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


Reference Question of the Week – 6/16/13

   June 22nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Nuns with gunsI work in Chelmsford, MA, and the Town is in the process of establishing two "cultural districts" in two of our local historical village centers. It's similar to a historical district, but instead focuses on what makes Chelmsford culturally-distinct: art, architecture, programs & events, etc.

The group asked me to help create a map of both districts, labeling all the different locations of interest. I've played a little with custom Google Maps before, and this seemed like the perfect application to try out all the different features.

Creating the maps (check out the current working drafts) was pretty straight-forward. One of the committee members found a great site for custom map icons (which also explained how to make them work), and the text for each point of interest came from a variety of sources.

It was researching each location for a descriptive blurb for the map that produced this week's reference question. I was asked to add St. John The Evangelist Parish church to the North Chelmsford map, so I went to their website looking for something interesting to say about them. What I found was hands-down the most interesting thing I've read in a long time:

The earliest Catholic families living in Chelmsford, Dunstable, Lowell, Tyngsboro and Westford wanted a church of their own. St. Patrick's, Lowell was a five to ten mile walk. The families purchased the Meeting House of the Second Congregational Church of Chelmsford at the corner of Middlesex and Baldwin Streets, Lowell, in 1859. [...]

Men, who toiled in factory, foundry or farm, hurried to the holy work each evening. They struggled to move the building with the aid of horses and log rollers, a few yards at a time, for a distance of two miles along Middlesex Street. "Know Nothing" citizenry, a violent anti-Catholic group, made threats to burn the building and gained court injunctions to stop the building’s movement. The two mile journey was made with at least four men, armed with shotguns, and guarding the Church each night.

Holy smokes, now that is dedication. Researching local history rocks.



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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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Reference Question of the Week – 9/20/12

   October 6th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Abacus as adding machine for financial servicesThis might be one of the strangest questions I've ever been asked.

A patron called to ask what information we could find out about the business her husband worked for in Chelmsford in the 1990's. She gave me the name and address of their office from that time, and just said that she had recently been contacted by the IRS concerning his pay and benefits from his time there.

Whew. I told her it might take me some time to research it, and she gave me her name and phone number to contact her when I found something. Interestingly (to me), the phone number she gave me had a California area code.

So anyway, the first step was just to search online for "Financial Applications Consulting Services, Inc." (the name of the company, which unfortunately is also a common description of this type of business) to see if they were still around. I also checked local phone directories and ReferenceUSA, but from what I could tell, they were no longer in business. If that's the case, I'm not sure what I could possibly find to offer this woman, but now it became a personal challenge to find anything at all.

I thought the Town Clerk would have information on businesses in town, when they filed for permits or paid taxes or whatever. However, when I called over there, the Clerk said they had no record of this business - which, she said, isn't unusual, because only certain kinds of businesses need to be on record with them.

Next, since I had the business' old address, I thought I'd try to track down the owner of that building (since it was sort of a strip mall of office suites). I hoped the business would have left some kind of forwarding address when they moved, or at least I'd get the date they closed. I called the current tenants of the same address and explained that I was looking for the building owner to find a previous tenant, and they were happy to give me his name and number. However, they also cautioned that he's difficult to get a hold of because he travels a lot.

So I noted this to pass on the patron, but didn't try contact him myself.

Instead, I went back to web searching, looking more for information about the company than the company itself. This turned up an interesting history:

From Bizjournals.com:
...Financial Applications Consulting Services Inc., which does business under the name Fastech. It is based in Livonia, Mich. ...

From Businesswire.com:
...On July 25, 2003, FASTECH filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. On Nov. 18, 2003, the court ordered the granting of FASTECH's motion to sell certain assets, including its customer base, to Kronos....

Kronos happens to be one of the larger companies based in Chelmsford*, but I don't know if it's a coincidence that a Michigan-based company had a small office here, or if there had been some connection to Kronos all along.

Regardless, I think this gave me the information I was looking for - since Kronos was involved with taking ownership of the company the patron where the patron's husband worked, their legal or human resources department is probably the best resource to answer her questions regarding whatever questions the IRS is asking her.

So I gathered contact information for Kronos, Fastech, the building landlord, and also the URLs for the articles I had found online, and called the patron back. No answer - bummer. I left a message, saying that I had made some progress and asked her to call me back.

A couple days later, the patron's daughter called. She explained that after her father retired, her parents left Chelmsford and moved to California. Recently, her father had died, and in the course of finalizing his estate, the IRS contacted them about outstanding benefits from the time he was employed at this company in Chelmsford. She didn't know what it was about, but really appreciated the information I was able to provide.

That's great, and I was happy to help - but this is one of those questions that still feels opened-ended, because I have no idea how it was ultimately resolved. Of course, it's not about me - I hope the family was able to accomplish whatever they needed to do.

 


*Kronos has been extremely generous to the Chelmsford Library, donating laptops and other equipment - thank you very much!



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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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Reference Question of the Week – 9/4/10

   September 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Canadian UmbrellaLast week, a fairly well-dressed older male patron, carrying a leather briefcase, approached the desk. He explained he making a driving trip from Ottawa, ON, to Saint John, NB, for three weeks this October, and wanted to know how much rain there will be.

This actually reminded me of reference question from a couple years ago, and again I reached first for the same resource - the Old Farmer's Almanac we keep in Ready Reference. However, our edition only covers the US.

So I turned to the internet, and a search for longrange canadian weather forecast led to the long-range section of the Old Farmer's Almanac website. The page was for the US but it linked to Canadian listing.

We checked both regions he would travel in - one region said it would have a wetter-than-normal October, and the other drier-than-normal.

To get a better idea of what "normal" was, we also looked at historical weather data from The Weather Network (Canada's weather channel). This was great because it allows historical searches for a date range, which can be a tough thing to find when you need it. I've done this a couple times for local weather, so was quite pleased that my first search for Canadian weather was this successful - and the patron was happy, too.

And speaking of traveling, if you need a laugh, check out my latest passport photo - somehow I ended up as red as the maple leaf on the Canadian flag. Le sigh.



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Check to ALA from 1919

   June 10th, 2010 Brian Herzog

1919 check written to the ALAIn 2008, Chelmsford started a town-wide history project, to index the historical records in all the various locations around town. We're still chugging along, and a volunteer found something interesting in the library's archives.

This check for $1.50 was written by the treasurer of the North Chelmsford Library Association to the ALA Publishing Board in 1919. The back of the check is interesting, too. We're still discovering things in the archive, so I'm hopeful we'll be able to figure out what this check was for.

There's three more things about this, if you're interested:

  1. The signature on the check is Stuart MacKay, brother of Anna C. MacKay, who the Anna C. MacKay Branch Library in North Chelmsford is named after. North Chelmsford has been, and is now, very supportive of the library, and I like this continuity of history. Also interesting that he was working on Christmas Eve.
  2. Also uncovered in the archive are circulation records from the early 1900's - including every book each patron checked out. An interesting philosophical question is this: at what point do library records go from being a matter of patron privacy to a matter of historical record or curiosity?
  3. For our indexing project, we're using Past Perfect, and will be providing access through Past Perfect Online (but nothing's been uploaded yet). Until that's ready, we're using a Google Custom Search Engine to index all the existing online resources we could find. It works well enough for the time being, and I know this is going to be a long-term project, but I'm looking forward to having a real index available.

Neat, huh?



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