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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/9/12

   September 16th, 2012 Brian Herzog

This seemed like it was going to be an easy question, but it ended up taking me almost an entire day before I found the answer. A patron asked,

Can you tell me where Lowell, MA, ranks among other Massachusetts towns and cities in teen pregnancy rates?

That seemed straight-forward, but I was pretty sure none of our ready reference books would include that. National statistics books probably wouldn't do in-state rankings, and the state books (at least those we have) don't do social statistics like this.

So, instead of spending too much time myself looking for a resource, I just thought I'd call the Massachusetts Office of Health and Human Services. On their contact page, I narrowed it down to their Office of Children, Youth and Family Services, Department of Children and Families - but when I explained what I was after, they referred me to the local Lowell office. The person who answered the phone didn't know, so she transferred me to the manager, whose voicemail said she was on vacation this week.

This might be the right place, but I didn't want to wait that long, so I tried again with the Executive Office of Health and Human Services... who transferred me to the statistics office... who transferred me to the budget office.

I think you're getting the picture of how my day went. By the way, the last transfer (to the budget office) was because I had kept web searching while I was waiting on hold, and had found a line item in the Massachusetts budget specifically for Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Services, referencing "funding shall be expended on those communities with the highest teen birth rates according to an annual statistical estimate." When I mentioned this statistical estimate to the person at the statistics office, and mentioned I saw it in the budget, it seemed like she used that as an out to pass the buck to someone else. I was getting frustrated.

I tried again, this time with the Department of Public Health. Again, the first person I talked to didn't know, but gave me the number of someone who he thought might be able to help. But the difference this time is that this new referral was to the Chief Demographer and Epidemiologist in the Center for Health and Information, Statistics, and Evaluation. Impressive title, and totally relevant to my question, so I called him - he was out.

I called back a few hours later and spoke to him, and he couldn't have been nicer or more helpful. When I described what I was looking for, he knew exactly where the data was, looked up the report and gave me the info. He also gave me the report's web address [pdf], so I could print the cover page and data table for the patron's bibliography.

Which I did, and brought it to the patron - about five hours after she initially asked me for it. She was working on a major class paper and was still in the library, and even though the latest data was from 2009, she was delighted I was able to find it.

For the record, Lowell ranked #10 in teen pregnancy rates (and is #4 in overall population) - here's a portion of the table:

MA teen birth rates table

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Amazing Library Book Inscription to Former Librarian

   October 27th, 2011 Brian Herzog

The Portable Jack KerouacI think this is incredible, and apparently some of my coworkers knew about it and never told me.

I work in the library in Chelmsford, MA, which is next door to the city of Lowell, the birthplace of Jack Kerouac. As a result, we try to maintain a good Jack Kerouac collection, but one specific book in our collection is particularly special.

The book is The Portable Jack Kerouac, which was donated to the library in 1995 by the grandson of long-time Chelmsford Librarian, Edith Pickles. Just this week a coworker showed me this book - the story Edith's grandson recounts in the inscription is just stunning:

Kerouac Inscription
Kerouac Inscription

This is now my favorite story of censorship - and why it is very much the role of libraries to protect the public's right to unrestricted and unmonitored access to information. I am proud to follow in Edith Pickles' footsteps.

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Problems with Flickr’s Map

   May 15th, 2007 Brian Herzog

flickr screenshotWhen I upload photos to flickr, I always try to place them on the map, if appropriate. When I started a flickr account for my library, I noticed that there was a problem with the map.

I work at the library in the town of Chelmsford, MA, which is situated right next door to the city of Lowell, MA. Lowell is much bigger, and if it had a "metro area," Chelmsford would be a part of it.

However, after having lived her for a couple years, I know that the two communities are very different. High school rivalries, traffic problems - heck, I even hear Chelmsford library patrons complain about Lowell patrons and the Lowell library. Community loyalty here runs as deep as the Merrimack River.

So, I was sort of startled to see flickr claiming that all the photos mapped for the library's account (which were taken in Chelmsford) were listed by flickr as "Taken in Lowell, Massachusetts" (as circled in red in the photo above).

When placing photos on their map, flickr encourages you to place it as locally as possible. Because of that, I was surprised to see their local locations that inaccurate. I wrote to flickr, explaining the situation and asking if they could be more accurate with their map. Here's the response I received (from two different flickr support techs on the same day, two days after I sent my message):

Hi Brian,

We are aware that there are some locations that might be reflecting an adjacent city or town, or an incorrect place name. In some cases a place name might reflect a town name that is no longer in use. Flickr uses map data from Yahoo! which in turn is provided by third party providers (most online maps you see are sourced this way).

We are developing methods to allow you, the knowledgeable member, to be able to contribute to local adjustments. We don't have a particular date in mind when we would be able to offer this, but please understand it is something we hope to provide in the very near future.


Not exactly the "hi, we're flickr, and we can do anything" kind of response I was hoping for, but I do understand the issue. I guess I just have to hold on until this feature becomes available, and explain to our patrons why it looks like the Chelmsford Library is actually in the city next door.
chelmsford, chelmsford library, chelmsford ma, flickr, flickr map, lowell, lowell ma, ma, map, mapping, maps, mass, massachusetts

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