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


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   January 10th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Unshelved by Gene Ambaum and Bill BarnesThe beginning of the year is apparently my favorite time for good causes - although this is one I've mentioned before.

Last year, Unshelved Answers, a Q&A site for librarians, went offline. A replacement was proposed on Stack Exchange, but to move forward it needs 894 people to support the idea.

I used Unshelved Answers a lot, to both ask questions and share knowledge (sometimes that I had to find out the hard way). If you're interested in a professional open forum (essentially, a reference desk for librarians) to communicate with each other and share tips and tricks and best practices, take a look at the proposal and consider clicking the Commit! button. Thanks.



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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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Reference Question of the Week – 6/26/11

   July 2nd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Unshelved comic stripInstead of a reference question I've answered this week, I wanted to bring attention to a resource for librarians to ask questions.

In April, the very useful Unshelved Answers went off-line - it was a forum that let librarians ask professional questions of other librarians. I used it frequently, both asking and answering, and was sad when this resource went away.

But recent tweets from @codinghorror and @jessamyn reminded me of an effort to start up a replacement Libraries forum - I say "effort," because it'll take your help to make it happen.

The new home will be at stackexchange.com, which requires a critical mass of people to "commit" to a new forum before it is activated. As I write this, we've got 316 of the 894 needed committers, so we still need more librarians to get involved. But don't let the word "commit" scare you - you're not dedicating your life to anything, just showing that you support the idea of the forum and will use it (at your own level of involvement).

The idea behind this Libraries forum, and Unshelved Answers before it, is to create a "reference desk for librarians" - but the official proposal description reads:

Proposed Q&A site for librarians and library professionals where they can share their expertise about libraries and everything in them.

In other words, this will be a place where we can ask questions about working in a library, seek help on reference questions, find out how other libraries are handling a particular issue, and, yes, whether or not we need more signs in the library (no).

And who better to ask than other librarians?

So please, take a minute, visit the new Librarians forum proposal page and click the green Commit! button - together we can make this happen, and together we can help each other make libraries better. Thanks.



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On Helping Parents Instead of Students

   April 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Parents with studentToday's post is a response to an email I received (thanks, Amber). She said she just started working in a public library again, and asked if I had any advice on helping parents when they are looking for resources for their child's homework. This happens often enough that I've actually written it into our reference policy.

The best-case scenario is when the parent comes in with the student, and I always try to engage the student as much as possible. After all, it's the student that knows what their assignment is and what kind of information they need - not to mention I am trying to teach them research skills at the same time.

The situation that can be the most difficult is when the parent comes in alone. It is certainly a good thing to have a parent involved in their child's education, but more often than not, I get the distinct impression that the parent is just doing the child's homework for them - which makes me uncomfortable.

Here are some of the tactics I use any time an adult asks for information on the underground railroad, or the Black Plague, or a very specific animal, etc:

  • Ask them if this is for them or for a homework assignment
    Rarely do people let you know right away that their question is for their child's homework assignment, but the quicker you know where you stand, the better
  • Ask if they have the homework assignment with them
    Maybe one person in a hundred actually does, but it can help a lot. For awhile the school library staff were emailing us assignments as they got them from the teachers, but this dropped off after they had staff cuts
  • Ask how much and what type of information is required, and the nature and length of the project
    If they don't have the homework assignment with them, this is the next best thing - but it's still rare that a parent would know very many details. However, sometimes they know that they need just two books*, or that they need photographs, or that the project is a three paragraph biography, etc. Whatever they can tell you will help, because there's a big difference between a five page paper and a poster.

    I also use this question to try to limit the amount of books the parent takes - some parents just want to take every single book they can find on the topic, and let the child sift through them once they get home. This is bad because often more than one student has the same topic, so if the parent says they need just two books, I try to hold them to that to leave resources for other kids

  • Ask for the age/grade of the student
    Obviously this is important in selecting the most appropriate resources, but also tells me right away if adult or teen resources are even applicable, or if I should refer them to the Children's Room
  • Ask when the assignment is due
    The answer to this is usually "tomorrow," but not always. This is especially helpful to know if I'm having trouble finding books on the topic - if the project isn't due for a week or so, that opens up the option of requesting books from other libraries. If there isn't time for that, I do remind patrons that they can drive to other libraries and pick up materials there (thanks to being in a consortium)
  • Give them our guide to accessing databases from home
    Also very helpful when I'm having trouble locating resources in the library, but this of course is limited to people who have internet access at home. I always give my speech about how databases are not an "internet source," and also write down the specific name of the databases that will help. If there is time, I show the parent how to search the database and that there is relevant information - and if we get this far, I always email one of the articles we find to them from the database, to remind them when they get home to use it
  • Tell them to have the student call or come in if they need more help or have questions
    Of course, it is ideal to work directly with the student, even if it's just on the phone. Sometimes students come in the next day after school, but I have had kids call later that night after their parents got home, asking where in the books they brought home is the information they need. I walk them through using the book's index and table of contents, and that is often enough to get them started

I'm curious to find out what other tactics are useful for this situation - it's something we face all the time, so please share your success stories in the comments.

 


*The absolute worse-case scenario, but one I've been seeing more and more, is when the project is already done and they just need a book source for the bibliography. Generally this confession comes from the student rather than the parent, but I probably hear this once or twice a month. I mentioned this to a middle school teacher who tutors a lot in the library, and she was shocked - enough that she said she'd bring it up at the next curriculum meeting.



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Tips for Blogging

   July 15th, 2010 Brian Herzog

[Insert Exciting Blog Entry Here]This has been a busy week at the reference desk (lots of people looking for school summer reading books). I didn't have any great ideas for today's post, so I thought I'd go meta - a blog post about blogging.

Here are a whole bunch of links I've been collecting that offer tips on blogging, or blogging better, or running a blog in general. Some of them are for personal blogs, but they apply pretty well to writing for a library website.

I suppose I should read them instead of just sharing them, but it's a start:

From iLibrarian:

From Librarian in Black:

From David Lee King:



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/4/09

   October 10th, 2009 Brian Herzog

I was asked these two questions back-to-back one day this week:

I want to sell my car on craigslist, and I want to be able to email people an info sheet. I've already created an Excel spreadsheet with mileage and other statistics, including a couple pictures pasted in. Can you show me how to put arrows and text on the pictures, and how to convert it to a pdf file?

...and...

I've been on Yahoo for a few months now. I know that I can get letters from people, and I can reply to letters people send me, but, can I send people letters too?

Of course, both of these are legitimate questions. I was just struck by such different technology experience levels from two patrons who walked up to the reference desk at about the same time.

And the answers are:

Excel's Drawing Toolbar (View > Toolbars > Drawing) allows both of these things. Click the icon that looks like an Arrow to draw an arrow on a picture, use the Line Style to make it thicker, and the Line Color icon to change the color. Then, click the Text Box icon to create a text box wherever you want words to appear. Use the Fill Color and Line Color to make sure it's legible against the picture.

To create a pdf version, we installed PDFcreator on our public computers. It shows up in the printer selection dropdown box, and creates a pdf file patron can then save to disk

...and...

Just click the "New" button in the upper left corner of the Inbox.



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