted Steve and asked him to shut down the Online Newsstand project. They said they had been contacted by a publisher who had concerns, and EBSCO cited the Online Newsstand violating their license agreements.

I'm hoping this is a temporary "let's meet and work this out" kind of deal, and not a "we don't want anyone doing something better than us" situation. After all, EBSCO isn't losing any money (and Steve isn't making money) - if anything, EBSCO and their publishers only benefit from increased database usage, because higher stats make libraries more inclined to renew their database contracts. Not to mention that EBSCO gives out awards to libraries for doing exactly this kind of innovative project (I won one):

Steve has contacted EBSCO to try to get Online Newsstand back online. If you're so inclined, you can contact EBSCO to let them know what you think:

  • Tim Collins, CEO: tcollins@ebscohost.com
  • Mark Herrick, Senior Vice President of Business Development: mherrick@ebscohost.com
  • Ed Roche, Vice President of Field Sales, APK: eroche@ebscohost.com
  • Emily Hayden: Senior Director of Customer Success, ehayden@ebscohost.com
  • Melissa D'Amato, Vice President of Publisher Relations: mkenton@ebscohost.com

Only EBSCO has demanded Online Newsstand be taken down, but to be on the safe side until this is resolved, Steve has also brought down the Gale version as well. What an incredibly unfortunate and unnecessary state of affairs.


Original Post:
Online Newsstand logoDo you wish the great content in your databases was easier to access and more engaging for patrons? Sure, we all do. And now it can be, with the Online Newsstand.

Steve Butzel of the Portsmouth (NH) Public Library developed the Online Newsstand Project to promote some of the great content libraries are already paying for - just by making that content more visible to patrons. Instead of having to go into MasterFILE or Expanded Academic ASAP, patrons can browse their favorite magazines on, well, an online newsstand, right on the library's website. It looks like this:


Pretty neat, huh?

Patrons don't need to know what a database is, or how to use one - they just click the magazine and article they want to read, log in with their library card number, and they're in! Almost as easy as reading an actual magazine.

And the second best thing about this (the first best is how awesome it looks) is that it's free for libraries to use.

Here's how it works: the Online Newsstand doesn't replace databases - it's just another (prettier) way to access their content. Steve compiles a list of the top articles of each magazine issue, along with the direct link to that article in the database. That way, the Online Newsstand can easily display the table of contents for a magazine, which eliminates all the searching and drilling down into publications in databases.

Check it out at the Portsmouth Library, on my library's website, and also on our mobile website (which is great for patrons on the go).

Updating the table of contents for each issue in the Online Newsstand would have been a monumental task. But it occurred to Steve that, since so many libraries are paying for the exact same content in the exact same databases, a bunch of libraries working together could make light work of it.

So, instead of libraries paying to use the Online Newsstand, participating libraries "adopt" a magazine, and they are then responsible for adding the new article titles and links to the Newsstand whenever a new issue is published. The interface Steve created makes this extremely easy - I do The Economist (a weekly magazine) and Outdoor Life (a monthly), and it takes me about ten minutes per issue - tops.

I love the approach of libraries working together. My ten minutes' labor a week benefits other libraries, and also gives my patrons access to the work done by other librarians. This is the true spirit of cooperation that is so emblematic of libraries.

The Online Newsstand is available both for EBSCO and Gale customers. And as more libraries get involved in the project, more and more magazine titles will be added. And again, this doesn't change or affect your relationship with database vendors - it just improves the patron experience of using the resources we're already paying for.

If you're interested (and I hope you are), contact Steve Butzel at sbutzel@gmail.com. And of course I'm happy to talk about how it works in Chelmsford, too.



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American Physical Society Offers Free Access to Libraries

   August 3rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

American Physical Society logoI thought I'd pass this along in case anyone is interested - The American Physical Society is offering online access to their journals free to public libraries.

I haven't decided if my library will take advantage of the offer, because these journals seem more academic that what our patrons are usually after, and also, it's in-library access only. But on the plus side, it's free, and this is a good direction for publishers to be headed.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

APS ONLINE JOURNALS AVAILABLE FREE IN U.S. PUBLIC LIBRARIES

Ridge, NY, 28 July 2010: The American Physical Society (APS) announces a new public access initiative that will give readers and researchers in public libraries in the United States full use of all online APS journals, from the most recent articles back to the first issue in 1893, a collection including over 400,000 scientific research papers. APS will provide this access at no cost to participating public libraries, as a contribution to public engagement with the ongoing development of scientific understanding.

APS Publisher Joseph Serene observed that "public libraries have long played a central role in our country's intellectual life, and we hope that through this initiative they will become an important avenue for the general public to reach our research journals, which until now have been available only through the subscriptions at research institutions that currently cover the significant costs of peer review and online publication."

Librarians can obtain access by accepting a simple online site license and providing valid IP addresses of public-use computers in their libraries (http://librarians.aps.org/account/public_access_new). The license requires that public library users must be in the library when they read the APS journals or download articles. Initially the program will be offered to U.S. public libraries, but it may include additional countries in the future.

"The Public Library program is entirely consistent with the APS objective to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics," said Gene Sprouse, APS Editor in Chief. "Our goal is to provide access to
everyone who wants and needs our journals and this shift in policy represents the first of several steps the APS is taking towards that goal."

--Contact: Amy Halsted, Special Assistant to the Editor in Chief, halsted@aps.org, 631-591-4232

--About the APS: The American Physical Society is the world's largest professional body of physicists, representing close to 48,000 physicists in academia and industry worldwide. It has offices in Ridge, NY; Washington, DC; and College Park, MD. For more information: www.aps.org.



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Buying Databases Like Used Cars

   June 22nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Image: discounts everywhere, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from cjc4454 photostreamLast week at a meeting of area reference librarians, the topic of research databases came up - which ones we like, which we wish patrons would use more, etc.

One librarian remarked that her favorite database is one of the most expensive, but doesn't get used much so she's considering cutting it. She happened to mention the price they're paying, which got everyone's attention.

That particular database vendor bases their pricing on population. For her town of 32,000, they're paying over $7,000 for that database. My town is exactly the same size, but we pay only $4,400 - and another town, of 25,000, pays over $5,000. What?

Then we started relating other database pricing anecdotes:

  • A sales rep told one librarian a database cost $4,000. When the librarian said she couldn't even come close to that, the sales rep asked, "well, what can you afford?" - she said $1,500, and the rep made the deal for that price
  • One vendor said they don't like losing customers, so when I called to cancel a database, they gave it to me for free provided I kept access to the others I had from them
  • Another vendor gives volume discounts, so when I called to cancel two of the three databases we got from them, he said buying just the one database (without the volume discount) would be more expensive than getting all three

I hate this. Don't get me wrong - I like the database sales reps I work with - I just don't understand the business model behind databases. And the difference between charging a library $4,000 for something instead of $1,500 seems like price gouging.

It's great that reps are able to work with small-budget libraries, but it would be so much easier to have fixed, posted prices, rather than everyone paying different rates (isn't that one of the things that got the health care industry in trouble?).

All the librarians at the meeting agreed to compare notes and prices, so we can try to save money the next time we renew our contracts. I hate to haggle and negotiate for prices, but now I feel like it would be fiscally irresponsible of me not to - and never accept the first quote. Since what we pay is public record anyway, maybe libraries should post their database contracts in a central place, so we can all get better deals.

(And just as a funny aside: while I was looking for a photo to accompany this post, this clever one cracked me up. Ah, sales - it's why I left the business world for librarianship.)



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Geolocation Database Access from MBLC

   June 8th, 2010 Brian Herzog

MBLC logoLast week, my Director gave me a letter she received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) with good news - the database access they provide through Gale and Proquest now offer geolocation authentication for any computer in Massachusetts.

Good for patrons:

  • Just click a link on the library's website to get into the database - whether the patron is in the library or at home (within Massachusetts), they get right into the database without having to also enter their library card barcode or anything else
  • If they're traveling outside of Massachusetts, they can still access the database using the same link, because they'll be prompted to enter their card number
  • Patrons from other states who are traveling in Massachusetts can access all of our databases without having to be in the library - any internet connection within the state will do

Good for librarians:

  • We just need to put a single link on our website that works for both in-library and at-home access - much easier to manage
  • Each link includes a library identifier, so we still get usage stats on anyone using the links on our website
  • The MBLC provides a list of all the links for each library (ours look like this), so we just need to copy/paste them onto our website and it works

MA libraries have until Oct. 31, 2010 to get the new links posted, because that's when the old links stop working. If you need help, or didn't get a letter like this, contact Marlene Heroux and the MBLC. And libraries outside of MA, contact Gale and Proquest to see how to get this to happen for you, too. They can do it, so ask for it.

Way to go, MBLC!



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