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




Uses of Google

   January 29th, 2009 Brian Herzog

It's funny when the interweb incidentally produces something this accurate:

Uses of Google

Via LibraryStuff.net



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Reference Question of the Week – 12/7/08

   December 13th, 2008 Brian Herzog

I Assure You We're Open sheet sign from Clerks movieDue to the ice storm that came through the area on Friday, there is a tie for most popular reference question today:

Hey, are you open?

and

Do you have internet?

My answer all day has been, "we're open, we have lights and heat, and everything is working normally except our internet connection is down*."

Needless to say, it's been a quiet day: not unbusy, just quiet - most of our work tables and all of our comfortable chairs are filled with people researching and reading, which all but goes unnoticed on a regular day. And because lots of area residents are still without power, there's even a couple people napping in the corners, just happy to be someplace warm.

The next most popular reference question has been:

Do you know how I can keep my pipes from freezing?

Most area residents lost power on Friday, 12/12/08, and although many homes are now back on, there are still plenty who are looking at two or three days without power. Temperatures are predicted to be in the teens and twenties for the next few days, so freezing pipes is a major concern.

The best advice came from Home Maintenance for Dummies. Before loaning it out to the first person who asked this morning, I photocopied the necessary page to keep a "reference copy" at the desk. It recommends:

A faucet left dripping at the fixture farthest from the main water inlet allows just enough warm water movement within the pies to reduce the chance of a freeze...

Insulating pipes that are above ground (those that are most susceptible to freezing) prevents them from freezing during most moderate-to-medium chills - even when the faucets are off. This includes pips in the subarea or basement and especially any that might be in the attic.

If your kitchen or bathroom sink faucets are prone to freezing, leave the cabinet doors open at night. This allows warm air to circulate in the cabinet and warm the pipes.

The last tip won't help much for a house that is at 39 degrees, but it's good to keep in mind anyway.

Hopefully the power to my house is back on by the time I get home, otherwise I might sleep at the library tonight.


*I'm sure you're asking, "No intertnet? Then how'd you post this?" As a reference librarian, I know the laundromat up the street has great wireless internet.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/16/08

   November 22nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

let me Google that for you imageI'm going to be visiting my family for the week of Thanksgiving, so this will be my last post until I get back. So instead of a regular reference question today, here's a tool people can use when they're asked questions.

It's not just Google, it's let me Google that for you. Of course I would never use this with a patron, but it's "teaching moment" kind of tool, to remind people that Google is good for certain kinds of questions (it's entertaining, but also borders on snarky).

The way it works is this: visit the website and type in the question you were asked - say, What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow? Click the search button, and you get a link to send back to the person who asked you the question, which shows them how they could found the answer themselves.

Just out of curiosity, I thought I'd run a few recent Reference Questions of the Week through it, to see how my answers compared with Google's:

Google will not replace librarians, because librarians help people in was that Google can't. And by the way, there is a similar website, but it has a bad word in the URL. Thanks, Chris.



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Internet Accuracy Tips From CQ Researcher

   August 12th, 2008 Brian Herzog

CQ Researcher logoMy Library subscribes to a lot of periodicals, but the one I always make a point of checking out each month is CQ Researcher. For professional reasons, I know I should keep an eye on current topics in as many of our periodicals and resources as possible, but CQ Researcher is usually interesting beyond professional reasons.

I like the format, too - the entire slim issue is devoted to a single topic. The most recent issue, August 1st, was devoted to Internet Accuracy.

The section I found particular interesting, titled "How to Evaluate Blogs and Online Information Source," can serve a good checklist for anyone doing internet research. I wish I could reproduce the whole thing, but here's me paraphrasing:

  • Look closely at the URL - the domain name can sometimes tell a lot of about the nature of the website
  • Locate the main website - try deleting everything that comes after the domain suffix (the .com or .edu, etc) and see what the rest of the site is like
  • Can a real person be contacted? - if there isn't an "about me" page or way to contact the author, there's reason to be suspicious
  • Are there additional links? - reliable websites usually link to additional resources, or at least other pages within that site
  • Are there misspellings and typos? - lots of grammatical errors can indicate untrustworthiness, because little errors often coincide with big errors
  • How long has the blogger been at it? - reliable bloggers usually indicate how long they've been writing, and as with anything, bloggers get better over time
  • How many topics does the blog cover? - if the blog has too many categories, then this person is certainly not an expert
  • What is the blog's format? - websites that use the default look or theme may indicate that not much effort has been put into the project, whereas a personal brand shows the blogger cares enough to establish an image

I like this list so much that I'm going to co-op it into a post for my Library's blog - and maybe a bookmark.

The rest of the issue is good, too. The major article talks about the reliability and use of websites like Wikipedia, traditional news outlets, blogs, and what turns up in search engines. There are also sections on where people go for answers (58% go to the internet, 45% to friends and family, 13% to the library), where the most well-informed people get their information (with The Daily Show and The Colbert Report out ranking every other source), and a bibliography, position papers on current topics, and more.

All in all, definitely an issue worth reading. Sadly, their website does not allow open and free access, but check for it at your local library.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/13/08

   July 19th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Pizza for TwoI got these two reference questions within an hour of each other - they can be filed under "All Patrons are Local" (or "Yogi Berra sayings").

First, an older couple walked up to the desk and the husband said:

Patron: We're just in town from Florida for a funeral, and don't know our way around. Can you suggest a good pizza place for lunch?

I am a big fan of pizza, so this is a question I can answer with some personal expertise. There are four pizza shops within walking distance of the library, so between the yellow pages and a local map have at the desk for patrons, they were on their way in just a couple minutes.

A little while later, the phone rings:

Different Patron: Hi, I'm one of your local patrons, and am in Florida for vacation. We don't know our way around and don't have a map, but we're looking for this particular pizza place. Can you look it up on the internet and give me directions?

Finding the pizza shop wasn't hard, and me giving her directions from where they were was a bit tricky, but we worked it out.

Before we hung up, I asked out of curiosity why her solution to this problem was to call her library in Massachusetts. She said it was because she had our phone number in her cell phone, and since we had access to the internet (and Google Maps), she felt my answer would be more reliable and safer than asking for directions from a stranger or at a gas station.

I thought that was nice, and something I hadn't though of before. Maybe libraries should encourage patrons to add us to their cell phone contact list, to make it easier for them to call us when they need to know something. Or maybe we should all install pizza ovens.



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Using Firefox On Our Public Computers

   May 8th, 2008 Brian Herzog

firefox logoMy library is in the process of re-doing all of our public computers. One major change we're making is to switch to Firefox for our web browser, instead of the Internet Explorer/Public Web Browser combo we've always used.

The reason we're switching is a simple one - Firefox is just cooler. It lets us have more control over how the browser functions, and lets us offer more tools integrated right into the browser. Better for us, better for patrons.

Here's a list of the customizations we're making:

Add-Ons

  • Public Fox - this is designed to make Firefox a public web browser, as opposed to being used and customized by a single, private person. We're using it to lock down add-ons, preference, about:config, and a few other things, as well as control what file types can be downloaded
  • Menu Editor - also for the control freak in us, this one lets us remove menus from the tool bar (we're getting rid of bookmarks, help and history)
  • Greasemonkey - one of my favorites, this lets us embed custom coding on webpages, such as a link from Amazon to our catalog, and helpful links on our catalog's "no search results" page (more info on those on our Tech Tools page)
  • Add To Search Bar - this fun one lets us easily add our library catalog right to Firefox's search bar. The other searches we chose to include are Google, Yahoo, Amazon, the Internet Movie Database, Answers.com, Wikipedia, and Merriam-Webster
  • IE Tab - For all of those "Best viewed in Internet Explorer" websites, this one lets you toggle back and forth between the Firefox and IE rendering engines, so IE-only pages and scripts will load in Firefox
  • Image Zoom - just like what it sounds, this adds zoom controls to the right-click menu, to make images bigger and smaller. This one is most useful to patrons who get emailed digital photos at 1024 x 768 resolution, which is too big for our screens. This lets them zoom out so they can see all of their grandchild's face at the same time
  • Update 5/30/08: Print Preview - We realized that we had forgotten to put the Print icon on the toolbar, and then that Firefox didn't seem to have a native Print Preview toolbar icon. This Add-On gives us the Print Preview icon

Options Settings

  • Turn off all automatic updates - we use Deep Freeze, so we do our own updates
  • Turn on smooth scrolling
  • Turn on check spelling
  • Set homepage to our Reference start page
  • Always save downloads to My Documents
  • Always show tab bar
  • Turn off all warnings, except when redirecting from secure to an unsecure page
  • Don't remember anything, delete cookies and clear private data when Firefox closes

Other Customizations

  • Disable mailto: links - one repeated tech question from patrons is "I want to send an email but I'm getting some connection wizard." This happens when someone clicks a "mailto" link on a webpage, and Outlook launches as the default email program. Since patrons need to log into their own web email to send messages, making nothing happen when someone click a mailto link is actually an improvement
  • We also took whatever steps we could think of to ensure computer security and patron privacy - this means not keeping any history, and making sure that when Firefox is started, it does not restore from a previous session
  • Update 5/30/08: Add the Print and Print Preview (see Add-Ons above) icons to the toolbar (we chose to use icons only and not text because it used less room)

A lot of these were judgment calls, and there is no single right way to adjust your settings. Also, there're lots of other useful Add-Ons out there too, and more at https://addons.mozilla.org. If you have any suggestions for security or usefulness that we didn't include, please let me know in the comments.

Update 5/15/08: I've had a couple questions about Public Web Browser, so I thought I'd elaborate. It is a great product that works with Internet Explorer (or other browsers, I'm guessing) to lock it down and make IE more applicable for a public library computer. It has always done exactly what it was designed to do, and the librarians who developed it provide wonderful service. Our switch to Firefox has nothing to do with PWB - we just prefer Firefox to IE.

Update 5/30/08: Added an Add-On and toolbar setting to make it easier for patrons to use Print and Print Preview.



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