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


Reference Question of the Week – 10/7/12

   October 13th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Sign for The Higgins Moonlite Drive-In, still operating in TennesseeThis was funny. A patron walked up to the desk and asked,

Do you have any information on the drive-in theater that used to be in Chelmsford?

I've been here for about seven years, but had no idea there had been a Chelmsford drive-in. I told the patron this, and he relayed his story:

I've just moved to town, so I was online checking out the area and seeing what was around. I like drive-ins, so I went to this website to see if there were any nearby. I put in "Chelmsford" and it found one listed for Chelmsford. But the weird thing was that when I looked at the address, it was the same address as where I live! My condo complex was build in the early 1990's, and it turns out they tore down the drive-in to build the condos. Do you have any other information on the drive-in?

Now that's bizarre - but also the kind of thing you hear in libraries.

Unfortunately, the 1990's are the doughnut hole era when it comes to historical research. Not old enough for most archives and books, but still too far back to be in online databases. Luckily, there is always hope.

A new book on Chelmsford history was published this year, History of Chelmsford : 1910-1970, and we have a copy right at the desk in our Ready Reference collection. Even though it's supposed to only go to 1970, the editor wisely included an appendix with lots of more recent information (wisely, because he wasn't sure when the next history book would be written). In that appendix was a paragraph on the drive-in, which said it was built in 1957, torn down for the condos in 1994, and gave a little more information. But no photos.

I also suggested this patron contact the Chelmsford Historical Society, which has an extensive photo archive of the area. I gave the patron their contact information, and he was excited to get in touch with them. There are some photos on the drive-in website, but he wanted more.

And when talking about property questions, there's always the Town's tax records. I suggested that to the patron as well, but since we already knew the date range of the drive-in, we didn't think the tax records would offer much.

So, although I didn't actually help this patron very much, this is one of my favorite questions so far this year - this only happened Wednesday, and already I've told this story about ten times. Yay, libraries!



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AAA/Posit Science Donates Headaches to Libraries

   February 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

car wreckIt's always sad when good intentions cause problems. This seems to be the case with a donation Massachusetts libraries are receiving from AAA Southern New England and Posit Science.

Massachusetts is considering requiring older drivers to get retested to keep their driver's license. To help prepare drivers for this possibility, and to help all drivers in general, AAA of Southern New England has partnered with Posit Science, a brain fitness software developer, to provide libraries in the state with $1 million worth of free copies of their DriveSharp software for our patrons to use (read press releases).

Considering the emails and other chatter I've seen on this program, here are some of the things that went wrong:

  • AAA seems to have announced this to its members before mentioning it to libraries, because many libraries are only finding out about this program when their patrons ask for it
  • Libraries are receiving two copies of the software on CD-ROM, and AAA/Posit Science is suggesting we install one on an in-library computer and let one circulate
    • CD is a horrible format for software - I will fight for my fax machine before I lift a finger to save the CD format
    • Most libraries use Deep Freeze or some other software that prevents any data being saved session-to-session; it appears this software is only useful to patrons if their progress is saved
    • Most libraries cannot dedicate one of their public workstations to this software - which is almost required, because if a library installs this on one of their internet workstations, you just know that any time someone comes in to use the software, someone will be on that computer checking their email or something
  • The software is limited by the number of licenses
    • Each library was sent 25 license codes, and the company recommends library staff include one code with the CD each time it gets checked out. There's even a place that says "Librarian: Put license code sticker here"
      • Except they didn't send the license codes printed on stickers - just a sheet of paper with 25 code numbers
      • This means library staff need to pay for the stickers and spend time typing them up
      • And the codes are something like P423ZY78Q which means there is plenty of room for transcription error
    • Putting a sticker on something might not sound like a lot of work, but it is prohibitively labor-intensive for most libraries, not to mention a new layer of complexity having to track this particular CD and apply the sticker every time it circulates
    • And after the 25 codes are used, the CDs become useless unless we contact them for more codes

A $1 million donation is great and incredibly generous - but I'm sure many libraries are just throwing these CDs away instead of deal with the hassle of offering them. I don't know if libraries were consulted beforehand or not, but I doubt it.

A much simpler execution would have been to make this software available online - no CDs to pay for or fuss with, less cost of mailing everything to libraries, and patrons could use it on any computer.

Besides: I know this is a useful free tool, and available to everyone. But, if a tax software company (or any company) sent us a free version of their software on CD and said, "hey, install this on your computers and lend it out to patrons," should we rush to do that?

I don't mean to whine about how complicated it is to be a librarian, but most people don't think about what it takes to offer a whole lot of stuff to a whole lot of people. User Experience needs to be evaluated at every step of the chain, not just the beginning and end. Maybe this was the easiest thing for the company to produce, and maybe it's the best software in the world. However, most end users will never see it, because the middle of the chain - the distribution points (libraries) - don't have the time, staff, expertise or inclination to deal with it.

Bad UX. Sadly, it sounds like much of that $1 million donation was completely wasted.

And of course, since AAA is telling their customers to get this CD at the library, we either deal with the headache of processing and offering it, or the headache of telling patrons we don't have it.

In my library, we decided to circulate one of them and keep the other in reserve in case the first disk is lost or damaged. We're also including the entire list of 25 codes, and asking the patron to cross off the numbers as they use them, instead of messing around with stickers.

UPDATE 2/11/10: I've spoken with both Steven Aldrich from Posit Science and Mary Maguire from AAA Southern New England, and they are both researching some of these issues on their end. Hopefully I'll soon be able to post more information on how the software works and a few circulation models some libraries have found successful.

UPDATE 2/22/10: Steven Aldrich pointed me to a presentation of some models libraries can use to offer this software, as well as how to make it work with programs like Deep Freeze. Very helpful - thank you Steven. Also, check out his blog post for more insight on this program.



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/5/09

   April 11th, 2009 Brian Herzog

disk full error messageOne our regular patrons comes in with a ziplock bag full of flash drives, and then will spend hours copying text and images from websites into Word documents. He then saves these Word documents to the flash drives, and he also saves every email attachment he gets on the flash drives.

I trust this particular patron to know how to use a flash drive, so I was surprised one day when he comes up and said,

Your computer is giving me a flash drive error - it is saying it is full or write-protected, but it's not.

I went over to his computer, and sure enough, when I tried to save his file, I got the same error. I checked to make sure the drive wasn't physically locked, and also that it wasn't full - according to the properties, he had less than 30mb on a 1gb drive.

I was afraid the drive was corrupted somehow, so I took his drive back to the reference desk with me, telling him I'd look into it. A simple Google search for "can't save to flash drive" led to a thread on cnet forums.

The thread suggested this error can happen when you reach the upper limit on the number of files the root directory can hold. I had never heard of this before, so I took a look at his flash drive's root directory - sure enough, there were something like 700+ files in it.

I took the flash drive back to the patron and explained what I learned. The solution, I told him, is to temporarily cut/paste one file off of the drive to the computer, which will let us create a folder on the flash drive. Then, he can move files into the folder, and create additional folders, and start organizing files that way, instead of leaving everything in the root directory.

He did this, and it worked perfectly.

I had no idea disk directories had such limits, and I remarked to the patron that thanks to him, I learned something. This particular patron is always friendly and grateful for any help we give him. In this case though, he was extra cheerful - he spent the rest of the day letting everyone know that he taught me something.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/28/08

   October 4th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Kids in the back of a carSometimes, an innocent reference question has the potential to turn into a multi-million dollar industry.

Late one evening, a man in his early-forties came up to the desk:

Patron: I'm looking for someone to drive my kids.
Me: Um... where to?
Patron: My kids get home from school about 3 o'clock, but wife and I don't get home from work until about 6 o'clock. Most of the activities they want to do (sports, dance lessons, piano lessons, etc.) are after school, but they can't do them because I can't drive them there. I'm looking for someone who can drive my kids to their activities and then bring them home afterwards. Can you give me the number of the group in town that does that?
Me: I don't know of any group that does that specifically. I think most people use nannies or babysitters, or carpools or relatives or neighbors. But I'll check around and email you what I find.

After a little more talking, I learned that he and his family had immigrated here from India a little over a year ago, and so didn't have family in the area and hadn't met many people yet. They couldn't afford to pay a babysitter, especially since the kids were old enough to be home alone, but just not old enough to drive.

I first checked with our Childrens Librarian, as the Childrens Desk usually knows about kid- or mom- or family-related resources in the area. And I was right. She told me that the middle schools in town have buses that move kids between the various schools to get them to school-related after-school activities. Also, she said that high school kids volunteer around town after school, and that perhaps he could find one of them that could drive his children around.

I next checked our Community Information database, which is a listing of social services and non-profit organizations in the area. Most of what I found were child services for low income families or at-risk kids, but there was also a listing for the Chelmsford Mother's Club.

This club is kind of like a support group for new and expectant mothers, so I didn't think it would help him directly. But I linked to the Mother's Club website from CommInfo, and found that they had put together a great resources page. I couldn't tell if any of them could help the patron, but it was a good list to start with.

I emailed these three options to the patron, but haven't yet heard back.

And after thinking about this question for a few days, this really does sound like a business that could make a fortune.



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Still Selling Flash Drives

   May 13th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Flash drive imageAlmost exactly a year ago, we started selling flash drives at our reference desk. We did this because 3.5" floppy disks are becoming more and more unreliable and problematic, and CDs seem to be a mystery to most patrons.

We stopped selling floppy disks and CDs, and started selling 32mb drives for $5 each. When our source for them dried up, we had to scramble for something else. We thought a $5 flash drive, regardless of the size, was a pretty good deal – still cheap enough not to be prohibitive, and 32mb is still useful enough for people working on resumes and things like that.

But now we found an even better deal – 1gb drives for $8.

Our IT person sourced them through the local office of Corporate Express, and I think she was able to combine our non-profit status with some closeout deal on these to get that price. I think the $8 price tag is a little steep, especially for someone just wanting to save a couple documents, so I put more effort into selling the technology itself than selling drives.

As with everything, some patrons are slow to adapt, but some do recognize that these same drives sell for about $20 in stores, so they're happy. What I'm happy about is that we've been getting fewer requests for the $1 floppy disk, but even better is that we get fewer "I had all my resumes on this disk and now it won't open" type questions.

Don't PanicAnd since I like themed posts, I shall continue with the "drive" theme and say that I'm currently in Ohio, visiting my family for Mother's Day and my brother's birthday. I drove here, which means 20 hours (round trip) of audio books. Currently, I'm working my way through the Hitchhiker trilogy. I know this comparison has been made before, I think it's amazing how closely Wikipedia resembles the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" (double emphasis here because it's the title of a book within a book by the same title): it has entries on almost everything, the entries are supplied by people out living in the world and writing what they know, it's accessible from almost anywhere, and when the entries are inaccurate, they can be wildly inaccurate.



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