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




Reference Question of the Week – 6/28/09

   July 4th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Chelmsfords mapHere's an appropriate reference question for the Independence Day weekend:

One quirk about living in New England is that many communities got their names from olde England. As such, about once a month my Chelmsford Library is contacted by someone who mistakes us for the library in Chelmsford, Essex, UK*.

To wit:

To: askus /at/ mvlc.org
Sent: Friday, June 26, 2009 6:52 AM
Subject: Thanks!

On Tuesday I visited Chelmsford with the aim of exploring the surrounding countryside and history. Unfortunately there was no easily found visitor center, or indeed a map with a "you are here" spot on it.

Fortunately I found the public library, and given some wonderful suggestions and a town map. I promptly forgot the name of the young lady working at the help desk who provided all this information, but please thank her very much and possibly consider a supplementary income for her as a town ambassador?

I had one of the nicest afternoons of English countryside I have ever experienced and it would have not happened without her enthusiasm and knowledge.

Once again, thanks a million. I more future visitors to your town have a great day like I did. Cheers!

A very nice message, but the "English countryside" phrase indicated he contacted the wrong Chelmsford Library.

Whenever this happens, I reply to the person saying that while we're always happy to help however we can, they're probably better off contacting the other Chelmsford Library. I also included a note encouraging him to forward his message to them, because feedback like this is important to libraries.

Shortly thereafter, I got this message back:

To: askus /at/ mvlc.org
Sent: Friday, June 26, 2009 11:17 AM
Subject: RE: Thanks!

Ah! You librarians are a special breed. Thanks for your googling, forgive my ignorance and have a wonderful day. To think that us Antipodeans love to poke fun at a perceived American lack of geographical knowledge. And I email the wrong continent. If you're ever in London Brian, have lunch on me.

It's nice that after 200+ years, we in the colonies are getting the recognition we deserve.

But best of all, he included a link to the restaurant he owns in London. I removed it here for privacy reasons, but that's definitely more than enough incentive to hop across the pond.

The rewards of being a librarian are boundless. I'm telling you, fortune and glory.

 


*We even once got an email from someone in Mackay, Queensland, Australia, because our branch is named the Anna C. MacKay Library.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/22/09

   March 28th, 2009 Brian Herzog

A patron called in and said:

I was coming back to Chelmsford from Boston, and on the highway I saw a sign that said "Fish Brook." I didn't know there was a Fish Brook in Chelmsford; do you have a list of all the brooks in town?

The only thing I could think of that would have the names of brooks on it was a map of town. I pulled out two that we have in Ready Reference and started reading to her all the names of the brooks, streams and rivers. This was a problem for two reasons:

  1. When I read a name the patron was unfamiliar with, she insisted I describe where in town the brook started and ended. It turns out that this is very difficult to do, and proves that a picture really is worth a thousand words (or at least a good five minutes)
  2. Some of the streams had different names on the different maps. This didn't seem too unusual to me for New England, but the patron would not accept it - she wanted only the official names

I told her I'd find out what the official names were and I'd call her back. But after I thought about it for a few minutes, I realized I had no idea how the official names were decided. I'm sure the names originally came from the early settlers and later residents, but if something had more than one name (or more than one spelling), I thought there would have to be a single official name for everything (for example, there is a pond in town called both Heart Pond [because it is shaped like a heart] and Hart Pond [because the Hart family owned it long ago]).

I emailed a member of the Town's Conservation Commission, thinking they would know all about the natural features of town, and the process by which a name becomes official. The response was prompt, but a little surprising:

...It is pretty much rule of thumb that the USGS map will have the most accurate information. I would guess that the names were created by the original settlers and referenced on the very first maps of the town...

...from my experience streams, ponds and lakes are often named unofficially by local residents through common usage over the years. And those names may or may not end up on a map. Rivers may also be named in a similar way but since they cross municipal boundaries the names more than likely come from the state level. However, locally the town officials may officially name a body of water. For example the Board of Selectman renamed Chrystal Lake, Freeman Lake in honor of one of our former State Representatives, Bruce Freeman back in the '70's I believe...

The email had the USGS map of Chelmsford attached, which I emailed to the patron. I didn't hear back, so hope that means she got her answer - but none of the maps I used showed a "Fish Brook" in Chelmsford. In fact, they didn't show water of any kind where she described seeing the sign.

And I guess that email answers my question - I just thought there would be more paperwork involved. It looks like the only time there's any kind of official name is when local politicians want to make history by changing the historical name to honor someone.

Otherwise, what something is called is just what it's always been called - even if that is more than one thing (incidentally, Freeman Lake is also known as Newfield Pond).



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MA’s 2008 Statewide Ballot Question 1

   September 30th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Information for Voters booklet coverThis post ended up being much longer than I expected, so I added subheads in bold. I ask librarians to read and comment on the first part, and the rest of the post is background information.

When Does A Library Become Biased?
Last week on my library's blog, I posted information about the three questions on Massachusetts' statewide ballot in November. One of them, Question 1, calls for doing away with personal income tax in Massachusetts.

I feel the duty of libraries is to present unbiased, timely and reliable information. However, Question 1 potentially has a huge impact on Massachusetts libraries, and I'm really torn on where to draw the line on this one.

In the post, I include summaries of each question, and what a Yes or No vote would mean. However, for Question 1, we also decided to include a link to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners' stance. We did this because, since so many library services are funded by the state, if this initiative passes, library services may revert to the way things were in 1889 - yes, 1889 (read the MBLC stance to find out why).

It doesn't feel like biased information, because it is timely and from a reliable source. However, since there is such a self-interest involved, it feels kind of unseemly. Does including the link to MBLC overstep the library's role? Are libraries allowed to present the case for their own existence?

Question 1, and Why I Don't Like It
First, I have to say a few things:

  1. A similar issue was narrowly defeated in 2002
  2. New Hampshire doesn't have income tax, or sales tax, and they seem to do fine
  3. It appears my job could very well be on the line because of this initiative

In a broad sense, I can agree with parts of the initiative - Massachusetts' state government does seemed to be wasteful, and I do feel over-taxed. But this initiative seems, I don't know, kind of myopic and not realistic.

In the Information for Voters booklet [pdf] from the MA Elections Division, Carla Howell, Chair of The Committee For Small Government lists points in support of doing away with income tax:

  • Your "Yes" vote will create hundreds of thousands of new Massachusetts jobs
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT raise your property taxes NOR any other taxes
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT cut, NOR require cuts, of any essential government services

I haven't completly researched this issue, but I see no facts or logical basis that support the first point, and the last two seem mutually-exclusive. By taking away a major source of revenue and not replacing it, they are essentially forcing the government to cut services, many of which will be essential services.

The actual text [pdf] of the question itself also seems, I don't know, less-than-professional. The biggest goal seems to be to label Massachusetts state government as "Big Government," and repeat that phrase as many times in the question as possible, as if just by establishing that label they are assured victory.

Question 1's Impact on Patrons and Libraries
And this issue seems especially poorly-timed, too. In times of economic troubles, the idea of not having to pay income tax certainly appeals to a base sense of self-preservation. But it is precisely in times of economic troubles that the use of libraries increases.

It seems to me that, especially in times of trouble, a community is better served by comprehensive services provided by a stable government, rather than by self-interest.



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Weird Massachusetts Is Here

   May 15th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Weird MassachusettsI know I've mentioned this before, but it's still fun: the authors of Weird Massachusetts found some photos I uploaded to flickr and asked if they could include them in the book.

I bring this up again because my complimentary copy of the book arrived - complete with my name in the photo credits. I suppose me being excited about this shows just how uncool I really am, but come on, it's neat.

This type of social networking is one of the great things about using Web 2.0 tools. But also, it illustrates the reason to share what you upload via a Creative Commons license, instead of the default All Rights Reserved (when possible, of course).

Another funny thing about this: during my ego-search of the photo credits page, I noticed two other library people listed (congratulations guys). I wonder if this is because librarians use tools like flickr more than regular people, or if we're more just inclined to share because of our profession.

Oh, and if you live in Massachusetts, this book is worth looking at. I've been here about three years, and at least half of the book was completely new to me. I'm looking forward to exploring some of these weird places this summer.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/23/08

   March 29th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Seal of the Commonwealth of MassachusettsWorking with the public has good and bad aspects. Some of the best times I've had with patrons is when they take time out of their information seeking to just be a normal person. This is one of those times.

An obviously distressed woman approaches me at the desk. She says her son is a special-needs student at a school in a nearby community (she didn't feel comfortable going to her hometown library with this), but she doesn't feel like he's getting the attention he requires. She has been going around and around with various school administrators, but they haven't been cooperating with her efforts to find out just what is being provided for her son on a daily basis.

Someone told her that Chapter 766 of the State Laws addressed the public school system paying to send a special-needs kid to a private school, and she wanted me to help her find the actual text of this law.

Alright, that's pretty straight-forward.

The General Laws of Massachusetts are online, so I went to this on the desk computer. We tried searching for "chapter 766," but nothing came up. Then we tried a keyword search for "special education," and that lead us to Chapter 71b - Children with Special Needs.

After a quick skim of the table of contents, the patron felt that what she needed must be here. She jotted down the URL and went to one of the public computers to continue her search for the chapter section that addresses private special education.

About a half an hour later, I stopped by her computer to see how she was doing. She was smiling as she read, but when I asked her if she was finding what she needed, she looked at me as if I had just caught her with her hand in the cookie jar.

Apparently, she sat down at the computer and typed in the address for the laws search, but instead of searching for "special education," started searching for other things - like "blasphemy," "exhibition" and others - just to see what funny laws Massachusetts had on the books.

And it has many. She and I clicked through and read quite a few, and a had a good time speculating what the origins of the laws were, the seemingly arbitrary penalties, and what kind of news it would make if they were enforced today. Our favorites were all under Chapter 272 - Crimes against Chastity, Morality, Decency and Good Order, and here are some highlights:

It was fun to just spontaneously enjoy something with a patron, rather than seeing her as someone to help and move on. And she seemed to really enjoy the diversion, too, as what she came in to research was fairly serious. So, yay for a good library experience.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/08

   February 9th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Massachusetts Center for the Book logoThis week's question is one heard often:

"do you have any suggestions for a good book?"

Librarians either love of hate this question. I've talked about various readers advisory tools (and the old standard, NoveList), but I learned of a new one this week.

On Thursday, I went to the Massachusetts State House to attend the presentation of the 2008 Massachusetts Book Awards (photos).

Each year, the Massachusetts Center for the Book evaluates hundreds of entrants in the categories of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and childrens books, and selects a winner and two honorees in each category.

Part of the criteria is that the author is a Massachusetts resident or the work in some way is significant to Massachusetts. Their website has the list of this year's winners as well as winners from past years, and I think this is a great resource for readers advisory. This year's books included Nathaniel Philbrick (Mayflower), Noam Chomsky (Failed States), and Martín Espada (The Republic of Poetry), among others, so these aren't local interest-only works.

What I also liked is that the Massachusetts Center for the Book is part of the Library of Congress' Center for the Book program. Which means, not only can I refer patrons to these few Massachusetts, but there are 49 other state programs, all evaluating and highlighting significant books.

I've used the Center for the Book for other things, but never the award winner lists for readers advisory. So not only was it a fun trip to Boston, but I learned something, too.



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