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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/10/14

   August 16th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Rolling Stone on microfilmA patron came into our branch library and told the staff that she participated in a "Reading Olympics" program at the library as a kid, in 1980 "or sometime when she was in school," and wanted to know if there a photo in the newspaper. She thought she remembered seeing one, of a group shot of all the participants. Our branch doesn't have much for local history resources, so the question was transferred to me at the main library.

We do have newspaper microfilm from those years, but I'm reluctant to start searches like that with such a vague date reference. However, the library has done a great job for decades of keeping scrapbooks of all library-related news clippings, flyers, newsletters, and things like that, so that was where I started. I flipped through the scrapbooks from 1979-1981, but sadly didn't see anything related to a Reading Olympics. Lots of other stuff though, which made me think that the Reading Olympics didn't happen at the public library.

It's possible it was a school or school library program, or with the Scouts or some other group, just not the public library. I called the branch back and gave them the news, and also that if the patron wanted to come in to use the newspaper microfilm I can help get them started.

I felt bad about not finding what they were looking for, but, as often happens with research, I found other interesting things. One was the Winter 1980 library newsletter, with an article about buying a microfilm machine and microfilm collection.

This caught my eye because we're buying a new microfilm machine this year (the second since this one in 1980, but the first I've purchased). Back then, the machine and collection cost $5000; this year the ScanPro 2000 we're getting is about $7000. Also back then, printing cost $0.10; our current price is $0.15. Inflation!

Other interesting articles just on the cover of the newsletter are:

  • the library is advertising for customers for its own print shop
  • the library serves as a carpool center

Two great ways to be a community center. Nice job, 1980 Chelmsford Library!

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Ebooks in General, Ebooks in Specific

   August 13th, 2014 Brian Herzog

library ebooksIn case you missed it, be sure to at least skim the recent Wall Street Journal article comparing Amazon's new subscription ebook service to other options, including libraries. For me, the big take-away was:

Of the Journal's 20 most recent best-selling e-books in fiction and nonfiction, Amazon's Kindle Unlimited has none—no "Fifty Shades of Grey," no "The Fault in Our Stars." Scribd and Oyster each have a paltry three. But the San Francisco library has 15, and my South Carolina library has 11.

That is great. But you know what libraries don't have? Wamesit: Life in Colonial Massachusetts in the area known today as Chelmsford, by Bill "Doc" Roberts.

Here's how I know this: a little while ago, Bill Roberts called (from Texas!) to let us know he wrote a local history book about Chelmsford. Neat. I wasn't sure if he wanted to donate a copy or have us buy one, but local history is local history, and I'm sure we would have worked something out.

However, when I went online to learn more about it, it turns out it's a Kindle-only ebook - so we basically can do nothing with it. I don't know what his connection to Chelmsford is, and it's a novel rather than non-fiction, but still - being locked out of this because of format is annoying.

So, even though the WSJ article (very rightly) shows that libraries are doing okay when it comes to ebooks, the nature of the still-growing environment still has plenty of room for improvement.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/3/14

   August 9th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Westford Farmers MarketA patron called in, wanting to know the hours of a farmers market in a neighboring town. She thought it opened at 2:30pm, and that's what the newspaper said. However, she had driven by the site earlier in the week and a sign said the hours were 3-7pm.

A quick search lead me to their website, which listed the hours as 2:30-6:30. That seemed fairly conclusive to me, but the patron was still troubled. I wish we recorded calls so I could have transcribed this verbatim, but this is my memory of how she digested this information:

Well, I don't know which time is right, or why they're posting all these different times all over creation. I don't always trust newspapers, but I suppose the internet time is probably right. I mean, it's easy to put something on the internet right? I imagine it takes time to repaint a sign, so maybe they changed the time and just haven't repainted their sign yet. So I'll just go there at 2:30 because their website says that. 2:30 is better for my schedule anyhow.

I had no advice to give one way or the other, so I agreed and we hung up. I've never known an open-air market like this to be a stickler for hours of operation, so if her concern was for being able to select items before they were sold out, she should be fine.

And for what it's worth, every other web resource I found listed 2:30 as well. Maybe they'll have their sign repainted for next year.

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Chapter Two on Purple DVDs

   August 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

chapter two DVDA few weeks ago, I mentioned a reference question from a patron who couldn't play a library DVD in her laptop.

The problem seemed to be that it was a purple DVD-R DVD, rather than a regular silvery shiny one, and it wouldn't play in her DVD-RW drive.

I requested the same copy of the disc, so I could experiment and see if it would play for me. The item was Chapter Two, and it was indeed purple.

But more interesting was the note on the back:


Besides the "this disc is copy-protected" icon, the interesting part is the last line:

This disc is expected to play back in DVD video "play only" devices, and may not play back in other DVD devices, including recorders and PC drives.

I don't often read the fine print on DVD containers, but I have not seen this before.

Also, none of this would be surprising if it were the regular silver disc. The fact that it's the purple is what surprises me. After I posted this question, a reader (thanks Dot!) sent me a link explaining why DVD-Rs are purple - which makes it sound like whatever operation made the DVD the library purchased is based out of some guy's garage.

I'm sure that's not the case, and although I have not contacted the production company, my guess is that it's just a small-run video house that doesn't have the large expensive equipment. They probably produce DVDs using DVD-R disc and also put DRM on them to satisfy the studios, and then sell them retail through vendors that are also used by libraries. Probably all perfectly legal, but it's just unusual.

Anyway, since I had a copy of the DVD, I tried playing it in a variety of computers and with a variety of software - and for me, it played in every single case. Windows XP, Windows 7, and Windows 8, using Windows Media Player, VLC, and PowerDVD (obviously, Macs don't exist in my world).

As a result of this testing, it seems that the problem the patron was having is with her laptop. Another reader (thanks Plutia!) suggested it might be possible to change the settings for the laptop's DVD drive so that operates as a READ-ONLY device. I didn't try this, but if the patron continues to have trouble, I will suggest it.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/27/14

   August 2nd, 2014 Brian Herzog

Out of My Mind book coverThis is a question from when my website is down - I only mention that because of the postscript at the end.

I haven't gotten this type of question in awhile, and finding the answer has never come this easily.

A young girl came up to me at the desk asked for "a blue book with fish bowl on cover." She couldn't remember the title except thought it was something like "one at a time." I asked her if she knew the author, and she said it was a blue book with fish bowl on cover. I asked her what the book was about, and she didn't know - she said her teacher was reading it to the class and she liked it.

So, I did a web search for blue book with fish bowl on cover, and the very first image in the results was exactly what she was looking for. Incredible.

I searched our catalog for Out of My Mind, only to find our copy was checked out. I offered to request it for her, but she declined. I hate that.

So the postscript is that this question is from May, apparently when this book (or at least, searches for this book) was more popular. It really was the first search result, and that's what shocked me and made me think it was a post-worthy reference question. I mean, how often does that happen?

While typing up this post though, I had to really look for the cover image in the results, as it had been bumped way down. Maybe I just got lucky, or that library serendipity was strong with me that day. Or maybe Google's search algorithms really are effective in making zeitgeisty things more prominent.

In any case, I could just have easily been asked this question this week, and the process of finding the answer would have been different - which I find interesting.

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San Rafael offers first ever bamboo library cards

   July 30th, 2014 Brian Herzog

I first saw this about a month ago, but just recently remembered how cool it was and wanted to pass it along. Did you hear that the San Rafael Public Library is offering bamboo library cards to patrons?


Now that's awesome. It sounds terribly expensive, but however they can afford it, it's got to be making a big impact with their patrons. The cards look great, and it's wonderful to see a library incorporating a renewable resource like this.

Way to go, San Rafael Public Library!

But of course, I'm never satisfied until I can steal and improve. My library won't be doing this, but if we did, maybe we could use something with a local connection, instead of bamboo. Chelmsford is known for glass and granite, so why not try a library card made out of one of those materials? Impractical? Pah.

Well, maybe. Then it hit me - has any library ever used library cards made out of discarded/recycled books? I don't really know how it would be done - laminated pages or covers, or completely pulped and re-pressed into new cards? It'd be fun if you could still read the text on the page or see the cover artwork. Also neat to put the library logo and barcode on one side, so there would be some uniformity, but otherwise the flipside of the card would be different so each card would be unique.

I like this idea, but haven't looked around to see if anyone has done it, or how it could even be done. One of these days, in my spare time...

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