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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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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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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Help From Above

   October 28th, 2008 Brian Herzog

MA Libraries license plateLibrarians are not alone.

Many libraries are part of networks, consortia, or regional system. And even for the independent libraries, there are still state libraries and state and national library associations that can provide guidance or support to the librarians in the trenches.

Recently, two projects were launched to benefit librarians at a local level, and both projects were started by a support organization.

Massachusetts Library License Plates
The Central Massachusetts Regional Library System (CMRLS) is working with the MA Registry of Motor Vehicles to make a "Massachusetts Libraries" license plate available to the public. Details (and a promotional bookmark [pdf]) are available on the CMRLS website, and funds raised from the sale of these plates will be returned to libraries through a grant process. This is a neat idea, but so far only has a few mentions.

Job Descriptions Database from the Maine State Library
The Maine State Library launched a centralized job description database, to aid librarians in defining the roles within their libraries. This is one of those tasks that we all share, so creating a central clearinghouse for descriptions makes a lot of sense - and keeps us from reinventing the wheel. Job descriptions in the database were all submitted by Maine libraries, and hopefully include my favorite line for a library staff job description, "other duties to aid patron access to information as assigned."



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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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