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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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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In Praise of Short URLs

   April 7th, 2009 Brian Herzog

mass.gov logoThe Mass.gov website has a lot of great information, and being a librarian in Massachusetts, I use it all the time. However, one thing it does very poorly is URLs.

The powers that be at Mass.gov recently launched a new section of the website, devoted to the Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Plan for the state's economy. What's the URL, you ask? This:

http://www.mass.gov/?pageID=gov3agencylanding&L=4&L0=Home&L1=Key+
Priorities&L2=Job+Creation+%26+Economic+Growth&L3=Massachusetts+Recovery+
and+Reinvestment+Plan&sid=Agov3

A recent promotional email introduced the site's resources, and listed the URL. My first thought was, wow, that pretty much guarantees it won't get used. Perhaps it's the Marketing degree in me, but if something doesn't have a catch name, or at least a moderately decipherable one, it automatically has less chance of succeeding.

I'm sure whatever CMS software the state uses is to blame for the ugly URLs, but they certainly have the power to do better. To wit: about a week later, a second email went out saying the new URL for the website was Mass.gov/recovery - perfect.

I use redirects on the library's website, and am glad that the state is too (and I'm sure it took more than my complaint email to do it).

But in addition to local redirects, URL shortening services like tinyURL.com, icanhaz.com and others can also help. Their popularity seems to have shot up with Twitter, but I use them in email instead of having monstrous URLs wrapping to multiple lines and thus not working. There are drawbacks to these services, but now that custom URLs are possible, I feel a little more comfortable using them with patrons.

It'd be great if all domains offered these short URL redirect services, and were limited just to that domain. That way, anyone could turn one of the standard Mass.gov long URL into a nice and clean Mass.gov-based useful URL, while at the same time not redirect a Mass.gov short URL to a porn site. I checked around and didn't see such software, but I'm going to keep looking.



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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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