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




Visualizing the Flow of My Library’s Information Online

   August 4th, 2011 Brian Herzog

My library just launched our long-overdue Facebook page. In the course of preparing it, we had a discussion about why we needed a Facebook page, what we wanted to use it for, and how it related to everything else we were doing online.

This led to the realization that no one really understood exactly what all we were doing online. We have a website, Twitter account, blog, email newsletters, flickr account, and now Facebook, but no clear policy as to what gets posted where, when information is duplicated, how things are updated, etc.

To help understand how our various types of information are represented online, I created the diagram below - it's probably not 100% complete, but it does cover most of our bases:

Flowchart of flow of online information

On the left are our different types of information (MacKay is our branch library), and the arrows show how that information flows through different electronic tools. There isn't necessarily a hierarchy at work*, other than perhaps the automatic updates necessarily come after the manual updates. Otherwise, the boxes are laid out just so they all fit on the page.

After discussing this, we uncovered two philosophies at work:

  1. use the different end tools - website, Facebook, Twitter - for unique content, so as not to duplicate things and essentially "spam" our patrons that use more than one service (for example, you can see above that no event information is posted to Facebook)
  2. publish all of our content almost equally through all of our channels, so we're sure to reach all our patrons regardless of which tool they choose to use

I don't think they are mutually-exclusive, but it does take a lot of work and forethought to do it well. I also think that more of what we do could be automated, as cutting down on the manual postings would save staff time.

Do other libraries have similar online information relationships? I imagine things range from very structured to a free-for-all to orphan accounts galore, but I'm curious to hear what other libraries are doing, to get ideas on how to do it better at my library.

 


*Something to note on the diagram is our "secret" Twitter account. We have a primary Twitter account we encourage patrons to follow and we use for regular tweets. The secret account is one we use only to post messages directly to our homepage. The reason for two, and why I don't really want anyone following to the homepage updater one, is that clearing the message off the homepage requires sending a blank tweet - it's not the end of the world if anyone follows it, but the blank tweets do look odd. Besides, everything posted to it gets posted through our primary account anyway.



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Hack Library School

   February 24th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Hack Library SchoolHere's something to check out: Hack Library School.

It's mainly a tech sandbox for library school students, but since today's students are tomorrow's librarians, keeping up with what they're doing is well worth the time. Librarianship is increasingly technology-based, and libhackers are well-positioned to be the innovators and leaders.

From the website:

The Web is our Campus.

This is an invitation to participate in the redefinitions of library school using the web as a collaborative space outside of any specific university or organization. Imagine standards and foundations of the profession that we will create, decided upon by us, outside of the institutional framework. Ideas like the democratization of the semantic web, crowdsourcing, and folksonomies allow projects like this to exist and we should be taking advantage of it. What will the information professions be next year if we define it for ourselves today? If we had a voice in the development of curriculum, what would that degree entail? This is our challenge to you; participate or come up with a better idea. How would you hack library school?

Besides, they rank Swiss Army Librarian at #5 of library blog to follow, so you know they've got good taste.



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/17/10

   October 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Volunteer facts bookmarkThis week's question is actually one I needed to answer myself - it's a little bit random, so bear with me.

My library just held our annual thank-you dinner for all of our adult volunteers. To illustrate "the value of volunteers" (in other words, how much money volunteers save us) my director and I came up with a "volunteer stats" bookmark* [ppt, 1.2MB] to hand out.

We had 241 volunteers last year, with a total of 5804 volunteer hours. We figured if we paid them each $15/hour, their labor would have cost the library $87,060. Just to add another little fact to the bookmark, I wanted to figure out just how tall $87,060 was in $100 bills.

So of course, I turned to the internet. I did a search for something like how tall is a stack of money, and after clicking on a few results, I found a forum posting that provided the Excel formulas needed to calculate not just the height of a stack of bills, but also the cubic volume and value of different denominations. Neat.

I copy/pasted the formulas into an Excel spreadsheet* [xls], and after a little tweaking, had my answer. And just to double-check it, I went back to the internet to find a "known value" (in this case, the height of $1 million in $100's). It checked out, so I had my fact for the bookmark, and a job well done, right?

Well, not so fast: being me, I thought, "hey, wouldn't it be awesome to turn this Excel spreadsheet into a web form that other people could play with? After all, that was so popular the last time."

Volunteer bookmark front

But this was all happening late in the day on Thursday, and I didn't have time to figure out how to convert the Excel formulas into javascript. So once again, I turn to the internet, thinking, "I just bet there's some easy spreadsheet-to-javascript converter out there."

And it turns out, there is: I found SpreadsheetConverter.com, which does exactly that. After you download the software, it converts spreadsheets to a web-ready format with just a click of a button - pretty neat.

But even better was their free demo offer, where you email them your spreadsheet and they convert it for you. Within 24 hours they sent back the converted webpage, and it works great - just enter the height** of your money stack below, and the spreadsheet tells you the value of various denominations, for both a single stack and a cubic block of bills.

One condition of the free demo is that it is for evaluation purposes only, so evaluate away and keep this tool in mind if you ever need to throw a spreadsheet up on your website - it can save you a lot of time. Too bad I didn't know about it when I was coding the Library Use Value Calculator.

The thank-you dinner went well, and the bookmarks were a big hit. Yay for volunteers.

 


*Feel free to download, edit and reuse our volunteer bookmark* [ppt, 1.2MB] or the Excel spreadsheet* [xls] if you like.

**This was designed to figure out height in inches - to use different measurements, the form below will convert those values into inches:





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Historical Photo Collection Survey Results

   September 30th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Historical postcard of the Chelmsford LibraryThanks to everyone who completed the historical photo collection survey. The Nashua Library got answers about 13 different collections, which will help them create their own collection policy.

Kersten Matera from the Nashua Library was kind of enough to compile and summarize the results (below) - a PDF of the full results and individual answers [156KB] is also available.

I was particularly interested in seeing what kind of fees libraries are charging for digital copies of their images collections. To this I asked the question: If the public wants a high-resolution digital copy of an image, will you provide that to them?

  • 42% of libraries do not offer high-resolution copies
  • 33% offer copies for free
  • 25% charge a fee (e.g. $10, $20, $24)

Interesting to note that a call in to Kinko's furnished me with their scanning prices: $6.99 if they scan it and put it onto your storage device, or, an additional $9.99 to burn it onto a CD for you.

Other questions that were asked on the Historical Photos survey included whether or not the library would provide a physical copy of an item in the collection

  • 5 libraries said they charge between $.10 and $.25 for what I took to mean a copy on regular paper which is printed using the library's printer
  • 4 libraries charge a rate more in line with what a photo shop would charge (i.e. $5.00-24.00)
  • 2 libraries do not provide copies
  • 1 library will provide them for free

When asked about possible tools to help with a Historical Photos collection, responses included: Flickr, Content DM, Facebook, a library's OPAC (in this case, Polaris), Illinois State Digital Archive, Local History Digital Archive, websites created specifically for such things, and library websites.

How much of your historical photos collection is digitized?

  • All of the collection:16.7%
  • Some:66.7%
  • None:16.7%

Is the collection available/viewable online?

  • All are viewable online:25%
  • Some:58.3%
  • None:16.7%

If the public wants a physical copy of an image in your collection, will you provide that to them?

  • No:16.7%
  • Yes, for free:8.3%
  • Yes, for a charge:75%

Do you have any mark (e.g. a watermark) on the image that marks it as being part of your collection?

  • Yes:66.7%
  • No:33.3%

No library had a limit to the number of digital copies they would provide.

Thanks again to all who participated!



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Historical Photo Collections Survey

   September 14th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Historical postcard of the Chelmsford LibraryHi everyone - I'm hoping you can help out with a quick survey. Kersten Matera from the Nashua (NH) Public Library is compiling data on how libraries handle digitized collections of historical photos.

Please, take a couple minutes to fill out the survey below. It's always interesting to compare how libraries handle similar tasks, and I'm particularly curious to learn what software libraries use to share their digital collections.

When the survey is complete, Kersten and I will post the results for everyone to check out - thanks for helping:

And for what it's worth, my library has put our historical photograph collection (such as it is - it's not something we actively collect) on our flickr account, which patrons and others can use free of charge, provided they comply with our CC license.



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The Resurrection of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 7th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Yahoo PipesLast week I started talking about newspaper obituaries. Today's post details how we're improving access to the obituaries we do have in our newspaper microfilm records, using an online index created with Yahoo Pipes.

Our microfilm records of the local papers go back to 1940. But microfilm is primarily an archival format, rather than an accessible format, so it can be cumbersome to use. Our biggest impediment was that we didn't know what was there - when a patron contacted the Reference Desk asking for someone's obituary, it was very time-consuming for us to search the microfilm for an obituary, which may or may not have even appeared in the paper - we wouldn't even know until we checked.

So we created an online searchable index to the newspaper's obituaries - not the text of the obituaries, just a name/date/page index. Patrons and staff can use this to know whether someone's obituary appeared in our newspaper, instead of having to check the microfilm every time.

Here's how we did it: first, for about the past 10 months, volunteers have been going through every microfilm reel we have, page by page, and building an Excel spreadsheet with the following information:

Newspaper Year Month Day Page FirstName MiddleInitial LastName Maiden-Jr-Sr

The first column is necessary because we have records for both the Chelmsford Newsweekly (1940-1993) and the Chelmsford Independent (1986-present). The middle columns are reference and retrieval information. In the last column, we included extra information, like maiden name, whether a person was a "Jr." or "Sr." etc., and anything else that was random and didn't fit into another column.

The spreadsheet itself is useful, but I wanted to put this online so anyone could search it. The tool I chose was Yahoo Pipes, which has both pros and cons:

Pros:

  • It's easy to play with and learn (like most Web 2.0 tools), but is also very powerful so we can grow into it
  • It can use a csv file for the data, which is easy to create with Excel
  • Beyond a simple search, it also provides fancy features like RSS feeds and tie-ins with other social media tools
  • Using Yahoo Pipes is covered in Chapter 7 of Library Mashups, written by Nicole Engard
  • The data is easy to update as the file continues to grow
  • It worked

Cons:

  • Searching a database is not what Pipes is intended to do, so it's probably not the best tool out there (I wanted to use DabbleDB, but they're in transition right now)
  • The csv file must be ftp'ed to the webserver, which will be increasingly problematic - right now the file is 17,000+ lines and over 1MB. It will only get bigger, and the entire thing needs to be uploaded each time it's updated
  • Pipes has funny rules that you don't know about until something breaks. For instance, field names must be single words (hence "FirstName" and "Maiden-Jr-Sr"), you can't use certain characters in the data (like /), the search doesn't let you combine keywords (so far - I'm sure there must be some kind of fancy loop setup that will allow it, but right now people can only search either by first name or last name or year)
  • There isn't an easy way to embed the search box back into our website (there are Badge options, but only for search output) - you have to use the Pipe interface to search
  • There doesn't seem to be a wildcard for search
  • The results can't not link to something - I wanted the names and dates just to be displayed, but the way Pipes works requires the results to link to something

The last point was initially a pain, but it forced me to be creative, and I think the solution is actually more helpful for patrons than what I originally wanted. Now, when a patron finds the obituary listing they'd like to read, they click the link, and it automatically fills the obituary information into an email contact form on our website. That request gets sent to Reference staff, who then have an easy time of retrieving the obituary from the microfilm. Unfortunately, our microfilm machine isn't connected to a computer, so we'll just print and mail or fax the obituary to the patron. When possible we'll type them in and email them, and of course that will go into the searchable database too.

To make the connection from the Pipes listing to our email form, I had to use some javascript (which introduced another glitch: javascript makes names like O'Conner problematic, because it stops at the ', but I'll worry about this later).

Here's what the whole Pipe's source code looks like:
Yahoo Pipe for Obituary Search

Here's what it does:

  • The "Fetch CSV" module is the path to the csv file on our webserver
  • The module to the right of that controls what the patron search input box looks like. The "Label" field is "Enter EITHER a First Name, Last Name OR Year:" and you can see where that displays on the Pipe page
  • Both of those modules feed into "Filter" module - this one takes what the patron enters into the search box and filters the data from the csv file to create a subset of just matching records. Whatever the patron enters gets searched for in all the fields listed in the "Filter" module
  • The next module is "Rename" and I'm not sure I'm using it properly - I needed to create two new fields, so I'm just taking two existing fields, copying them, and renaming them so I can work with them later. The fields that got copied still exist untouched
  • Next is the "Regex" module, which is the most complicated and powerful, and I use it to create what the patron sees for the search results. The "Title" field is one I created, and here I'm replacing the contents from when I copied it to display what the patron will see on the screen - the code for it is "${FirstName} ${MiddleInitial} ${LastName} ${Maiden-Jr-Sr} - ${Newspaper}, ${Month} ${Day}, ${Year}, Page ${Page} ${Obituary}" which also includes punctuation formatting. So, for example, the result looks like this:

    Katherine M. Polley - Chelmsford Newsweekly, December 31, 1940, Page 7

    Because this field has to be a link, I also had to define what it links to, which is what I'm doing in the "Link" field. The value for that field is being written as

    http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/reference/ask_us-obits.html?obit=${FirstName}+${MiddleInitial}+${LastName},+${Newspaper},+${Month}+${Day},+${Year},+Page+${Page}

    which carries the data over to the library's website and some javascript pulls the data from the url and puts it in an email form. The patron can fill in their name and contact info into the form and submit it to us as an email message

  • The "Sort" module is self-explanatory, and I chose to list them with most recent first

This feels far more complicated than it should be, and I'm sharing it here to both save someone else from having to figure it all out again on their own, and to hopefully get suggestions on how to simplify/improve it.

Although, speaking of improving it, I do have one idea for future development: the local Cemetery Department has spreadsheet online listing complete burial locations - it would be neat to mashup up that data, so the obituary is linked to the cemetery plot location.

That's down the road a bit, so in the meantime I just keep adding whatever new obituaries appear in the paper to the csv data file - I had planned to do that weekly, but lately there have been many weeks without any obituaries in the paper (see my previous post). Anyway, we'll see how this works - it only went live last week, but already patrons have been using it, and it certainly does save a lot of staff time.



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