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


Reference Question of the Week – 12/30/12

   January 5th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Amongst White Clouds DVD coverThis has been a heck of a holiday season for some reason, and I'm still trying to get caught up. So, this is just a quickie reference question - although it's more like "readers advisory gone wrong."

One of our patrons submitted a purchase suggestion through our website for the DVD Amongst White Clouds, a documentary on Buddhism and monks. Since it wasn't already owned by any libraries from which it was easily requestable, I looked it up on Amazon to check it out, read reviews, and see if it was worth purchasing.

Most of the reviews were positive, which is good, but sometimes the bad reviews are more informative. This time though, one of them made me laugh out loud:

After reading the documentary description and several rave reviews, I was anxious to watch this movie. It provides a lesson in Buddhism, but not the one I was expecting. ... I got more wisdom from watching Kung Fu Panda with my son, than I got from this movie.

Pretty harsh, but funny. One of my favorite features of professional review journals is when a reviewer says a book isn't very good, and then provides titles that are better. But in this case, I don't think my patron would have been happy with this Amazon reviewer's alternate suggestion.

And actually, after reading about this DVD, I really want to see it now - thanks for the good suggestion, patron.



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Good Ideas, Not Easily Sold

   August 29th, 2012 Brian Herzog

A couple of totally unrelated really good ideas (I think), before I head to Ohio for a long Labor Day weekend:

Good Idea #1
First, for all you DVD collection development librarians out there, here is a must-add for the library's collection:

The Red Green Show box set

A 50-DVD set of The Red Green Show! 300 episodes = ~124 hours of wisdom from Possum Lodge, plus bonus material. Of course, the $299.99 price tag made my colleague who does our DVD selection just say "no."

Good Idea #2
Apple Store genius training manualSecond, an Apple Store training manual for their Genius Bar employees was reviewed at Gizmodo. From the tl;dr write up on BoingBoing, some great training gems caught my eye:

What does a Genius do? Educates. How? "Gracefully." He also "Takes Ownership" "Empathetically," "Recommends" "Persuasively," and "Gets to 'Yes'" "Respectfully."

From the comments, it appears the existence of this manual met with a large degree of cynicism. However, swap out "Genius" for "Librarian" and this exactly sums up what our desk staff should aspire to.

Taking ownership of a problem can be difficult in a public library, because not everything is something library staff can help with. But when it is within our power - especially concerning a library resource or service - taking ownership is the best way solve a patron's problem. Because if one of our patrons can't use a library resource, then it's a library problem.

And initially I was uncomfortable with the word "persuasively," because it sounds very retail. But after I thought about it, I often actively try to persuade patrons all the time, in the sense of recommending - and leading them to - what I think is the best resource. "Yes, maybe this recently-published book on skin cancer is a better choice, even though that one from 1995 is thinner and has more pictures. Of course, you can always take both." Or, "Instead of trying to figure out how to cite Yahoo Answers in your term paper, how about I show you how to use our journal databases?" Of course librarians persuade - empathetically and respectfully - but don't force or withhold information. We certainly try to recommend the best resources possible, but it's always up to the patron to make their own decisions.

Not that I should be surprised Apple has good customer service ideas - I've certainly drawn inspiration from them before.

I hope everyone has a good long weekend - see you next week.



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What Does “Video” Mean Today?

   April 18th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Internet Killed the Video Store? signHere's a topic that I've heard come up multiple times recently in different contexts, and I'm curious if there is any kind of wider consensus on it. The question is, what does the word "video" mean to people?

We're redesigning our catalog, and in the process of coming up with format description, we had a discussion (and disagreement) on whether "video" means just VHS tapes, or if it refers to to DVDs and other formats as well (like "music" is a generic term for anything on CD, tape, etc). We're also redesigning our website, and in that context, we weren't sure if the word "video" means physical tapes/discs, or if people would presume it means online clips/episodes/tutorials/etc - or both.

So I thought I'd take a quick poll - please make a selection, but also leave a comment below on why, or if I've missed an option entirely.


[poll link]

And a question for another time: in light of this, does the "video" in "video game" make sense?



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/5/12

   February 11th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Non-Fiction DVDs Have Moved signI freely admit to being entertained by immature things, but the sheer unexpectedness of this discovery will hopefully make everyone laugh.

A few weeks ago, my library decided to revamp our DVD collection: the "fiction" DVDs were split into separate sections for Feature Films and for TV Series, and all the non-fiction DVDs were interfiled, by Dewey, with the non-fiction books.

This has elicited mixed reactions from patrons, as they adjust to looking for documentaries and exercise videos in a new place. However, interfiling with the non-fiction books also sort of put me in charge of them - or rather, since Reference is now the closest desk to them, we're the ones who get asked why we don't have DVDs on particular topics.

So something new for me in the last week or so has been to fill some of the holes in our non-fiction DVD collection by finding DVDs to purchase on the specific subjects patrons had asked for. That's what I was doing this week - looking for videos on massage therapy, prenatal yoga, travel (we definitely do not have enough travel DVDs) - when I stumbled across something odd.

I was searching on Amazon, and had found a few good prenatal yoga DVDs. Great. So I started looking for DVDs on massage therapy, but wasn't having as much luck. I broadened my search to just massage, and was mildly surprised (although I suppose I shouldn't have been) to see all manner of "sensual massage" DVDs. Interesting, but not what I was looking for.

Amazon's default sorting method is by Relevance, so I thought if I tried something else - Average Customer Review or Most Popular - I'd find DVDs that our patrons might be interested in. The Average Customer Review sorting was productive. Then I switched to sort by Most Popular, and that's when I learned the most popular massage video on Amazon is:

Pure Nude Yoga - Zen Garden Goddess

And a little further down on the list was:

Pure Nude Yoga - Worship the Sun

One of the greatest things about being a librarian is that you learn something new every day. I had no idea nude yoga existed, nor that it was available as an on-demand video download from Amazon, nor nor that it would be Amazon's most popular "massage" video.

Although I'm sure this would also be popular with my patrons, this did not make the selection cut for the library.

More on Interfiling DVDs and Books
Incidentally, for those interested, we made this change to our DVD collection to try to make it easier for people browsing for movies to watch. All of the television series and anime DVDs got a TV Series sticker, and are now on different shelves, separate from the feature films. We have a lot of TV shows, so this greatly reduces the number of DVDs someone has to look through just to find a good movie to watch that evening.

The comments I've heard so far regarding the non-fiction DVDs (aside from the fact that people had memorized where their favorites were) is that it's now more difficult for someone who wants to browse documentaries. As a result, we may pull all the documentary DVDs - the ones you can watch for entertainment or edutainment - and create a "Documentaries" section by the Feature Films and TV Series DVDs. On the other hand, the people looking for exercise or travel DVDs have really liked having all the related books in the same place, so those will probably stay. This will take some fine-tuning, but eventually I'm sure we can reach the happy medium.



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Warner Video Restricting DVD Sales to Libraries

   October 18th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Animaniacs see no Evil, Speak no Evil, Hear no EvilThe cataloger at my library found out last week that Warner Home Video has initiated a new policy that puts a serious crimp in the way libraries can buy DVDs - and I'm surprised it hasn't met the same uproar as HarperCollins' ebook policy.

The change is that Warner Home Video is forcing DVD distributors to:

  • place a 28 day embargo on sales of Warner feature titles to libraries
  • discontinue providing libraries with DVDs that contain all the bonus features, but instead only sell us the "rental" version that is just the movie

Midwest Tape explains the change on their website, and we also received an email directly from Ingram to the same effect. When our cataloger called Baker & Taylor to see if they were honoring it, they said our account had already been modified to bar us from ordering these DVDs, and they just didn't tell us they were doing it.

I see this policy has horribly misguided.

  • I presume it's designed to increase their DVD sales figures, but I don't think people who use library DVDs are likely to purchase these DVD on their own
  • this will likely increase pirated movies, because the people who want to watch movies for free will have to turn to illegal sources, instead of the legal copy they could have gotten at the library
  • not letting us buy the versions with bonus materials just seems vindictive - and since many patrons look for bonus materials, this is yet another instance that will require librarians to explain to patrons that it's the vendors that are keeping them from what they want, not us
  • although Warner is trying to pressure our traditional (and convenient) DVD sources from selling to us, libraries can still purchase the full versions as they are released from other sources, such as Amazon or local stores (although Warner is trying to force them to limit the number of DVDs someone can purchase at a time, but we usually only buy a few anyway)
  • besides patrons, Warner is mostly hurting its DVD wholesalers (like Midwest Tape, B&T, etc) - chances are we'll stop buying from them and go directly to retail outlets, which might lead to an erosion of their distribution network as a whole

A discussion has begun on the Publib listserv, and someone mentioned that this isn't a big deal because it's only one studio - but it only takes one to start the domino effect. However, I really do think this will all come down to sales, and I seriously doubt Warner will see any bump in their sales as a result.

For more information, or to express your opinion, contact Warner Home Video directly at 888-383-9483.

Update 10/19/11: Check out Library Journal for more on this.



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Library Media Box and Other Vending Machines

   September 1st, 2011 Brian Herzog

Library Media iBoxMy friend Chris forwarded me a news story about a DVD vending machine being installed in the library in Strongsville, Ohio - but instead of a RedBox, it vends the library's DVDs.

Some libraries do have a RedBox, but that approach never sat well with me - it seemed like an uncomfortable competitive fit. But an easy-access vending machine that distributes library materials? Great.

I contacted the Cuyahoga County Public Library system for more information, and here's what I learned:

  • The machine holds 700 DVDs (or CDs, and larger capacity also available), and uses special black cases instead of regular DVD cases
  • Theirs is from Public Information Kiosk, Inc. (distributed by 3M), and they chose it over competitors (Brodart also has one) because they felt it had the most RedBox-like interface, thus should be easy for people to use. Also, PIK developed some custom graphics for them, and looks sleeker and snazzier all around, rather than just looking like a regular vending machine
  • The machine is indoor-only, so they placed it between the inner and outer doors of the library lobby - the outer doors remain unlocked 24 hours a day, so patrons always have access to the machine
  • It's still new to them so they're slowly rolling out features, but the machine is designed to handle checkouts, checkins, and even holds placed through the online catalog - neat
  • One drawback they have noticed is the machine's use of the company's own 2D barcode system, instead of the library's barcodes - this requires extra work in cataloging, and also causes some inaccuracies with records (showing the wrong cover art when there is more than one movie with the same name, movies showing up in unexpected places in the genre listing [ie, Wall-E listed as sci-fi])
  • More details on the product spec sheet [pdf]

This is the first of two machines they purchased, with an LSTA grant from the State of Ohio intended to explore ways to meet the needs of underserved patrons. These machines are ideal for serving patrons where a library branch can't be built.

The second machine will be installed in a local hospital, serving as another 24x7 library location. Similarly, a library in Iowa is considering installing one in the headquarters of a large local business - another nice example of bringing the library to the patrons (although it also sounds like something you'd find in the Googleplex).

These vending machines serve other uses too - after conducting a patron survey on how to deal with DVD theft, the Arapahoe Library District in Colorado in the process of installing installed them to help protect their collection.

Library Vending MachineAnd other libraries have been using vending machines for awhile. In Connecticut, the Oliver Wolcott Library has had one since 2010.

However, my favorite is what the Ottawa Public Library is doing - putting vending machines at their commuter rail stations and community centers (via).

In the age of downloadable ebooks and streaming video, using vending machines to distribute physical library materials might already seem outdated. But don't forget, public libraries serve a spectrum of patrons, all with different interests and needs. After all, despite the popularity of smartphones, our public fax machine is used just about every day (our microfilm machine and typewriter aren't exactly idle, either).

Anything we can do to make library services available outside the library's building and operating hours - in a variety of ways to meet a variety of patron needs - is a good thing.



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