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


Reference Question of the Week – 3/15/09

   March 21st, 2009 Brian Herzog

Thomas JeffersonSince Obama became President, we've had a new regular patron at the Reference Desk.

I don't remember ever helping her before the Inauguration, but since then we get a couple questions from her a week - all relating to government actions or political news. Often they're questions like "how many Democrats are in the House of Representatives, and how many are Republicans" (254 [D], 178 [R]) or "can you print the text of Obama's Inagural speech" (text from NYT, text & video from the White House blog).

But sometimes her questions require a bit more work. In early February, she wanted copies of both the House and Senate versions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill so she could compare them to see the differences. And more recently, she asked what were Barack Obama's accomplishments while he was in the Senate.

For these types of questions, I always turn to the Library of Congress' THOMAS database ("In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, legislative information from the Library of Congress").

Searching it is always a bit daunting, just from the sheer amount of information it contains. But the flip side is how much you can learn when you start sifting through it.

When researching the stimulus bill, a search for "HR1" found a record that includes the bill's history in Congress, detailing each vote at each stage (since researching this question, I notice the LOC put a nice link to another handy schedule overview on the THOMAS homepage).

But as far as comparing the two bills, I'm not entirely sure what the patron was expecting. The House version of the bill was 679 pages [pdf] and the Senate's amended version was 736 pages [pdf]. That is certainly beyond printing, and this particular patron will not use a computer, so she just gave up on that quest.

As for Obama's legislative record, THOMAS also offers an Advanced Search for every Congress. It allows searching by Member of Congress, and can be limited to role and bill status. Since Obama served in both the 109th and 110th Congresses, I search both for the number of total bills he sponsored or cosponsored, and then also filtered to see how many of those bills have become law (sponsored 282 bills, with 2 becoming law; cosponsored 977 bills, with 29 becoming law).

The patron was happy with this, and I am still fascinated with THOMAS. The oldest records seem to be from the 93rd Congress (1973-1974), and a search on "impeachment Nixon" yields 36 various resolutions and bills. A search in the 107th Congress (2001-2002) for "USA PATRIOT Act" shows that H.R.3162 (132 pages [pdf]) was introduced into Congress on 10/23/01 and became law on 10/26/01.

Good stuff.



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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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Reference Question of the Week – 10/26/08

   November 1st, 2008 Brian Herzog

Election Information iconThis question is kind of predictable, but still very important:

Patron: Do you have a copy of Tuesday's ballot?

We don't, and I'm not even sure they let actual ballots out ahead of time. Absentee ballots are available at Town Hall, but I think only for people voting early, and that's not what the patron wanted. He just wanted to see what choices were going to be on his ballot.

We found two websites that offer this - the Elections Division of the MA Secretary of State's Office, and ImagineElection.com. Both allowed us to type in the patron's street address, and in addition to all of the candidates and questions on the ballot, they gave us the precinct number and polling location.

Beyond this, there were pros and cons to each. The State website is of course reliable, but it also provided a lot more information that ImagineElection. The extras the State provides are:

  • the party of each candidate
  • the running mate for each presidential candidate
  • indicating if a candidate is an incumbent
  • providing a summary of each ballot question, and what a Yes or No vote would mean

ImagineElection.com logoHere's what ImagineElection had going for it:

  • it was way more easy to read

The State site is a no-nonsense utilitarian text listing - which is not surprising for a government website. But that is a sharp contrast to ImagineElection's use of colors and indentions to visually organize the ballot. The overall feel of their site was kind of a web 2.0 generic theme vibe (which made me question its reliability), but the ballot itself was leaps and bounds beyond the State site.

The patron, an older man, thought so, too. However, he preferred the additional information provided on the State site. What would have made both ballots better would have been information about each candidate (or links to information), to help people decide and make educated votes. I'm sure that is a can of worms, and the information is available elsewhere. But it's inclusion here would have made for a much better one-stop-shopping information gathering place for a voter.

So while I'm always happy to see content triumph over design, this is a very clear case of why design is important. I'm not sure where ImagineElection gets there data, but I imagine the additional information could also be included. And it doesn't surprise me that a government website is basic and no-nonsense, but a little html/css formatting could go a long way towards better serving the citizens.

Also: at the risk of sounding like the patriotism police, I want to remind all Americans to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 4th. It's important.



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Political Parties and Technology

   July 22nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Donkey and Elephant political iconsI noticed this interesting juxtaposition of the difference in the way the Democratic and Republican parties are approaching technology at campaign events.

The Arizona Star reported that the GOP wanted to prevent any attendees of a Tucson fundraiser from recording the event, out of fear of what might show up on YouTube. Bush himself asked the attendees to turn off all recording devices, and was quoted as saying

I don't know a lot about technology...but I do know about YouTube.

On the other hand, an email from the Obama campaign goes in the exact opposite direction. The email mentioned an upcoming rally in Massachusetts on August 4th (Obama's birthday, incidentally), and read in part:

...remember to bring your camera and snap a few photos! You can share them with us at eventsforobama@gmail.com. We'll start posting photos soon!

Not that there is any one right way to approach technology, but I did find this contrast telling. The Bush Administration has a long reputation of trying to suppress and control information and keep things behind closed doors, whereas the Obama campaign has embraced modern technology and has put effort into learning it to use it to their advantage.

Politics is politics, but I am all for being encouraged to participate. Besides, I like taking pictures of things I do and places I go, and would kind of resent being told I couldn't because of someone else's misunderstanding or fear.



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DNC Launches McCainpedia

   May 20th, 2008 Brian Herzog

McCainpedia logoI thought this was an interesting approach to organizing political information: the Democratic National Committee has created "McCainpedia."

McCainpedia is a wiki intended to serve as the hub for opposition research for the upcoming presidential race. It's interesting because it is a example of a large and important organization using a wiki to communicate with (not to, but with) its members.

As far as the world of politics goes, it seems like a pretty novel idea to make information public like this. But I like it. I just finished reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, which talks a lot about how making things public actually makes them more accurate and more secure.

In the book, the topic is computer encryption. The reasoning is that if the encryption technology is made public, much smarter people than its creators will try to break it - if no one can break it, then you know it's secure. But if you keep it secret, you'll never know about its vulnerabilities until it's too late.

I like that a political party is bringing information to the public in an easy-to-use format, instead of doing all their research and strategizing in the proverbial smoke-filled, locked-door war room. It would be even better if the information wasn't just anti-McCain, but compared his positions to the democratic nominee.

I'm sure both republicans and democrats will be scrutinizing the information published here, and reporting any errors or omissions. This will lead to better information, which leads to a more informed public.

And even though the information is obviously biased, I still would consider this a trustworthy source. You always need to take the source and its slant into account when using information, but because the DNC is putting its name on this and taking responsibility for it, I would trust them to be accurate.

Via Huffington Post, via Politico.com



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