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




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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New Massachusetts Library Directory

   January 17th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Massachusetts Libraries logoThe Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has just launched mass.gov/libraries, to go along with a new public awareness campaign for Massachusetts libraries.

Sometimes "top-down" efforts like this end up being a waste of time and resources, but I actually do think I will use this new website. For one thing, it is simple and clean, which makes it easy to see what information is available. I like that.

Also, it is very limited in scope: it is information about the public libraries in Massachusetts and the services those libraries offer. So even though their slogan is "There's something for everyone," they don't try to be "everything to everyone" - no subject listings, no web search boxes, etc.

The target of this website is Massachusetts residents, and the focus is to connect those people with their local library - or better yet, its online resources - and to maybe answer a few library questions along the way.

Here's what this site offers:

  • A directory of Massachusetts libraries, searchable by Town name or zip code
  • The contact information of the libraries, their hours, and whether or not wi-fi is available
  • A single login box for subscription databases funded by the state government
    (with one particularly neat feature being that when I logged in, the site knew I was logging in with a Chelmsford Library card, so it also automatically offered me a search of the Chelmsford catalog in addition to the subscription databases [though I didn't like they called it "Primary Search" instead of something more obvious and logical like "Library Catalog"])
  • A link to MassAnswers, our 24/7 online "chat with a librarian" service
  • Some basic general library-related information, contained in "Fast Facts" and "FAQ" sections. The Fast Facts were a lot of statistics, ie:
    • number of libraries (370), branches (106) and bookmobiles (4)
    • total holdings: 43.8 million books, magazines, videos, etc.
    • reference questions per week: 99,529

    Some examples from the FAQ are:

    • How can I get a library card?
    • Can I borrow from other libraries in Massachusetts?
    • How do I find library materials online?

They even included an article about why using library resources is better than Google for homework and student research.

I can see a lot of librarians using this, simply to find the contact information of other libraries, but I also like the single login box for database searching.

I also think patrons could easily use this website, too, but the key there is in the patrons finding it. This is the first year of a three-year marketing campaign, but aside from emails sent directly to librarians, I haven't seen anything.

awareness, campaign, libraries, library, ma, marketing, mass, massachusetts, mblc, public



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/4/07

   November 10th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Group of Indians in headdressesWhile sitting at the desk, two older Indian men (from India - this is important) approach me.

One didn't speak English very well, and so hardly said anything. The other man asked me if there were any Indian centers in the area.

Due to their appearance and accents (an Indian accent over proper British English), I assumed that they were recent immigrants, and were asking if there were any cultural centers or support organizations for people from India. When I asked a few clarifying questions to this affect, I found I was absolutely wrong.

It turns out that they lived in India and were visiting the Boston area on vacation. What they wanted was to visit a re-created Native American Indian village, to see how Indians lived before Europeans settled the area.

I didn't know of any right off, but I know the kind of place (such as the SunWatch Indian Village in Dayton, OH, where I went to college). I did a couple internet searches, but a search for "native american village massachusetts" wasn't very helpful and a search for "indian site massachusetts" turned up Indian restaurants.

When the men saw I wasn't finding anything right away, one of them offered some advice:

No, no, not "indian" like me. We want to see bows and arrows. Try searching for "red indian."

As racially-insensitive as America can be, "red indian" is just not a term we use in this country. It made me laugh because it's definitely a British thing to say - it's even said in the Mary Poppins movie.

I explained how that phrase isn't used here, but he insisted I try it anyway - again, nothing.

After that, we got more creative, and ended up finding a few resources - but I have to say that I am surprised at the scarcity of such a thing in this part of the country. Here's what we found, including history and art museums:

This list isn't exactly what the patrons wanted (and I don't think they were up for a drive to Dayton). But by doing this search with them, I think they felt comfortable that we came up with a pretty good list of what is out there. I still feel like there should be more, but they left happy - the Plimoth Plantation site being their first stop.

indian, indians, libraries, library, ma, mass, massachusetts, native american, native americans, public libraries, public library, red indian, red indians, reference question, village, villages



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/19/07

   August 25th, 2007 Brian Herzog
Boston Herald logoVS.
Mass.gov logo

This question is more interesting to me for the resource it turned up than for the question itself...

A coworker and I were both at the reference desk when a patron walked up and asked,

Can you find a list of what all state employees are paid?

Since there were two of us there, we both started looking, each in our own way.

My Approach
I started with a Google search à la state employee payroll site:mass.gov (I've been getting a lot of mileage out of Google's "site:" search ever since I learned about it). However, even with trying different keywords, I wasn't getting anywhere.

My Coworker's Approach
My coworker just did an open Google search for Massachusetts State Employee Payroll, and found an amazing website with the first result. Apparently, the Boston Herald provides all of this information in a neat little searchable payroll database.

The patron was very pleased with that, and with the speedy turnaround. And we all had a good time looking up a few people.

However, feeling like this was the fast-food version of the answer, I still went back to Mass.gov to see if I could verify the information from an official source. I spent about twenty minutes over the course of the rest of the day looking, but never did find it.

I'm sure with a few phone calls or emails, I could have turned it up, but it's amazing how much better secondary sources are sometimes than the obvious primary resource.

boston herald, libraries, library, ma, mass.gov, massachusetts, payroll, public libraries, public library, reference question, state employees



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