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

Reference Question of the Week – 7/26/15

   August 1st, 2015 Brian Herzog

monkey phonicsI think I've already done a question like this one before, but I don't mind repeating it just because this tactic delights me.

A patron called about an hour before closing on a Friday afternoon. He said,

I want to know if you have a book on the steps used in the phonics method of teaching someone how to read. I'm writing an article about how to teach writing and want to use an analogy involving the steps for teaching reading, but I want to make sure I'm using the phonics steps correctly.

I don't know anything about the phonics method for teaching reading, but the question seemed straightforward enough. I told him it'd take me a bit of time to research it and find a book with the steps, and I took down his email address to send him the answer.

I did a few different "phonics" searches in our catalog, but couldn't find a book in our library that listed the steps. However, other libraries had promising titles - namely Phonics for the new reader : step-by-step and Get back to phonics : a step by step approach : how to improve your reading skills.

Normally I'd call the the libraries that had the books, ask them to check the table of contents for the information, and then either fax or scan and email the relevant pages to me. However, since this was at the end of the day and I was pressed for time, I tried the tactic of using Amazon's Look Inside feature to read the table of contents right from my desk.

And in this case, it paid off. Instead of sending the patron the link and trying to explain how to use Look Inside and hoping he gets it, I did the extra work of:

  • open Look Inside and view as much of the first page as I could
  • hit the Print Screen key to take a screenshot
  • paste the screenshot into Paint
  • crop to just the words I wanted
  • copy/paste that cropped image into Powerpoint
  • repeat for the rest of the relevant sections of the Table of Contents
  • once everything is pasted into Powerpoint, print using CutePDF to create a PDF version of just those sections of the Table of Contents [pdf]

That's definitely a quick and dirty way to accomplish this, and probably not the best way, but it worked for me based on the software we have on our desk computers.

But since I don't know anything about these steps, I thought I'd double-check by finding some other resources too. A quick web search turned up two websites, one that I couldn't verify the expertise of, and then a Word document from the National Right to Read Foundation [doc] (which I would tend to trust).

All three were different, but I hoped between them the patron would get what he needed. I sent all of this to the patron, thinking that the PDF would be the best resource. Within a few minutes he replied,

Thank you, Brian. Very quick work. The Word doc was just what I needed. Appreciate it.

So, go figure. I'm glad it was helpful for his article - that's definitely the important thing.

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History In Job Titles

   July 22nd, 2015 Brian Herzog

I was looking at some old Town of Chelmsford annual reports recently, to research the opening of one of the High School buildings in town. Just by chance, I came across a page that stood out to me (for obvious reasons):

1917 job titles

Chelmsford was a much more agricultural community in 1917, so it makes sense that moths could be a big deal, and that the town would have someone inspecting slaughterhouses. But they still made me laugh, and double-check if these positions are still on the Town payroll (they didn't seem to be). History is fun.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/12/15

   July 18th, 2015 Brian Herzog

the spindle yearbook from 1951Here's a question I may not have been able to answer successfully a few years ago - actually, luck had a lot to do with this success, because even for my community the answer would still be mixed.

A patron emailed in to ask,

Do you know who would have Lowell High School yearbooks available?

Lowell is the city next door to the town in which I work. We have a print collection of Chelmsford High School yearbooks, so my first thought (that is, my first hope) was that the Lowell Library would have the same for their high school*.

Unfortunately, when I called over, the librarian there said they do not have a yearbook collection. She suggested the Lowell Historical Society, which was a good idea. I looked up their number online, but unfortunately they weren't open right then.

However, their website did list their research collections, which didn't seem to include the yearbooks. But for whatever reason, this made me think I should search online for the yearbooks, to see if any other groups might have them.

A search for "lowell high school yearbooks" lead me to a website that did indeed have them - or at least, they were a nicer portal, with some history, to the Internet Archive's collection of them.

So that was pretty happy - astounding, in fact, and it looks like only online since 2012. I emailed the information to the patron and never heard back, which I took to mean he's still poring over the online versions. Great.

And as I said, if he had been after Chelmsford High yearbooks, my answer would have been different - we have easy access to the print copies in the library, but there is no online collection (that I know of). So, this might finally prompt me to get OCI or the Boston Public Library to scan them for us. Yay for the free digitization services that can put these wonderful resources online. But oh, having enough time during the workday to actually do my job would be such a luxury.


*I'm a firm believer that public libraries should all have complete collections of the local high school yearbooks, but this is much easier said than done. The CHS yearbook advisor and I have a good working relationship, and it is still unnecessarily difficult to make this happen. The only thing more difficult is a non-student trying to get access to the school's collection of yearbooks.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/5/15

   July 11th, 2015 Brian Herzog

pinesapThis was actually a reference question I asked myself, but it's sort of summery so maybe relevant to other people - and, hopefully, helpful.

I was outside playing one day a few weeks ago and ended up with pine sap on my favorite pair of shorts. That's the worst because I don't like going shopping, and I thought that sap meant pretty much the end of clothes.

I was sad, so I put them aside in the hopes that the sap would just evaporate naturally. I came across them last week, and was able to determine that sap doesn't naturally evaporate out of shorts.

Since no laundry experts were around to ask, it occurred to me search online for "remove sap from clothes" to see if the internet had any ideas. I figured they did, but also figured it involved vinegar - which seems like the magical cure for almost anything, but is too bad because I can't stand the smell of vinegar.

So, with the optimism appropriate to any new trip on the internet, I started clicking links.

There was no shortage of tips and old school remedies, as you might suspect. The consensus seemed to be rubbing (or soaking) the spot of sap in anything from laundry detergent to cooking oil to WD-40 (surprisingly, vinegar was not mentioned).

Most of the options were either things I didn't have, like nail polish, or didn't actually trust, like peanut butter. But one that kept coming up - hand sanitizer - sounded interesting.

I don't have any at home (because, you know, super-bacteria), but it seems to be everywhere else so it was worth a try. I was especially swayed by this guy's video:

My shorts are cotton, but if it works so magically on his, why not mine, right?

And holy cow, it worked! Mine took three applications - my guess is because it was a big blob that had soaked through the cotton (and I had already washed and dried them) - but it worked. In just a couple minutes, it was as if the sap was never there. I don't know where it went, but it went away.

Besides the magic, it must be the alcohol in the hand sanitizer breaking down the sap, but I couldn't be happier to be able to wear my favorite shorts again stain-free.

Yay for internet research.

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Cross-Branding the Library Symbol

   July 7th, 2015 Brian Herzog

My pre-library background is in marketing, so branding and logos and things are never far from my mind. Over the July 4th weekend, I took the opportunity to throw together some library versions of famous logos (that is, I was too lazy to get off the couch one day so this was a way to entertain myself).

Everyone knows the traditional library symbol...


Here's one to get us attention during the comic book movies trend...


And one to appeal to athletes...


The straight-backed posture above seemed too static, so here's the same thing with some forward energy (or the reader just to a good part in Fifty Shades of Grey...


And of course one for coffee drinkers...


And again for coffee drinkers who like a creepy face...


I still like my "I Library" idea too, but it never really took off. Of course, my favorite cross-branding is the one in my site's header image, but that Superman one turned out pretty well too.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/21/15

   June 27th, 2015 Brian Herzog

there was a little girl coverThis question actually happened in February - I had forgotten about it, but I think it's still interesting:

A patron called in and asked for the large print edition of There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me. We didn't have that in our catalog, so I checked Amazon, which said it was being published on March 11th (over a month away at the time).

I told him we'd be happy to order the large print edition for him, but then he asked something surprising:

Patron: I've noticed that different publishers have different size large print, and sometimes it's not that much larger than regular print. If it's not going to be much bigger than regular print, then I don't want to wait a whole moth for it. Can you see how big the type will be in that book?

Uhh... that is something I've never been asked before. I have noticed over the years that some "large print" books definitely have larger type than others, but never thought much about it. And certainly have never considered trying to find out how large the print will be before a book is published.

However, being Amazon, they do have the "Look Inside" feature - unfortunately in this case, a message said, "This view is of the Kindle book. A preview of the print book (Hardcover edition) is currently not available."

Well, since size varies by publisher, I offered to go to our large print room and grab some other books also published by Thorndike Press Large Print, and try to describe to him how large the type was. Or pull those as well as a book he'd read recently and relate the size of the two, but the patron felt it wasn't worth it. He said to put him on hold for the regular print copy, and when it came in if it was too small, he'd call back.

He never did, at least not to me, so hopefully he enjoyed the regular print edition comfortably.

After we hung up, I looked a little further and did find some large print publishing standards listed conveniently on Wikipedia:

The National Association for Visually Handicapped (NAVH) provides the NAVH Seal of Approval to commercial publishers for books that meet their large print standards.[3] (Lighthouse International acquired NAVH in 2010).[4]

The standards[5] call for:

  • Maximum limits on size, thickness, and weight
  • Minimum limits on margins
  • Type size at least 16 point, preferably 18 point
  • Sans serif or modified serif font recommended
  • Adequate letter and word spacing
  • Flexible binding recommended to allow open book to lie flat

It's remarkable that I've worked in libraries for almost 15 years now and don't think I've ever seen these standards. I suppose I always knew there must be some, but never went beyond that. And I know the publishers want a balance between the comfort of low-vision readers and keeping printing costs low, but even 16pt seems a little small to me.

However, I suppose this is the single greatest advantage of ereaders - sure they can hold a lot of books, but being able to adjust the type size depending on your reading conditions is something print book just can't do. Large Print audiobooks, though, are a different story.

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