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

Watching Movies on Netflix and Copyright Issues

   August 11th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Pull quote from WBUR storyOn my drive to work this morning, I heard a story on the radio on how people are upset about the holes in Netflix's collection.

I've been hearing this same thing from friends, that more and more often lately the movies they want are just not available through Netflix - either as a DVD or streaming. The story attributes this to the changing contracts concerning entertainment producers and online delivery, and a related story also covered broadband issues.

The main thrust of the story seemed to be just informational - sort of, "this is happening, get used to it."

Sadly, they didn't mention public libraries as a resource for DVDs - we have lots of movies and shows not legally available to borrow elsewhere. I left a quick comment on their story:

As a public librarian, I always encourage people to check out their local library's DVD collection. If they don't have what you want, ask your librarian to order it!

I tried not to be glib, but happily, the holes in a library's collection are usually* due just to selection oversights (of which I am guilty) - which is easily remedied by being responsive patron requests.

At least, for now. Copyright battles are raging, as media companies try every tact they can to protect their revenue streams - including changing existing laws, which could affect first sale doctrine and fair use rights.

I don't have any direct links to these issues, but I would encourage everyone to pay attention to the issues the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is tracking, especially those dealing with Intellectual Property. When a copyright-related bill is making its way through Congress, the EFF details what effects it will have, and what action can be taken to protect access to information.

Another great copyright resource to follow is the Copyfight blog - it's not strictly library issues, but it is all about copyright.

Funny how a short story on the radio can have an impact on your entire day.


*In addition to the movies we missed purchasing, another source of holes in the collection is always theft.

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C-SPAN Documentary on the Library of Congress

   July 28th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Library of Congress signIf you've already seen the new Harry Potter and Captain America movies and thus have run out of things to watch, never fear - C-SPAN to the rescue!

C-SPAN has a new documentary on the Library of Congress, which is definitely worth watching (if you're interested in the history and function of the LoC, that is). I think it originally aired on Monday, July 18, 2011, and it kept me interested for the full hour and thirty minutes.

I've toured the LoC twice, and yet almost everything in this documentary was new to me. My favorite parts were the murals depicting good and bad forms of government (as a result of embracing or rejecting knowledge), and the tour of the preservation area, including the "document bath."

Not that you need it, but here are more teasers from their website:

“The Library of Congress” reveals details of:

  • The Great Hall, Reading Room , and exterior of the Jefferson Building
  • Some of the treasures among its books, maps, photos, and presidential papers
  • The History of the Library of Congress and its Jefferson Building
  • The Jefferson Library and other treasures of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division
  • The painstaking care of the Library’s collections
  • The use of technology to reveal new information about historical documents

About the Library of Congress:

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world with nearly 150 million items. It was started in 1800. Its first books were bought from England with a $5,000 appropriation from Congress. Housed in the U.S. Capitol, the library was destroyed in 1814 when British soldiers burned the building. Hearing of the fire, Thomas Jefferson offered to sell Congress his book collection. After much debate, Congress agreed to buy the collection for just under $24,000. In 1851, another fire destroyed 2/3 of the library’s holdings. In 1870, Congress passed copyright legislation that required two copies of every book published be sent to the Library of Congress. Subsequently, the holdings of the library grew extensively. Congress debated whether to give the library its own building. That didn’t happen until much later. The library moved out of the Capitol building and into the Jefferson building in 1897. Today, the Library of Congress spans over a total of 8 buildings.

Something I just noticed: The Jefferson building of the Library of Congress was built in 1897, and the Chelmsford Library was built in 1894 - that was a good decade for libraries.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/9/11

   January 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Movie Suggestion FAILThis week's question wasn't difficult, and isn't particularly unusual, but I'm sharing it because I like the resource we ultimately found to answer it.

An older patron walked up to the desk and said,

I don't really follow popular culture, but I think I should start watching more movies. Can you tell me which movies were the most popular in each of the last five or so years?

My first suggestion was to check the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, but he felt that winning an award didn't necessarily mean it was popular. Besides, he said, he didn't just want a list, he also wanted to read summaries of the movies.

When he said that, I walked him back to where the film and movie books are (791.4375). I showed him Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and a few others. None of the books on the shelve arranged films by year, but he did like all the reviews and ratings, and he especially liked 1001 Movies... because it listed movies by genre.

The patron took those over to a table while I went back to the desk to find a chronological list. At the desk I told my coworker about the question I was working on, and just then the phone rang. I answered it, helped the caller with their question, and by the time I hung up my coworker had already searched online and found the perfect resource for this question.

The website is Films101.com, and it lets you see lists of movies in all kinds of different ways - by rating, year, gross revenues, genre, award winners, and on and on. Clicking on any movie led to reviews, and the website's layout was uncluttered and easy to navigate.

The listing that best fit this question was their Yearly Top 10. Since the website format was clean with no sidebars full of ads, I was able to print a double-sided list all the way back to 2003 on a single sheet of paper. I brought this over to the patron, and his face lit up - he said it was exactly what he was looking for.

He came by the desk a few minutes later, saying he was checking out Leonard Maltin's latest book, so he could go down the list and look up each one. He also pointed out that he was happy foreign films were included, because "there's a lot going on outside this country."

Any kind of movie suggestions (or readers advisory) can be tough because once you get beyond award winners, everything is so subjective. Something else I liked about this website was that it continually took in new data, so rankings sometimes changed based on new review sources.

Yay for giving a patron what he wanted, and for teamwork.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/25/09

   October 31st, 2009 Brian Herzog

ElviraThis question actually made my week. With no warning, a flustered patron rushes up to the desk:

Hi. What's Elvira doing now? Is she dead?

The control I have over my laugh-response sometimes astounds me.

I really had no idea, and neither of us knew her real name, so the first stop was an Internet Movie Database search for Elvira. There we learned her real name is Cassandra Peterson, which I then looked up on WhosAliveAndWhosDead.com to see if she was still alive. Happily, she is.

To find out what she's doing now, I started with a general Google search for elvira 2009, which, among other interesting websites, led to Elvira.com - What's New?. Not surprisingly, she's a busy woman this time of year - multiple appearances in New Jersey this weekend, as well as being a special guest on this week's Medium.

The patron was hoping she was hosting (hostessing?) some kind of spooky movie marathon this weekend, but I couldn't find anything. He asked how far away New Jersey was, and after I told him, he said he doesn't have a car and would have to walk, so he's not going to go. He just wanted to know.

But his parting words were positive:

At least she's not dead, so maybe she'll show some movies next year.

Hope springs eternal. Happy Halloween.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/24/08

   August 30th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Attack of the B Movies posterHere's an example of what should be a simple question needing a round-about path to find the answer.

A patron came in asking for help finding movie listings. He'd heard there was a special showing at the local Showcase Cinema, called "attack of the" something, and he wanted to go. It's part of a series the theater is doing, showing certain movies on Thursday nights for $5.

But when he was at the movie theater, the employees wouldn't tell him what was showing on Thursdays. They said they didn't know. So he came to the library.

Usually for quick movie listings I check Yahoo Movies, but that didn't mention this special Thursday series. Also, all the phone numbers I could find for the theater were just their recorded show times, which likewise did not mention the special Thursday movies.

So the next step was to search the internet for "showcase lowell thursday attack." The first listing was the flickr photo shown above, which the patron was excited to see.

The second listing was "Attack of the B Movies" Series Playing at Select National..., an article about this series. It mentioned the information came from the National Amusements website, and after clicking around their site for a bit, we found their Special Program listing, which linked to the upcoming schedule of movies.

You can also check their locations listings to find a theater near you.

It took less than ten minutes to follow this chain of links to the answer, but it shouldn't have even taken that long. It's disappointing that the cinema employees (and the theater's phone recording) didn't answer this question right away, but I am glad the patron thought to come to the library. I hadn't heard of this movie series, and not only am I a fan of B movies, but I've also been asked about these twice since this first reference question.

Too bad this isn't a drive-in.

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Library Investigation

   July 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

WHDH-7 logoOne of the local television stations in Boston, WHDH 7, just aired an investigative story into libraries:

Theaters and video stores usually require an age of 17 or older to see or rent an R-Rated release, unless there is parental permission. But something altogether different is going on in some local libraries. 7News' Jonathan Hall investigates.

Read the transcript, or watch the video.

This is similar to the situation we had here a little while ago (except without the undercover investigators), which prompted us to put label ratings on VHS and DVDs when possible. And it looks like the Boston Public Library, "in line with American Library Association guidelines," is on the same page as us.

Libraries do not raise children, we provide access to information. Parents raise children, and we do what we can to support that need - while at the same time supporting the informational and educational needs of everyone else in the community.

I found this news report interesting, but a bit sensationalized. I'm sure as long as there are parents and children (and news outlets in need of ratings), issues like this will never die.

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