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

Reference Question of the Week – 10/18/15

   October 24th, 2015 Brian Herzog

chelmsford ginger ale signHere's an email reference interaction that took place over the course of a few days this week - it had its ups and downs, but ultimately ended up being surprisingly positive.

Everything started with me getting this email from a patron (slightly edited for privacy):

I am a student at [university nearby] and I am doing my community project on Chelmsford. I was just wondering if you could give me some good information on the history of Chelmsford for my paper. I would appreciate it greatly if you could email me back or call me. Thank you so much!!

My first reaction was that this sounds like a neat project, but such a vague question that I wasn't sure how to answer it. Chelmsford was founded in 1655, and of course people lived here before that too, so it's got a long history.

So, I emailed her back with links to some history resources on the library's website and another history website we maintain. I also said that since it was so broad, to please let me know if she had more specific questions.

The next day I get this:

Thank you so much for all the help. I was just wondering if you could just answer some questions for me so I could include you in my paper?

The questions are
1. What is the most important historic event that happened in chelmsford?
2. What historic importance does chelmsford has to Massachusetts?
3. What is the most well know historic event or aspect of chelmsford?

Again thank you so much for your time I really appreciate it!!

Okay, red flag: this is what I'm always afraid of with homework help. Not, "can you help me with my homework," but instead, "can you answer my exact homework questions for me?" That sucks.

But also, these questions didn't exactly bring laser focus to what she was asking - not to mention that these questions are entirely subjective, since Chelmsford doesn't have a, "and then the UFO crashed here releasing poisonous gas killing all the cats in town" type event.

So after thinking about it a bit, and talking to coworkers (and facing a week full of non-stop meetings), I decided to ask the rest of the Reference staff to compile a list interesting things from Chelmsford's history. Then I could send that back to this patron, and it'll be up to her to both decide which are the most significant, and then to do further research (although honestly, the skeptic in me was fully expecting her next email to be, "oh, can you send me more information on event X?").

Anyway, this turned out to be the the really fun part of this question, and actually is the reason I'm sharing it here. For being a small, quiet town, Chelmsford has had an interesting history (and this is just what we came up with in a few hours of brainstorming):

  • The first European settlers in the area is significant, as is the date of incorporation as a Town in the Massachusetts Colony
  • The town of Chelmsford used to include the areas of Lowell and Westford, but in the mid 1800s these areas became their own distinct municipalities. However, this area is well-known for being significant during the industrial revolution in the Northeast in the early to mid-19th century - many of the structures that housed the people working in the mills were within Chelmsford's limits
  • Many people come in to research the Chelmsford Ginger Ale Company and bottling plant, which has changed hands a few times and is now owned by Coca-Cola. People also research the Chelmsford Foundry, which made products from many of the natural resources found in the area such as iron ore and limestone
  • The granite that formed the columns around Faneuil Hall, as well as other major government and ceremonial structures, was sourced and carved in Chelmsford by Fletcher Granite, a company established in 1880 by Herbert E. Fletcher
  • The Chelmsford Glass works, an "important New England manufacturer of assorted plate glass and assorted glass products" was established on the East bank of the Merrimack river (then Chelmsford) in 1802
  • Christopher Roby created the Chelmsford sword for soldiers during the Civil War, when he transitioned his work force, which previously manufactured scythes and skates, to the manufacture of the weapons during the war between 1861 and 1865, producing 32,200 cavalry sabers
  • In the 1960s the opening of I-495 and the interchange with Route 3 had a huge impact on Chelmsford, doubling the population and changing the character of the town from a small rural location to a much, much larger suburban center
  • In 1911, a train carrying Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, on its way to a performance in Lowell, derailed in Chelmsford. The train was carrying lost of animals, many of which escaped from the wrecked cars and had to be rounded up from the vicinity by cowboys. Since the train could not continue, the entire company, animals and all, walked through the streets of Chelmsford to Lowell to continue with the show
  • There have also been significant weather events in Chelmsford - the of blizzard 1978, floods, and lightning strikes
  • Chelmsford resident Joseph Spalding, who died in 1820 and is buried in Forefather's Cemetery, fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill (indicated by the engraving on his tombstone)
  • The original portion of the Library is the model for Springfield Town Hall on The Simpsons, because one of the show's artists, Lance Wilder, is from Chelmsford

Maybe I am jaded, but I was absolutely not expecting this to be the patron's reply:

Thank you so much for this! All your answers are wonderful and will be extremely helpful for my paper. I appreciate you taking time out of your day for helping me. Thank your colleagues for me too!!

Huh. So that's great - we got to work on a fun question, and it looks like the patron took the information and ran with the research. Yay for a library win-win.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/26/14

   November 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

sadieThis happened over the summer, and got lost in my "to blog" folder.

A male patron called in and asked when was the next time the girl scouts would be meeting in the library. Since lots of groups use our meeting rooms, it isn't too unusual that someone might forget their meeting time. No, this didn't get unusual until I asked him which troop he was looking for...

Patron: Oh, I don't know.

Me: There are a few different Brownie and Girl Scout troops that meet at the library, but all on different nights and times.

Patron: Well, I read about one in the paper planting trees in a park, and I wanted to give them an award for community service award.

It's the Sadie Award, which is named after my dog.

I want to come to their next meeting to give them the award.

And I want it to be a surprise, so please don't tell them I'll be coming.

It is entirely possible I am overly-sensitive to such things, but this started to sound odd. But in any case, I didn't know which troop he was talking about. So, I told him I'd look it up and give him a call back.

I had heard of the tree planting, and checked the Facebook page for the local Open Spaces Stewardship group (which organized the event) because I figured they'd mention the troop number - which they did.

Fine, but now I also want to research this Sadie Award to see what that's all about. And apparently, it's totally a real thing. I even emailed the head of the Open Space Stewards to see if he'd heard of it, and he had - he said this is an local gentleman who created this award, and goes around giving it to anyone he feels has had a positive impact on the community. And Sadie, his dog, comes too and poses for photos.

Huh - I guess that's what I miss for being cynical.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find this Girl Scout troop number on our calendar, so I didn't know when they were next meeting. I called the patron back and let him know what I had found, and gave him the contact information for the Stewards. Since they coordinated with the troop for the tree-planting, they must know who to contact there about meeting times.

The patron thanked me and was excited to be a step closer to awarding the Girl Scouts for their good work. And I was happy to learn about such a nice thing in town that it seems everyone knew about but me.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/25/12

   April 1st, 2012 Brian Herzog

No PornThis isn't exactly a reference question, but it is something reference staff deal with all the time. A patron came up to the desk and said,

That man on the last computer over there is looking at porn.

This seems to go in waves for us, but we probably average three or four porn complaints a month. The way we handle this in my library is to print out our Appropriate Library Behavior policy, and highlight the line that says,

The library is a public building and objectionable or pornographic images that can be seen by others (either intentionally or accidentally, and either on screen on in print) are not permissible.

I then give it to the patron in question, while at the same time saying something like, "another patron complained about something they saw on your screen. Since this is a public building, you must make sure that anything on your screen is appropriate for all ages."

At least, this is how we handle first-time offenders - we don't accuse them of anything, we don't kick them out, we just make it clear that anything they do must be clean enough for kids and the general public. We approach it this way because porn isn't illegal, but very subjective, and just not something we can allow at the library.

But it got me thinking: there are other things the library can't accommodate, for one reason or another: color photocopying, notary service, etc. In these cases, we have little handouts at the reference desk that list other locations in town that can accommodate those needs.

So, I thought, why don't we also make a handout for the porn people, listing other places in the area that cater to Adult Services? Here's what I came up with:

Adult Services bookmark

From now on, whenever a patron complains about someone looking at porn, in addition to giving them a copy of the official library policy, I'm also going to give them one of these handouts - that way, we're maintaining our yes-based policy and fulfilling a core library function by referring them to the most appropriate resource.

It's formatted to print three per page - feel free to download and edit one for your library [ppt], or check out the PDF version.

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Library as Selling Point

   March 10th, 2009 Brian Herzog

new england real estate teamI use a couple Google Alerts to try to keep on top of websites that mentioned the Chelmsford Library or just Chelmsford, MA in general.

I set these up in the hopes of connecting to people in the community, or people talking about Chelmsford. I thought if someone mentioned the town, a local event, or the library on their blog or website, I might be able to comment and contribute on behalf of the library (but it's also an interesting way to find out what's happening in town - example).

A recent alert led me to the website of the New England Real Estate Team where I saw, big as day right on the top of their website, a photo of the library. I was kind of surprised at first, but then I was happy that a realtor is using the library as a selling point for the town. It certainly is, and it's also a nice looking building.

I think this is great, and I wonder if it would be worth it to encourage other local businesses to use the library's image to promote their services or Chelmsford. It certainly wouldn't make sense for every business, but it's nice to know that at least one feels we're worth showing off.

Now they just need to link to our website, in addition to the local schools.

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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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Reference Question of the Week – 5/18/08

   May 24th, 2008 Brian Herzog

UHF logoA patron called in and asked for a listing of all the public access television stations in Massachusetts. She said she had an idea for a show, and wanted to see about getting it on the air.

In our reference collection, we have the Directory of Massachusetts Broadcasters, from the Massachusetts Broadcasters Association, but it didn't seem to list public access stations. I called them and spoke with someone who checked with their assistant director. The word was that they do not deal with public access, and they suggested calling a local station and asking if they had a directory.

We do have a local cable station in town, Chelmsford Telemedia, but they patron said she had tried calling them but couldn't get through. We've got a pretty good relationship with them since they film lots of programs at the library, but when I called everyone was out of the office, too - those are four hard working guys.

So, continuing on, I tried the Gale Directory of Publications and Broadcast Media, which is also in our reference collection. This looked like it had what the patron wanted, but also listed a lot besides public access stations and seemed difficult to sift through.

Next I tried the FCC and Massachusetts State government websites, thinking they might provide a list, but couldn't find a simple list. Then it was onto the general internet, using searches like "list of public access stations" and "public access television massachusetts," and found:

All of these listed more or less the same stations. I called the patron back to let her know what I found, and she was happy to hear about the online lists. I sent her all the urls in an email, and also said that if she comes to the library we can help her look through the Gale directory.

I never heard back, so I take that as a good sign - the online lists got her off and running on her project, and she was just too busy to reply (whereas I usually hear back right away if the information is not helpful).

I still feel like there should be an official government source for this type of listing, but I still have yet to find it through any official channels.

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