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


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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Reference Question of the Week – 8/30/09

   September 5th, 2009 Brian Herzog

MySpace for smartttI hesitated to post this question, because I don't mean to be picking on this kid. But then I thought that if the kid involves reads this, it might help him.

So with that in mind, I present this week's reference question as yet another example of how personal flippancy on the internet can affect someone's professional life.

Here's the story: an elderly woman called the desk one day, asking me to look up a company for her. She lives alone and needed yard work done, so she called a company that a friend recommended to her. They arrived to give an estimate, but she wanted to know more about the company because:

  • the crew consisted of just two kids (no adults)
  • the kids didn't write anything down, and only provided a verbal estimate
  • there was no sign on their truck, but the company's logo was on their t-shirts
  • when she went in the house to answer the phone, she saw them through the window "goofing around in the street"

So, she wanted to know if it was a real business - she was partly worried about being scammed, but moreso was concerned about kids using power equipment on her property without them having insurance.

The company name she gave me was Smart Choice Landscaping. They weren't listed in the yellow pages, so I searched for "smart choice landscaping" chelmsford, and the results were promising. One was the company's website, one was a lawnmower forum posting, and a third was a 2007 article in the local paper about an ambitious high school kid starting his own landscaping business.

So far, so good, right? Everything supported what the patron said - it just seemed like a kid taking his summer job very seriously, and had been at it for two years.

But then I clicked on the final result - the kid's MySpace page. Which is a fine thing for a 20 year old to express himself with, but since he listed the company name, I could easily see that the owner of Smart Choice Landscaping, among other things, enjoys listening to "nigga beats."

I've certainly seen worse, but this might offend some people, or at least taint his professional image a bit.

I left this out when describing my findings to the patron on the phone. She said he was very nice, and was happy to hear he's been doing this for two years, even if he was young. I suggested she ask for proof of insurance, and also get the estimate and invoice in writing - she agreed and said she was going to hire them.

But if this hadn't been a mediated search, and the patron had seen his MySpace page, it very well could have cost him the job. Again, I've certainly seen more questionable MySpace pages, but this one does, probably without realizing it, cross the line between personal and professional.



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Library policy about personal blogging

   July 14th, 2009 Brian Herzog

The Man Behind The CurtainA couple of weeks ago, the director of the Wadleigh Memorial Library in New Hampshire wrote me with this question (I'm paraphrasing):

We have an intern for the summer, and she's started a blog about her work at the library. However, the next thing I knew, there was a link to her blog from the library's homepage (it's since been removed). While I like the idea of the public getting a bird's eye view of what we do at the library, I have to think of worst case scenario....

I couldn't find your blog linked from CPL's website, but you do publicly announce on your blog where you work. Does CPL have any policies in place about staff blogs? Have you ever had anything you've written come back to bite the library?...

This is a very interesting question. Something I wrote once did come back to bite, and the Town, the Library and I were all threatened with a lawsuit. That prompted a discussion between my director and me about separating library and personal, although no written policy ever came of it. But in general, here are the blogging guidelines that I follow:

  • Nothing written can be unwritten - think before you publish
  • Get permission before using names, and be vague when referring to people otherwise
  • Personal website has a disclaimer disassociating the library/town from me

Which is basic, I know, but since it's a personal website done on personal time, there's not much keeping me from doing whatever I want - other than common sense, experience, and goodwill towards the library. Since most of what goes on in libraries is public record anyway, pretty much everything I do at work is fair game, so long as I don't break the law or violate patron privacy.

Even still, it might be a good idea for libraries to create some sort of guidelines for staff who publicly use the library's name online. I don't think libraries can force people to do or not do most things (aside from using library resources and time), but basic guidelines might help a well-meaning library employee avoid awkward situations they might not have otherwise considered.

A few resources for these guidelines are:

It's a great idea for library employees to share their work with the public (and other librarians). Especially if the library is going to link to that personal blog from the library's website (in which case, the library might be entitled to more control over the content of that personal blog). If no employee is doing this on their personal blog, the library's blog itself could occasionally spotlight behind-the-scenes activities in the library.

I guess the bottom line is that people are still discovering Web 2.0, so there's a lot of inexperience and new situations out there. Libraries shouldn't try to prevent their employees from participating, but instead can assist them in doing it well (remember 23 Things?).

After our email discussion and speaking with library Trustees, the Wadleigh Library decided to put the link to their intern's blog back on their homepage, which was good news. So if you're looking for a model on how to do this, check out Lexi the Intern's blog - she's doing a great job.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/2/08

   November 8th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Snow-covered mailboxOn Wednesdays I work the late shift at the library. When I came in at 1pm this past Wednesday, my coworker who covers the desk in the morning had a good story for me:

An elderly woman walked up to the desk and asked:

Do you have Sarah Palin's street address?

Keep in mind that this was Wed., Nov. 5th, 2008, the day after she and John McCain lost the 2008 presidential election. My coworker kind of joked, "what, do you want to send her a sympathy card?" The patron's response?

Well, yes.

The patron went on to explain how she thought Palin did a great job in the campaign, and that she didn't want her to feel bad about not winning. But above all, the patron wanted to encourage Palin to try again in 2012. After such a negative and protracted election season, it's kind of refreshing to know there is someone with this much earnest concern for public officials.

But back to the question: what followed was a quick search in a few of the popular people search resources, including ReferenceUSA. Interestingly, the street address was available in some, but was listed as "unlisted" in others. ReferenceUSA provided the phone number, but said the address was "Not Provided."

However, being a state Governor and Vice Presidential candidate, there are other ways to contact her, too. The mailing address for the McCain/Palin campaign headquarters was listed on the campaign website, and so was the address for the Massachusetts office. Her mailing address at the Governor's office was on the Alaska State website, but it also included this note:

Alaska law prohibits use of state equipment or resources for campaign or partisan political purposes. Please do not send any messages to these addresses or make calls to these telephone numbers concerning campaign or partisan political activities. Information about elections and candidates can be found by calling, writing, or e-mailing a campaign office for that particular candidate.

Which I found interesting, but which also rules out the Governor's office as an address to send a sympathy card.

My coworker said the patron took down the various mailing addresses, and said thank you, and went home to start composing her letter.



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MA’s 2008 Statewide Ballot Question 1

   September 30th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Information for Voters booklet coverThis post ended up being much longer than I expected, so I added subheads in bold. I ask librarians to read and comment on the first part, and the rest of the post is background information.

When Does A Library Become Biased?
Last week on my library's blog, I posted information about the three questions on Massachusetts' statewide ballot in November. One of them, Question 1, calls for doing away with personal income tax in Massachusetts.

I feel the duty of libraries is to present unbiased, timely and reliable information. However, Question 1 potentially has a huge impact on Massachusetts libraries, and I'm really torn on where to draw the line on this one.

In the post, I include summaries of each question, and what a Yes or No vote would mean. However, for Question 1, we also decided to include a link to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners' stance. We did this because, since so many library services are funded by the state, if this initiative passes, library services may revert to the way things were in 1889 - yes, 1889 (read the MBLC stance to find out why).

It doesn't feel like biased information, because it is timely and from a reliable source. However, since there is such a self-interest involved, it feels kind of unseemly. Does including the link to MBLC overstep the library's role? Are libraries allowed to present the case for their own existence?

Question 1, and Why I Don't Like It
First, I have to say a few things:

  1. A similar issue was narrowly defeated in 2002
  2. New Hampshire doesn't have income tax, or sales tax, and they seem to do fine
  3. It appears my job could very well be on the line because of this initiative

In a broad sense, I can agree with parts of the initiative - Massachusetts' state government does seemed to be wasteful, and I do feel over-taxed. But this initiative seems, I don't know, kind of myopic and not realistic.

In the Information for Voters booklet [pdf] from the MA Elections Division, Carla Howell, Chair of The Committee For Small Government lists points in support of doing away with income tax:

  • Your "Yes" vote will create hundreds of thousands of new Massachusetts jobs
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT raise your property taxes NOR any other taxes
  • Your "Yes" vote will NOT cut, NOR require cuts, of any essential government services

I haven't completly researched this issue, but I see no facts or logical basis that support the first point, and the last two seem mutually-exclusive. By taking away a major source of revenue and not replacing it, they are essentially forcing the government to cut services, many of which will be essential services.

The actual text [pdf] of the question itself also seems, I don't know, less-than-professional. The biggest goal seems to be to label Massachusetts state government as "Big Government," and repeat that phrase as many times in the question as possible, as if just by establishing that label they are assured victory.

Question 1's Impact on Patrons and Libraries
And this issue seems especially poorly-timed, too. In times of economic troubles, the idea of not having to pay income tax certainly appeals to a base sense of self-preservation. But it is precisely in times of economic troubles that the use of libraries increases.

It seems to me that, especially in times of trouble, a community is better served by comprehensive services provided by a stable government, rather than by self-interest.



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Public Library For Personal Use

   June 26th, 2008 Brian Herzog

lockersThis isn't a new issue, but it's happen three times this week, so I thought I'd mention it: people using the library for storage.

I don't mean the library collection. I mean patrons using the friendly and easy-going atmosphere of the library as a safe place to either leave things, store things, or transfer things to someone else.

So far this week, I have been involved in the following situations:

  • A patron who routinely leaves her notebook and text books at the library. She knows we clean up each night and hold things like this at the lost-and-found at the desk, in case someone comes to claim them. She said she knows they are safe, and it's easier than her lugging it all home each night
  • A patron who emailed me important files from his home computer, because he was sending it out for service and didn't want to lose them (I won't even try to explain that he could have emailed them to himself instead of me, not to mention backing up to disk)
  • A patron who uses the library as a drop-off point: for instance, if she needs to get some documents to someone else, and they can't meet personally, she'll leave them at the desk with that person's name on them and tell the other person to pick them up at the library

It says a lot that people not only trust the library like this, but also think of us in these situations. That's being an important part of the community.

But it's also annoying, you know? The library cannot take responsibility for these items, so it worries me that people rely on good natures and good fortunes. I could understand if we had public lockers for these purposes, but we don't (then there are the stories of library lockers being used for drug deals and who knows what all).

All of these exchanges involve staff time, which is another concern. A few times a month is no big deal, but if more people routinely use the library to store their personal property, or to pass along items to other people - or worse, as daycare until their child can be picked up by someone else - this kind of thing could easily get overwhelming.

Or am I wrong? Should libraries do whatever patrons ask of us, and make it part of our mission to offer this kind of service? I fully support the idea of library as community center, so perhaps. It just seems something like this needs to be decided deliberately, and not just be some patrons getting special treatment on the sly.



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