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




Displaying Circulation History in the Catalog

   May 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Catalog card with commentsMy last post and peoples' comments got me thinking about displaying the circulation history of items, and how it might make items more interesting.

I don't know how many library patrons consider the fact that other people have used an item before them (unless, of course, they find some evidence of that use). But if we started showing the cost-per-circ, it might prompt some people to wonder about the X number of people who also were interested in the same thing as them.

Obviously, libraries couldn't cross any privacy lines, but I do think there are ways to highlight the "shared resources" aspect of the library, and to emphasize a sense of community among our patrons.

Some ideas for what could be shown:

  • Detailed stats on cost-per-circ (including a breakdown on the library's cost for that item - price we paid for it, processing cost, etc) - and, as Walt said, this would be particularly interesting for databases
  • Number of local checkouts vs. ILLs and network transfers (along with current number of holds)
  • Along with number of checkouts, calculate the popularity ranking vs. total library items checkouts
  • Date the item was added to the collection, and date of last checkout (and check-in)
  • Some catalogs by default have an opt-in reading history for patrons; they should also have an opt-in way to make their checkout history public, on an item-by-item basis
  • Some catalogs, and some third-party plugins (like ChiliFresh and LibraryThing for Libraries), allow patrons to include their review and rating for items right in the catalog record
  • Ebook readers should be able to leave comments and notes in the ebook, which subsequent patrons could either turn on or off depending on if they wanted to see them

Some of this information is available in our staff view, and I use it all the time - why not make it available to the public, too?

One drawback to making this kind of item information available is that we might get a lot more "weeding suggestions" from patrons, on items they don't feel have provided enough value to the library (or that have been used too much). Of course, I get this to some degree already, so it's just a matter of having - and employing - a good collection development policy.

Does anyone's catalog include features like these? How do patrons like them?



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An Anecdotal Experiment With Privacy

   March 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

For the last few years at my library, our public computers all looked the same - Windows XP with a custom wallpaper displaying instructions on how to print. Our setup looked like this:

Wallpaper with printing instructions

A month or so ago, we upgraded to Windows 7, and thought we'd also change the wallpaper.

Our goal in this was to improve patron privacy. The timer software we use is Time Limit Manager (TLM), by Fortress Grand (the little "Time Remaining" clock at the top of the screen above). I like this software because it is very customer service oriented, and patrons don't need to log in with a barcode to start their session - they can just sit down, click "I Agree" to our policies, and go. The timer is basically a courtesy reminder, and for the most part we can get away with using the honor system (TLM does offer additional features for when push comes to shove).

But the main problem we were seeing wasn't that people wouldn't leave the computer - it was that patrons weren't ending their session when they left the computer. This set up the scenario where a second patron could come along and just continuing using the session of the previous patron.

This never caused a real problem in my library, but the potential was there, so we thought the upgrade would be a good time to address it.

With the Windows 7 rollout, we designed new wallpaper, hoping to prompt people end their session when they were finished with the computer. The new wallpaper looks like this:

Wallpaper with privacy reminder

The result? Absolutely no change whatsoever.

I didn't do a scientific survey, but just from the number of times staff has to end the session at an abandoned computer, the privacy reminder didn't seem to affect anyone at all.

I can't believe people aren't seeing this message, so it's tough not to conclude that, at least in my library, most patrons don't care much about their privacy.

So, I wanted to ask the question here - what do other libraries do to get patrons to end their session?



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Checklist Manifesto for the Reference Desk

   June 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

checklistIn library near me, the Director did most of the reference work. When she announced her retirement, the staff was worried about having to do reference themselves, until a replacement was found.

She emailed me saying she had just read The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande, and asked for my help in creating a "reference checklist" for her staff - hopefully, it would help them cover all the bases when helping patrons at the Reference Desk.

I haven't actually read the book (although did read lots of reviews when it was published), but I think the general idea is summarized in this quote from the New York Times review:

In medicine, he writes, the problem is “making sure we apply the knowledge we have consistently and correctly.” Failure, he argues, results not so much from ignorance (not knowing enough about what works) as from ineptitude (not properly applying what we know works).

This is also true of reference work. Some sort of checklist or decision tree is probably covered in most library school reference text books, but I thought I'd take a crack at it. Of course, any checklist like this could vary widely by library, depending on available resources, but the following few questions might help make sure all bases are covered consistently:

Are you sure you understand the question?

  • Don't be afraid to ask follow-up questions and to restate the question in your own words to make sure you and the patron are on the same page

Is the patron looking for a specific item?

  • It's okay to use Amazon to verify the spelling of an author's name or title, and Novelist or other websites to check titles in a series. Once you know what you're looking for, be sure to check the local catalog, other libraries in the network, and also the state-wide catalog (if you have one) to interlibrary loan the item if necessary. If it's nowhere to be found, should this item be purchased? (refer to your Collection Development policy)
  • If the patron is comfortable with it, many books are now available online through Google Books, Project Gutenberg, and other ebook sources

Is the patron looking for a subject?

  • Use the catalog to find the right Dewey range so the patron can browse the shelf, and see where other libraries have cataloged their books on this subject
  • Remember to also check
    • other collections (Reference, Young Adult, Childrens, Oversized, Vertical File, Special Collections, etc)
    • research databases (especially for homework research or very current information)
    • the library's website (for subject guides, readers advisory, web links, etc)
    • general internet searching to find public websites
      • remember also to search government websites - add site:.gov to Google searches to limit to government websites
    • if you're in the right Dewey section but there are no books on the specific topic, look for a general book on the subject and check the book's index for your specific topic

Is the question about something local?

  • Check the local newspaper, local websites (especially newspaper and municipal websites, as well as meetup.com and yelp.com for socializing and events), printed brochures and fliers available in the library, event calendars, etc. Remember also to ask coworkers, as they may have heard of something or be involved with it

Is your answer still “no” or “I don't know” - what else can you do?

  • Is the problem that you're in the right place and the information is just not there, or that you can't think of where to look? Keep the patron informed, but don't waste their time - there is nothing wrong with referring them to a larger or specialized library, another Town office, or organization that is more likely to have the resources to answer their question. Be sure to give them contact phone numbers/email address/web address/driving directions/operating hours
  • Ask a coworker or supervisor for help
  • Take the patron's name and number and offer to contact them when you find something

A strategy I use to try to make reference interactions go more smoothly is this:

  • Sometimes it's hard to find the answer with the patron hovering above you watching and waiting. If possible, get the patron started on looking in one area, and then go back to the catalog/database on your own for more thorough research

And to make future reference questions better, here's a checklist about patron interactions in general:

  • Have there been a lot of questions on the same topic? If so, is there a way to make this information more readily available for future patrons?
  • Pay attention to what kind of questions make you uncomfortable, and then ask for training or explore those areas further
  • Remember to show patrons how to do something, instead of just giving them answers. It's also okay to think out loud when working on a question - explaining why you're consulting the resources you are, or why books are in a certain spot in the library, will help the patron and possibly make you think of something you may have otherwise forgotten.
  • Look around the Reference Desk - things within reach are probably there for a reason, but can also be the hardest to find if you don't know where they are
  • Remember to review applicable common tasks and policies, such as booking museum passes, helping with printing, turning everything on/off

This could definitely be distilled more. At the same time, no checklist will cover every patron interaction, but should at least get people started down the right road. And I'm sure I missed things - what are more tips to give staff new to the Reference Desk?



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/13/10

   June 19th, 2010 Brian Herzog

pron computerOne of the complaints I have with my library are the questionable architectural decisions made when the building was designed - lots of glass, so even small sound echos a great deal, aisles that are blocked because fixtures stick out to far, not enough meeting space, etc.

Another quirk is our Quiet Study Room - it sits at the end of the Reference collection, next to one of our computer areas. Half the computers face it and half face away, and whoever is in the Quiet Study Room could look up and see a lot of computer screens (but so can anyone walking by).

One afternoon, the phone rings, and the patron says,

Hi, I'm in your study room right now. I can see the computer screen of the first guy right outside the room, and he's been looking at graphic porn for ten minutes.

Most of the time we get porn complaints, it's after the porn viewer has left, so there's not much we can do about it. When we're able to "catch someone in the act," I print our Computer Use Policy and hand it to them saying something like,

Another patron objected to something they saw on your screen. This is a public building, so please remember that anything appearing on your screen must be suitable for children who might accidentally see it walking by.

I did that in this case, and then went back to the Reference Desk. A few minutes later, the phone rang again:

Hi, this is me, in the study room. Thank you for talking to him - he stopped looking at porn.

Her calling back made me laugh, but I hope she wasn't continually monitoring what the guy was doing.

Lots of porn stuff recently - to read what other libraries do with porn offenders, check out Unshelved Answers (my answer is there, too), and of course the Foolproof Porn Filter from earlier this week. Also, check out the Blackbelt Librarian's tips for handling difficult patrons.

Hmm - maybe we should just install a hotline in the study room for people to report porn offenders.



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Bad Advice Serves as Good Reminder

   May 25th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Erasing PrivacyA recent Miss Manners column gave advice to a library patron who wrote about a library employee repeatedly reading aloud the titles of the books patrons were checking out.

I, and others, commented (more here) to suggest better ways of handling the situation, but it is truly sad that this situation happened in the first place. From what the person writing in said, this staff person does this all the time - this behavior is certainly not appropriate for the circulation desk, and should have been corrected by the library administration long ago.

Even though the advice provided wasn't helpful, this is a good reminder for libraries to review their privacy policies - both to see if it is up to snuff and to remind staff why this is important. Check out the ALA's resources on privacy:

Somewhat related (in my head, anyway), is The Other Librarian's post of Ten Reasons Why 'Professional Librarian' is an Oxymoron. I don't completely agree with it, but they are valid points.

via LISNews, LibraryStuff



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Secret Social Networking

   May 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Seen in this week's Post Secrets:

Post Secret - Library Receipts

I've thought there was an unusually large number of checkout receipts left in books, and maybe this is why. Although I usually keep the things I find around the library, checkout receipts are one thing I always throw away.

But what if we did offer some sort of in-book messaging? Maybe a sticker with a link to the library's record of the book on LibraryThing or Goodreads, telling people they could discuss it there and meet other people who liked it. Or better yet, remind them to write a review in the library's catalog, along with an opt-in social feature (I wish we had that functionality, but maybe soon).



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