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


How To Address An Envelope

   December 19th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Nicely serendipitous with last week's reference question, the library recently received this envelope in the mail:

Envelope addressed: Chelmsford P. Librarian, Chelmsford Public Library, 25 Boston Road, Chelmsford, MA 01824

I'm not sure if this was deliberately done by a person, or just a computer filling in empty fields - either way, this sort of thing can brighten my entire day.

I hope everyone has a good holiday season - I'm visiting family in Ohio for Christmas, so I'll be off until next week. Oh, and regardless of your religion or tradition, be sure to search for Festivus on Google - enjoy! (hint: look to the left, and scroll down)



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/27/11

   March 5th, 2011 Brian Herzog

KDOC logoAbout once or twice a year, we get reference questions via USPS from a prison inmate somewhere in the US. One came in a week or so ago - the question itself wasn't difficult, but I laughed when I addressed the return envelope:

[inmate name] #[number]
Eastern Kentucky Correctional Complex
200 Road to Justice
West Liberty, KY 41472

Good job, Kentucky Department of Corrections.



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Tracking ILL Requests

   September 15th, 2009 Brian Herzog

library mailMy brother sent me a package via UPS on Thursday, and it arrived on Monday. The neat thing, of course, is that we both could track its progress online (backup link).

It occurred to me that this would be a great feature for a library ILS. Most systems I've seen will only give the current status of a request, which is often cryptic to staff and totally indecipherable to patrons (ie, "recieved," "transit," "recorded," "check shelves," etc).

But sending patrons a link via email or text to track their request step-by-step in plain English could benefit them to no end. Not only would it give them an idea of where their item is and when to expect it, but it would also expose what all is involved in delivering their request to them. But it would be invaluable for staff, too, being able to see all of this information at a glance, for both assisting patrons and troubleshooting the delivery process.

And I bet some patrons would also be please to watch their request be returned to the library of origin after they're done with it.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this, but I'm definitely going to lobby to include it as a feature if my consortium adopts an open source ILS. And this feature will be exponentially more helpful if, as planned, the entire state moves to that same ILS.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/2/08

   November 8th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Snow-covered mailboxOn Wednesdays I work the late shift at the library. When I came in at 1pm this past Wednesday, my coworker who covers the desk in the morning had a good story for me:

An elderly woman walked up to the desk and asked:

Do you have Sarah Palin's street address?

Keep in mind that this was Wed., Nov. 5th, 2008, the day after she and John McCain lost the 2008 presidential election. My coworker kind of joked, "what, do you want to send her a sympathy card?" The patron's response?

Well, yes.

The patron went on to explain how she thought Palin did a great job in the campaign, and that she didn't want her to feel bad about not winning. But above all, the patron wanted to encourage Palin to try again in 2012. After such a negative and protracted election season, it's kind of refreshing to know there is someone with this much earnest concern for public officials.

But back to the question: what followed was a quick search in a few of the popular people search resources, including ReferenceUSA. Interestingly, the street address was available in some, but was listed as "unlisted" in others. ReferenceUSA provided the phone number, but said the address was "Not Provided."

However, being a state Governor and Vice Presidential candidate, there are other ways to contact her, too. The mailing address for the McCain/Palin campaign headquarters was listed on the campaign website, and so was the address for the Massachusetts office. Her mailing address at the Governor's office was on the Alaska State website, but it also included this note:

Alaska law prohibits use of state equipment or resources for campaign or partisan political purposes. Please do not send any messages to these addresses or make calls to these telephone numbers concerning campaign or partisan political activities. Information about elections and candidates can be found by calling, writing, or e-mailing a campaign office for that particular candidate.

Which I found interesting, but which also rules out the Governor's office as an address to send a sympathy card.

My coworker said the patron took down the various mailing addresses, and said thank you, and went home to start composing her letter.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/27/08

   August 2nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Library behind barsIt's pretty rare that we get reference questions by USPS mail, so they usually earn special attention. This one in particular ended up receiving a great deal of special attention.

Postmarked 24 May 2008 and addressed to the library Attn: Reference, two things immediately stood out about the envelope - it was written on a typewriter, and the return address was Bay State Correctional Center, Norfolk, MA.

Getting letters or reference questions from prison inmates isn't too unusual, and despite most peoples' initial reactions, they are treated like any other reference question. This particular patron introduced himself as a student enrolled in a correspondence course from a Boston university. For his geology course, he was writing a paper on structures and monuments made from granite quarried in New England, and was asking us for help locating information on Chelmsford granite, a stone native to this area.

The question itself wasn't really a problem; we have a book in our local history collection entitled Chelmsford Granite, a vertical file devoted to the Fletcher Granite company which has quarried here since the 1880's, and we also found a few websites mentioning Chelmsford granite.

Between printouts and photocopies, we ended with quite a thick sheaf of papers. As I was packing it to mail, I faintly remembered someone sometime saying that prisoners cannot receive paper clips or staples or rubber bands, or anything I might use to organize the papers I was sending. It'd be unfortunate for this research not to make it to the patron, so I called the correctional center to see what rules they had about inmates receiving mail.

After a brief conversation with the guard, who had to consult with another guard a few times on the rules, I learned that 1) no metal or fasteners of any kind were allowed, and 2) inmates are limited to four sheets of paper per envelope.

The four-page rule certainly changed things. I selected what I thought was the most useful bits and did some double-sided photocopying to maximize space, and also typed a cover letter explaining what we found, what was sent, what wasn't sent, and other organizations he could contact for additional information.

I felt bad not being able to get him everything, but I thought this would end here.

About a month later I received another letter from this patron, thanking me for the material. Also, he said that I had been misinformed about the four-page rule, and such policies were being challenged on Constitutional grounds. In addition, he said he would try to make other arrangements to receive whatever materials I couldn't send the first time, and that an associate of his would be contacting me for the information.

A few weeks after that, I got an email from his academic advisor at the college, saying that I could mail whatever additional material I had to him, and he would get it to the inmate. I still had all of the information in a folder, so typed up another letter explaining what it was and how it fit with the first batch, and mailed it off.

That was just last week, and I haven't heard back from either person. Hopefully, everything got where it needed to be, and the patron was able to continue with his research project.

It was a happy and interesting reference exchange, and I don't mean to be glib, but I just have to point out the irony of helping a prison inmate research granite and stonework.



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