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


What’s Your Take on Driving-Tests.org?

   December 17th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Here's something I really curious to learn more about: I've seen a lot of talk lately about driving-tests.org.

It's a website that offers free test prep for driver license exams, but what I keep hearing about is their library version. I think that version is the same as the free one, except it has no ads, and can also be branded with your library's logo (and obviously links directly to the exam for your state).

Check out their marketing email, but this banner pretty well sums it up:

driving-tests

It seemed interesting, so I poked around the free Massachusetts tests (mainly to see if I would pass it*). Some of the questions seemed so odd - and so very specific - that I really had no idea if they were actual laws or not.

Now, here's a tangent: one of our historically high-theft items is the MA Registry of Motor Vehicle's Driver's Manual. Anyone used to be able to get these free to study for the test, then they went to $5 and you had to pick them up at an RMV office. But then I couldn't even get them from an office, because they were always out when I went. And of course, if it's hard for us to get, it's also hard for patrons - and when I occasionally did get a copy for the library, it wasn't long before it went missing.

Which is why an online exam prep tool seemed like a good idea. But, not being an expert on MA traffic laws, I thought I'd ask the RMV if they've heard of it and if they considered it useful. I knew contacting the RMV like this was a long shot, but I was shockingly and pleasantly surprised.

Less than 24 hours after sending in my question through the RMV website's general contact form, I received this reply:

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles does not license any online driver education programs, nor do we approve or disapprove of any online training programs. A student could not receive credit towards the mandatory training time by having taken an online program.

A very casual review of this particular web site leads me to believe that the content is not entirely accurate.

Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Wow, that was exactly what I was looking for. And since I had their attention, I did ask another question: how can libraries reliably get a copy of the Driver's Manual each year?

The same person emailed me back saying they didn't have any kind of standing order program, but to just email him our address and he would mail me a copy**. I did, and he did! I'm going to start doing this every year, too, because the Driver's Manual is a perennial request.

Now back to the main story: after our print copy of the Driver's Manual arrived, I decided to take the test again, this time trying to look up each question in the booklet to see if I could find the answer. I could, for all but two of them - and in every case where I did find the answer, it was correct.

I only did this for the MA Permit Practice Test 1, but that was better than I expected. It seems like a number of libraries have already signed on to their library version (here's Alameda (CA) Free Library, and I am really curious to hear about the experience of their patrons - does this website help prepare them for their driver's test? Do patrons benefit from the library version more than the regular free version?

If you have any experience with this tool, please leave a comment - thanks!

 


*I did not, the first time. But I re-took the same test the next day and did much better!

**Note to other MA librarians: I asked if it was okay for me to share his info with other libraries, and he said no problem. So contact me if you'd like his email address.



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Good Example of a Library Blog

   August 14th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Robbins Library blog postI get behind on Twitter very easily, so it was only recently when I was going back reading old tweets that I saw Jenny Arch retweet of the Robbins (Arlington, MA) Library's blog post about Under-the-radar library resources.

I thought that was a great idea for a blog post at my library too, so I am going to shamelessly steal the idea soon.

But then I started reading more of the posts on the Robbins Library blog, and realized just how great a job they do with it. It actually made me feel a little bad about how lax I've become with the Chelmsford Library blog - so I'm going to turn that guilt into inspiration to do a better job.

My goal for our library blog is one post a week, with the topic being something of slightly lasting content. We use Facebook and Twitter for more immediate or interactive content, whereas the blog posts are things that people might find months or years from now and still find useful. Also, blog posts tend to be longer, explaining how to use a database or the rationale behind a new policy. I like these guidelines - I'm just going to make a point of being better at it.

Good job, Robbins Library!



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/16/13

   June 22nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Nuns with gunsI work in Chelmsford, MA, and the Town is in the process of establishing two "cultural districts" in two of our local historical village centers. It's similar to a historical district, but instead focuses on what makes Chelmsford culturally-distinct: art, architecture, programs & events, etc.

The group asked me to help create a map of both districts, labeling all the different locations of interest. I've played a little with custom Google Maps before, and this seemed like the perfect application to try out all the different features.

Creating the maps (check out the current working drafts) was pretty straight-forward. One of the committee members found a great site for custom map icons (which also explained how to make them work), and the text for each point of interest came from a variety of sources.

It was researching each location for a descriptive blurb for the map that produced this week's reference question. I was asked to add St. John The Evangelist Parish church to the North Chelmsford map, so I went to their website looking for something interesting to say about them. What I found was hands-down the most interesting thing I've read in a long time:

The earliest Catholic families living in Chelmsford, Dunstable, Lowell, Tyngsboro and Westford wanted a church of their own. St. Patrick's, Lowell was a five to ten mile walk. The families purchased the Meeting House of the Second Congregational Church of Chelmsford at the corner of Middlesex and Baldwin Streets, Lowell, in 1859. [...]

Men, who toiled in factory, foundry or farm, hurried to the holy work each evening. They struggled to move the building with the aid of horses and log rollers, a few yards at a time, for a distance of two miles along Middlesex Street. "Know Nothing" citizenry, a violent anti-Catholic group, made threats to burn the building and gained court injunctions to stop the building’s movement. The two mile journey was made with at least four men, armed with shotguns, and guarding the Church each night.

Holy smokes, now that is dedication. Researching local history rocks.



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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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MA Open Source Info Session

   October 8th, 2009 Brian Herzog

For librarians in Massachusetts, and anyone interested in the Massachusetts Open Source Project, there will be two information sessions in October.

Dates, Times, Locations:

  • Oct 21st, 10:00 AM, Palmer (MA) Public Library [map]
  • Oct 29th, 10:00 AM, MVLC headquarters in North Andover [map]

The sessions are planned to last about three hours, and cover both the concept of open source in general, and how open source software can be applied to network collaboration amongst libraries in Massachusetts. Staff from MVLC, NOBLE and C/W MARS will give presentations on the progress, plans and goals of the Open Source task force, as well as discuss Evergreen, the OSS ILS they recommend.

Organizers are encouraging as many library staff as possible to attend. But, since they'd like to have an idea of how many people to expect, please RSVP to Laura Spurr (lspurr@mvlc.org).

Hopefully I'll be at the one at MVLC, and it should prove to be interesting.

UPDATE 10/13.09: Check out the MassLNC website for project information. h/t back to j's scratchpad for finding this link.



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