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

Information Sharing in an Emergency

   April 17th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Although I'm 20 miles from Boston, the explosions at the Marathon have been the dominant topic for the last couple days. Amid the tragedy, I couldn't help but notice a few things about the way information (and misinformation) flowed.

Almost immediately, the authorities were calling for everyone with photos or videos of the day - not just the explosions, but the entire race route throughout the morning - to share their media with the Police. They're even stopping people leaving the city through Logan airport to individually ask people if they captured anything. Of course the majority of people watching the race would have been taking pictures and video, and these will be tremendous help to the investigators. I'd never heard of this kind of solicitation on such a massive scale before, but I was impressed that City officials did not hesitate - shortly after it became clear the explosions were not an accident, they were asking for help from the public.

Also in short order Google created the Boston Marathon Explosions Person Finder - it's a way to both get information on someone that may have been near the scene, as well as a way for people to let others know they're safe. It's not the first time it was used, but is another helpful tool for sharing information.

Somewhat related, I also found it interesting that officials were repeatedly asking people to text and email loved ones instead of using their cell phones to make calls, to lighten the load on the over-burdened cell phone network. Even radio reporters at the scene kept getting cut off as their calls were dropped, and this technological fail led to rumors that the cell phone network had been deliberately shut down.

Which was false, but rumors were to be expected, I think. So I thought it was great that by Tuesday, Snopes already had a page up debunking some of the conspiracies and rumors - some of which are still being circulating among people I know and on the radio. Snopes is also continually adding information as they can.

Of course, all of this is in addition to the tip hotlines, press conferences, and other traditional ways to pass along information in situations like this. This is the closest I've ever been to this kind of emergency, and distracting myself with information logistics helped deal with the event itself.

And one last thing - a quote from Mr. Rogers, seen on Twitter:

@petemanning When I was a boy and would see scary things in the news, my mother would say 'Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping.

This quote is contained with PBS' page on helping kids cope with scary situations. From what I heard on the news, there was an abundance of on-the-scene helpers - sharing information is just another way to help.

Tags: , , , ,

Visualizing the Flow of My Library’s Information Online

   August 4th, 2011 Brian Herzog

My library just launched our long-overdue Facebook page. In the course of preparing it, we had a discussion about why we needed a Facebook page, what we wanted to use it for, and how it related to everything else we were doing online.

This led to the realization that no one really understood exactly what all we were doing online. We have a website, Twitter account, blog, email newsletters, flickr account, and now Facebook, but no clear policy as to what gets posted where, when information is duplicated, how things are updated, etc.

To help understand how our various types of information are represented online, I created the diagram below - it's probably not 100% complete, but it does cover most of our bases:

Flowchart of flow of online information

On the left are our different types of information (MacKay is our branch library), and the arrows show how that information flows through different electronic tools. There isn't necessarily a hierarchy at work*, other than perhaps the automatic updates necessarily come after the manual updates. Otherwise, the boxes are laid out just so they all fit on the page.

After discussing this, we uncovered two philosophies at work:

  1. use the different end tools - website, Facebook, Twitter - for unique content, so as not to duplicate things and essentially "spam" our patrons that use more than one service (for example, you can see above that no event information is posted to Facebook)
  2. publish all of our content almost equally through all of our channels, so we're sure to reach all our patrons regardless of which tool they choose to use

I don't think they are mutually-exclusive, but it does take a lot of work and forethought to do it well. I also think that more of what we do could be automated, as cutting down on the manual postings would save staff time.

Do other libraries have similar online information relationships? I imagine things range from very structured to a free-for-all to orphan accounts galore, but I'm curious to hear what other libraries are doing, to get ideas on how to do it better at my library.


*Something to note on the diagram is our "secret" Twitter account. We have a primary Twitter account we encourage patrons to follow and we use for regular tweets. The secret account is one we use only to post messages directly to our homepage. The reason for two, and why I don't really want anyone following to the homepage updater one, is that clearing the message off the homepage requires sending a blank tweet - it's not the end of the world if anyone follows it, but the blank tweets do look odd. Besides, everything posted to it gets posted through our primary account anyway.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

An Anecdotal Experiment With Privacy

   March 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

For the last few years at my library, our public computers all looked the same - Windows XP with a custom wallpaper displaying instructions on how to print. Our setup looked like this:

Wallpaper with printing instructions

A month or so ago, we upgraded to Windows 7, and thought we'd also change the wallpaper.

Our goal in this was to improve patron privacy. The timer software we use is Time Limit Manager (TLM), by Fortress Grand (the little "Time Remaining" clock at the top of the screen above). I like this software because it is very customer service oriented, and patrons don't need to log in with a barcode to start their session - they can just sit down, click "I Agree" to our policies, and go. The timer is basically a courtesy reminder, and for the most part we can get away with using the honor system (TLM does offer additional features for when push comes to shove).

But the main problem we were seeing wasn't that people wouldn't leave the computer - it was that patrons weren't ending their session when they left the computer. This set up the scenario where a second patron could come along and just continuing using the session of the previous patron.

This never caused a real problem in my library, but the potential was there, so we thought the upgrade would be a good time to address it.

With the Windows 7 rollout, we designed new wallpaper, hoping to prompt people end their session when they were finished with the computer. The new wallpaper looks like this:

Wallpaper with privacy reminder

The result? Absolutely no change whatsoever.

I didn't do a scientific survey, but just from the number of times staff has to end the session at an abandoned computer, the privacy reminder didn't seem to affect anyone at all.

I can't believe people aren't seeing this message, so it's tough not to conclude that, at least in my library, most patrons don't care much about their privacy.

So, I wanted to ask the question here - what do other libraries do to get patrons to end their session?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Ich bin ein Bibliotecario

   November 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Babel Fish from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the GalaxyLanguage is fascinating to me. I'm particularly interested in the idea that our brains are shaped by the language we use to interpret our environments and communicate - and therefore, people of different cultures do perceive the world differently.

So, apropos of absolutely nothing, here are the translations for a few library-related words, according to the Babel Fish translator.

English library librarian book reading information reference
Dutch bibliotheek bibliothecaris boek lezing informatie verwijzing
French bibliothèque bibliothécaire livre lecture l'information référence
German Bibliothek Bibliothekar Buch Messwert Informationen Hinweis
Greek βιβλιοθήκη βιβλιοθηκάριος βιβλίο ανάγνωση πληροφορίες αναφορά
Italian biblioteca bibliotecario libro lettura informazioni riferimento
Portuguese biblioteca bibliotecário livro leitura informação referência
Russian архив библиотекарь книга чтение информация справка
Spanish biblioteca bibliotecario libro lectura información referencia

Something else neat is that other language can be clever sources of product names - who among us wouldn't buy into a chat reference product called "Referencia?" But my favorite is the word for librarian - "bibliotecario" - I think I might change my business cards.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Government 2.0

   February 3rd, 2009 Brian Herzog

obama on iphoneBefore and since the Obama Administration moved into the White House, there's been much talk about how Obama was using technology, really using it properly, to get things done.

These ranged from his change.gov and recovery.gov websites to the Blackberry battle to tech problems in the White House to Obama's Technology Agenda to the newly revamped White House website and blog.

I subscribed to the White House blog's rss feed on 1/20. In addition to reading the posts, I also paid attention to how many other subscribers there were. At the end of the first week, there were about 800 subscribers in Bloglines, and about 3,000 in Google Reader. As of 2/2, it's up to 1,100+ Bloglines and 16,000+ Google Reader.

This is out of a country of 300 million people - I'm surprised it's so low*.

I think it's great that the government is putting effort into reaching people in new ways, so people can get the information the way they want to be reached. But at what point does it become worth it? These numbers don't take into account people that use other rss readers or actually visit the website, but they do seem low.

Regardless, leading by example is a good thing - if the White House is taking bloggery seriously, then perhaps other parts of the government will also be making information available quicker and easier via technology. The Library of Congress blog predates Obama (191 Blogline/241 Google Reader subscribers), and it has a flickr stream too (~90/226 subscribers). Also, iLibrarian recently pointed to a recap of the Best Government Uses of Web Technology, and that's interesting reading.

These web 2.0 communication channels are now an integrated fact of life for many people, so it makes me feel better that our government is deliberately addressing it instead of trying to ignore it.


*My library's blog isn't much better - out a of a town of about 32,000, we've got 3 Bloglines and 4 Google Reader subscribers (we average over 700 page visits a month).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,