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

“Work Like A Patron” Day

   October 7th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Working at a public library computerLast week, a library volunteer and I were working on a project together. We each needed to work on a computer, but be close enough together to talk. The only arrangement like this in the library are the public workstations, so we worked out there.

In addition to getting the work done, I learned a few things:

  • some of the keys of the keyboard didn't work very well
  • the monitor had streaks and fingerprints on it
  • it was hard to concentrate with people walking and talking around us
  • both of us forgot to bring a flash drive to save our work

This experience reminded me of a post I read on Walking Paper (but I couldn't find it again). Aaron mentioned how important it was to put ourselves in our patrons' shoes, so we can see the library as they see it.

That's why I'm proposing "Work Like A Patron Day" on October 15th. In honor of the day, I think library staff should (when possible):

  • enter and leave the library through the public entrance (not the staff doors)
  • use the public restrooms
  • use the public computers to do your work
  • reserve public meeting rooms for meetings
  • follow all library policies

Obviously, exceptions will need to be made. But, much like a sheriff spending a week in his own jail, this would give library staff a different perspective on the library. Experiencing the library in this way will make sure the library isn't just the place we work, but it's where our patrons work. And play.

As for the date, I picked October 15th because it is six months after Library Appreciation Week, which was April 13th-17th. Not that working like a patron is the opposite of appreciating the library, but it seemed to fit. Or maybe the week surrounding Oct. 15th should be "Library Patron Appreciation Week," of which "Work Like A Patron Day" is just one day.

Update: Thanks to a comment below, I added a Work Like A Patron day page to the staff training section of the Library Success wiki (http://www.libsuccess.org/index.php?title=Work_Like_A_Patron_Day) for general information and a flickr group (http://www.flickr.com/groups/worklikeapatronday) for sharing photos of the day. Please also share your experiences from the day here in the comments.

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Ich Bin Ein Patron

   June 24th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Rocking chair with hand-caned seatLibrarians can spend so much time thinking about how to run a library that we forget that we're also patrons, and get to use the library, too. At least, I did.

I mean, I read a lot of library books, and also watch a lot of our DVDs. Popular materials are a valuable core library offering, but my own personal entertainment doesn't feel like it should count as library use.

So I was happy that I was able to use the library for a bit of research and practical knowledge (and just a little bit embarrassed that using the library wasn't my own idea).

A friend of mine gave me an old wooden rocking chair a few years ago, which was in pretty rough shape. I'd always meant to fix it up, but doing it right would have entailed recaning the seat. I'd put it off and put it off, but a few weeks ago I finally got around to starting the project.

Since I had to buy some caning supplies, and hopefully learn how to do it, I went to a chair store that did this kind of work. While talking to the guy there, he suggested I use The Complete Guide to Chair Caning as a guide. He went on to suggest that, instead of buying it, I should try to get it from the library - and then he asked if I ever go to the library. That led to a nice little discussion about the benefit of libraries, but it also left me feeling a little sheepish that I hadn't already checked to see if my library had something that would help me with this project.

The next day I searched our catalog, and ended up requesting the book from another library in our consortium. After consulting the book, and a few days of work, I was able to fix up the chair's seat, good as new (check out my progress).

For whatever reason, getting this book from the library and finishing this project is such a more rewarding and positive library experience than DVDs or audio books. I don't mean to detract at all from popular materials, and perhaps I'm kind of biased being a reference librarian, but hooray for non-fiction. I'd forgotten how good it feels to be a library patron.

(and as a completely unnecessary sidenote, some of my other "research" was caught on video. At this year's Westford Strawberry Festival, a woman was doing seat caning demonstrations. I probably watched her and asked questions for a good half-hour, and was so engrossed that I never even noticed the video camera five feet away from me. I'm the headless one in the gray shirt, about 0:54 seconds into it:

I know, I'm a dork.)

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Good Memories = Great Donations

   February 5th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Census Atlas of the United States coverLast week, we received a large package from the U. S. Census Bureau. In it was a copy of Census Atlas of the United States and a letter that read (in part):

I am pleased to be able to present the Chelmsford Public Library with a copy of the recently-published Census Atlas of the United States, a volume which I cooauthered with several colleagues at the Census Bureau here in Washington, DC.

...I wanted to personally send a copy to the Chelmsford Public Library as a way of expressing my profound gratitude to the library for the role it played in helping me discover my career as a demographer.

I grew up in Chelmsford...and as a kid spent many rainy Sunday afternoons at the Adams Library. When an elementary school research project required me to incorporate census data, I found myself in the top floor of the old library, poring through Census volumes with the assistance of the reference librarian. I didn't know it at the time, but those afternoons looking through old census volumes were my introduction to population statistics and to the Census Bureau, and a preview of what is now a rewarding and enjoyable career as a demographer and statistician for the federal government.

...Who knows - maybe [this donated volume] will inspire a future career path for some youngster spending quality in the library on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Not only is this a wonderful story, and a nice sentiment, but the atlas itself is pretty incredible. It is large, 12-1/4" x 15-1/4" - and almost every page is a glossy, full-color map of a particular population breakdown. Definitely a nice addition to our reference collection, and probably one that I wouldn't have purchased.

So, the moral of the story is, once again, a patron's library experience is critical to the health and longevity of a library.

donation, donations, experience, libraries, library, patron, patrons, public

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Patron Book Reviews Tool

   September 27th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Chili Fresh logoI was asked by a company called Chili Fresh to take a look at a new tool they're creating. It is designed to allow book reviews written by patrons to display right in the catalog (similar to reviews on Amazon.com showing up right on the item details page).

I agreed, and have spent some time on this, because I really like the concept - integrating useful data right into the library catalog. One of the biggest problems with library resources is that they're too complicated to use. The databases we subscribe to are great, but if using them requires patrons to jump through hoops, then the patrons are not going to use them.

As an example: NoveList is one of the best databases libraries can offer. Its readers advisory information is unmatched. But, because it's a stand-alone tool (the proverbial "information silo"), it's just that much more difficult for patrons to use.

Counter to this is LibraryThing for Libraries, which provides readers advisory information right in the catalog - you know, where our patrons already are. I don't think the suggestions provided by LTfL are as good as NoveList (yet), but its ease of utility makes it a far more practical tool.

And this is what caught my eye with Chili Fresh. Patrons-created book information, right along side the library's book information. That's great. Just like comments on a weblog, getting patrons involved and interacting with the library is going to enrich both the tool and the experience.

I've spent a few hours this week playing with the Chili Fresh tool (my test page), and sending emails back and forth to the developers. They readily admit this tool is still in beta, and has a ways to go, but they are open to comments and have already incorporated a few of my suggestions. I encourage anyone interested to set up an account and play too, and let them know what you think. The more input provided by libraries, the more this will be shaped into a useful tool.

It seems a bit clunky right now, because the examples are all outside of a library catalog. But they're definitely on the right track, and the idea is worth some attention. You can sign up on their website for a test account, or contact them Scott Johnson (jscott [at] chilifresh.com) for more information.

A note about their website: you'll notice that many of the pages are blank. I asked about this and was told that, since the product is still in beta and is changing, they are limiting the amount of information available.

book review, book reviews, chili fresh, chilifresh, libraries, library, patron, public libraries, public library, readers advisory

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/26

   December 2nd, 2006 Brian Herzog

About 9:15 a.m. yesterday morning, December 1st, the reference desk phone rings:

Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Patron: I get my social security check every month on the third except sometimes it comes on the same day as the SSI check and for other people the checks come together if you are disabled instead of retired when the checks come together but this month the third is on a Sunday and my mailbox is a P.O. box in the city next door because I live with my daughter now and whenever the third falls on a Sunday they send the check out on the first which means it comes with the SSI check for the disabled people and it's quite a drive for me to check my mailbox and I don't want to go into the city if my check isn't going to be there and can you tell me if my check is in my mailbox can you do that for me do you understand what I'm asking you?
Me: You're asking if I can find out the mailing schedule for social security checks?
Patron: No, that's not what I'm asking you at all see my check always arrives on the third and I want to know if it is in my mailbox before I drive to the city because the third is a Sunday so they usually mail it on the first which is today can you find that out?
Me: Well, I can try, but it might take me a little while. Can I call you back when I find it?
Patron: You don't know it right now is ten minutes enough I'll call you back in ten minutes. [click]

Okay, at this point, I'm only about 10% sure I even know what this patron wants, let alone if I'll be able to find it. And of course, since I'm under a deadline, three patrons all walk to the desk at this point and ask questions.

After helping each of them, I'm back on the case. I can't remember the URL of the Social Security Administration (which I have since remembered is very cleverly ssa.gov), so I go to Firstgov.gov, search for social security, and the first search result links to http://www.socialsecurity.gov.

Very happily, front and center on their homepage is a "Questions about:" dropdown box, and the third option is "Checks and Payments." That links to an FAQ, and question two is "When are benefit checks paid?"

This page kind of answers the patron's question, but I hit real pay dirt when I notice a link for a Schedule of Social Security Benefit Payments 2006. This page turns out to be a calendar, with each day a checks are mailed highlights (taking Sundays into account).

How great is that? Here is a somewhat obscure question, on a topic I knew nothing about, and yet I was able to find the answer on a government website in about 3 clicks. When the patron called back (twenty minutes later), I was able to tell her with confidence that her check should have been mailed that day (but I couldn't promise it was in her mailbox). And she was happy.

Who says our government is inept?

firstgov.gov, government, patron, reference question, social security

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What is the Library Expanding into?

   November 9th, 2006 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford One Book One Town logoAs part of my library's "One Book" program, I spent the evening of Election Day at a local polling place, asking people to vote for their choice for "One Book." Overall it was a positive experience, in that I felt like a lot of people were interested in voting and supporting the library.

However, this is the first time I've ever been in the wild on behalf of the library, and it was really eye-opening. I mean, I spend most of my time either in the library helping people who come to me (who therefore are supportive library users), or in talking with other librarians (or reading their blogs).

So, I was really surprised by some of the reactions I got at the polling place as I asked people to vote for the book they would like to read. Of course there was what I expected ("sure," and "hey, that's a neat idea") and what I was happy to hear ("oh, I read about this in the paper," and "the library is so great"), but there was also the other extreme.

I guess it is because I am fairly surrounded with pro-library people (and those forward-thinking pro-library 2.0'ers) that I was so unprepared for that other extreme. Here's a sampling of a few of the answers I got to me asking "Would you like to vote for the Library's One Book Program?":

  • No, I don't read.
  • Hahahahaha...
  • What the hell is the point of the entire town reading the same book?
  • I've never heard of any of these books.
  • Can't you see that I don't have time for this?
  • Do I get a prize?
  • The library? Why do you even bother?

And these comments didn't come from rowdy/disrespectful toughie kids - these comments came from adults. Not that I was upset or scarred by any of this, just surprised. It was such a far cry from all of the "you have to do IM reference and offer RSS feeds to survive" kind of talk that I usually hear.

As a public librarian, I really do include everyone who lives in town (and beyond) under the "patron" umbrella, and not just students, or parents of storytime kids, or some other target market segment. I guess this really stuck with me because it was a very definite demonstration that, no matter what the library does, and no matter how we use technology to reach out with service, there will always be people we want to serve that we never will.

But since that's far too melancholy a note on which to end this post, how about this: a hotdog walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender looks at him and says, "sorry, we don't serve food."

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