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

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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Reference Question of the Week – 11/19

   November 21st, 2006 Brian Herzog

IRS logoI'm going to be traveling for Thanksgiving, so I wanted to get this one in right away. Yesterday, 11/20/06 (yes, note the date: November 20th), a patron walked up to the desk and asks:

Patron: Do you have any tax forms yet?

Tax forms. It's November, and this patron wants to work on filing his taxes already. Already. It's November. At best, we don't receive the forms from the IRS until January, and even that's pushing it sometimes.

It's bad enough that people are decorating for Christmas around Halloween (no kidding - I saw red and green Christmas lights up on Halloween night), but it's not even close to tax time yet. Oh well, I guess the first request of the season had to come sometime.

patrons, reference question, tax season, taxes

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How Trustworthy Am I?

   November 16th, 2006 Brian Herzog

From Where I SitAs a reference librarian, I help people will all kinds of questions. I have an MLIS degree, which essentially is a degree in how to location and evaluate information - not in the information itself. Meaning, I'm not an expert on every subject. I don't know the answer to every question; I just know how to find it.

So it surprises me the level of trust patrons give to me, just based on my sitting behind a public library reference desk. Although my profession's ethics forbid it, it seems people would be willing to believe pretty much any advice I would care to give them on medical, legal or tax questions.

However, I find that this level of trust does not extend to the location of our photocopier. The picture above is the view from behind our reference desk (click it for a bigger view). The photocopier, although it cannot be seen from the desk, is located around the corner to the left of the stairs, next to the print station, under the clock.

Quite often, someone comes down the steps and asks if we have a copier. It almost never fails that, when I tell them, "yes, we do; you can't see it from here, but it's around the corner to the left of the steps," they will turn and then stand, staring off into that general direction. Not moving, as if they distrust me to such a degree that even though it would take only two steps for them to see the copier, they are unwilling to risk it.

ethics, library, patrons, reference desk, trust

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The Ubiquitous Reference Model

   November 14th, 2006 Brian Herzog

I know the idea of "Ubiquitous Reference" has already been covered elsewhere, but I thought it was interesting. I first learned about it during Linda Braun’s session at NELA 2006, and have since done some reading about it on the internet. Here's what I've found:

Ubiquitous Reference actually refers to two ideas. The first of which is that libraries should be everywhere our patrons are. Usually this refers to creating our own profiles on popular (and useful) websites like MySpace and flickr, as well as having our own blog with rss feed. Also, this idea can be taken into the physical world, by setting up a library presence in coffee shops, bars, bookstores, etc - you know, where our patrons hang out when they're not in the library.

The great thing about this idea falls under the "if you build it, they will come" notion. If we're active on the internet (outside of our own websites), and talking about interesting things, people will find us. I've only been doing this blog for about a month, and I've already gotten hits (and questions) from people searching Google for bookprospector, as well as questions from people reading my comments on other peoples' blogs. Plus, just by being visible, we can get questions without even trying.

The second meaning of Ubiquitous Reference is even more proactive than that. Brian Mathews of Georgia Tech University developed a new model for doing reference, in which he not only set up shop in the virtual world, but actually monitored online conversations of Georgia Tech students. Then, any time one of them mentioned a specific keyword (article, assignment, book, help, journal, research, etc.), he would read their post, prepare an answer for them, and then contact that student with the answer.

Personally, I would have thought that such an approach would have freaked out the student, in a very Big Brother kind of way. But, Mathews found that students were receptive, and viewed him as an online equal. What's more, these initial encounters would often lead to the student saying something like "Thanks. You know, I'm also working on this other project…"

Now that's great. Granted, this would be a lot easier to implement in an academic library (targeting a student body) than it would in a public library, but I do still like the idea.

library 2.0, patrons, reference questions, service, Ubiquitous Reference

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Getting out the (Patron) Vote

   November 7th, 2006 Brian Herzog

In 2007, my library is conducting a "One Book One Town" program. It's the first time this community has done it, and the library received a grant [pdf] from the State to run it.

The biggest question, then, is which book to read. Instead of the library just picking one, we decided to let the patrons choose their book. To do this, the library designed a two-step process.

Step One was "nominations." During the months of September and October 2006, we had nomination forms and boxes in the library and on the website, for patrons to nominate a book (or books - they could nominate as many titles as they wanted) that they thought would be a good read for the entire town.

When nominations closed, a committee of library staff and townspeople tallied up all the nominations. The idea was to take the top five or so most popular, but the committee found that the nominations were all over the spectrum. So, they had to apply some criteria to help narrow the list:

  • had to be fiction
  • had to be under about 400 pages
  • had to be readable by and interesting to ages about fourteen to adult
  • shouldn't be a book everyone read in high school

Once those criteria had weeded out many books, the committee then chose the three most popular nominations, and created a voting ballot for general elections.

Step Two came on Election Day (today, Nov. 7th), with ballots and boxes set up in the library, on the website - and also at the election polling locations around town. The idea was to get people interested in the One Book One Town program by really letting them vote on which title they read.

Voting is going on right now, and I'll post how the results come out.

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