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

Reference Question of the Week – 11/11/07

   November 17th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Modified AT & T logo: Death Star with 'Your World. Delivered. To the N.S.A.A patron called in, on her cell phone, while driving*, and asked:

Can you look up and see who a phone number belongs to?

Big Brother-type questions always give me the creeps. I know there are legitimate reasons to do this, but still.

Anyway, since it wasn't a local phone number (which means I couldn't use our Polk Directory), I turned to the internet. It occurred to that I have not done a reverse phone number lookup in at least two years, so I wasn't sure if the websites I used to use were still around.

I did a general search for "reverse phone lookup" and recognized a couple domains: InfoSpace, WhitePages.com and AnyWho.

For this reference question, I typed the number into AnyWho, and it provided me with a first initial and a last name. I read this off to the patron, she said thanks, and then promptly hung up.

Still curious, I tried typing that number into the other two, to see if they all just had the first initial. WhitePages.com gave me a full first name (in addition to the last name and address), and InfoSpace found no matches. Our ReferenceUSA database also provided the complete information, but since it takes a bunch of extra steps to log in to library subscription databases, in this case the free web was easier.

This isn't a very difficult reference question, but it's good to review these tools every so often, to know how they compare to each other. Of course, I still added all three to my library's del.icio.us account.

*Interestingly, my library does not have a policy about talking to people who are driving. I personally hate it when people use cell phones while driving, but I also don't like the idea of telling a patron "no" or asking them to call back later. But, in the interest of not killing innocent people, I'd be willing to do it.

libraries, library, phone, public libraries, public library, reference question, reverse lookup, reverse phone lookup, reverse telephone lookup, review, telephone

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Now Hiring

   November 15th, 2007 Brian Herzog

MVLC logoMy consortium has a very important opening right now, and I'm hoping that by getting the word out as much as possible, a great candidate will be found.

The job title is "Assistant Director for User Services," and there is a full description at the MBLC's job bank.

I see this position as so important because this is the person that coordinates services and training between the 35 member libraries of the consortium, as well as the person who facilitates the flow of information between the have-libraries and the have-not-libraries.

With the right person in this position, all of the libraries can work together more closely to serve our collective patron base. A group this large and diverse has huge potential to work together and offer our patrons a tremendous amount of materials and services, as well as work together to help each other move forward and adapt as the tools of our profession and the needs of our patrons evolve.

Plus, you'd get to talk to me sometimes. Luckily, the pay is pretty good, and the benefits are almost embarrassingly good, so that more than makes up for all of the requests and work I'll be sending your way.

Please apply. Thanks.

job, job posting, job postings, jobs, libraries, library, mvlc, public libraries, public library, user services

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/4/07

   November 10th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Group of Indians in headdressesWhile sitting at the desk, two older Indian men (from India - this is important) approach me.

One didn't speak English very well, and so hardly said anything. The other man asked me if there were any Indian centers in the area.

Due to their appearance and accents (an Indian accent over proper British English), I assumed that they were recent immigrants, and were asking if there were any cultural centers or support organizations for people from India. When I asked a few clarifying questions to this affect, I found I was absolutely wrong.

It turns out that they lived in India and were visiting the Boston area on vacation. What they wanted was to visit a re-created Native American Indian village, to see how Indians lived before Europeans settled the area.

I didn't know of any right off, but I know the kind of place (such as the SunWatch Indian Village in Dayton, OH, where I went to college). I did a couple internet searches, but a search for "native american village massachusetts" wasn't very helpful and a search for "indian site massachusetts" turned up Indian restaurants.

When the men saw I wasn't finding anything right away, one of them offered some advice:

No, no, not "indian" like me. We want to see bows and arrows. Try searching for "red indian."

As racially-insensitive as America can be, "red indian" is just not a term we use in this country. It made me laugh because it's definitely a British thing to say - it's even said in the Mary Poppins movie.

I explained how that phrase isn't used here, but he insisted I try it anyway - again, nothing.

After that, we got more creative, and ended up finding a few resources - but I have to say that I am surprised at the scarcity of such a thing in this part of the country. Here's what we found, including history and art museums:

This list isn't exactly what the patrons wanted (and I don't think they were up for a drive to Dayton). But by doing this search with them, I think they felt comfortable that we came up with a pretty good list of what is out there. I still feel like there should be more, but they left happy - the Plimoth Plantation site being their first stop.

indian, indians, libraries, library, ma, mass, massachusetts, native american, native americans, public libraries, public library, red indian, red indians, reference question, village, villages

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/28/07

   November 3rd, 2007 Brian Herzog

Jack O'Lantern photographI know I kind of missed the boat with these (after all, Halloween was three days ago - now it's time for Christmas), but here are two Halloween-related questions from this week:

Halloween Question 1
A patron called in on Halloween night:

Patron: How do you spell "satanic?"
Me: Oh, it's S-A-T...
Patron: Wait, wait, let me get a pencil and paper...
Patron: ...okay, go ahead.
Me: It's S-A-T...
Patron: That's too fast!
Me: I'm sorry; it's S...A...T...A...N...I...C
Patron: Okay, thanks. [click]

Who knows what that was about. Also, it amazes me that only about 10% of the people I talk to on the phone around here say "goodbye" before they hang up.

Halloween Question 2
A patron called in on Tuesday (Oct. 30th), and asked:

I'm having Halloween dinner party tomorrow night, and want to have a Halloween trivia contest. I don't have time to come to the library, so can you find some Halloween trivia and email it to me?

Normally, I try to discourage the reference staff from actually doing the patron's work for them (as opposed to teaching or helping them), but in this case I decided to just do it.

All it took was a web search for "halloween trivia," and then copy/pasting ten questions from various websites into a Word file. I then converted this to pdf and emailed it to the patron.

Since this was obviously not an academic assignment, I was willing to bend the rules. Plus, I always like being able to help people according to their lifestyle needs - in this case, a phone call and an email was all it took for this patron to get the information she needed.

That is much better, I think, than making her come into the library so I could help her find websites and then show her how to copy/paste and then format text in Word and then charging her $0.15 to print it. What took me about ten minutes saved this patron who knows how much time, and that's the impression of the library I want our patrons to have.

By the way, some of the Halloween trivia is below, and the rest (and the answers to these questions) is in the pdf file [7kb] (it's nothing special, trust me).

What ancient festival is considered to have evolved into our modern Halloween?

  • Lammas
  • Beltane
  • Samhain
  • Ostara

How much money is spent on Halloween candy annually in the United States?

  • $1 million
  • $200 million
  • $500 million
  • $2 billion

According to legend, a unibrow, tattoos, and a long middle finger are all signs of what Halloween creature?

  • a werewolf
  • a vampire
  • a witch
  • a golem

How many "witches" were burned at the stake in the Salem Witch Trials?

  • Twelve
  • Twenty
  • Thirty-three
  • None

Ghosts that do pranks are known as what?

  • Spookers
  • Poltergeists
  • Ghosts
  • Specters

What are male witches called?

  • Warlocks
  • Morlocks
  • Manwitches
  • Sorcerors
  • Gingriches

Download the pdf file [7kb] for the answers to these (and more) questions.

Some of the sources I used for this project are:

halloween, halloween trivia, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, reference question, satanic, trivia, trivia questions

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/21/07

   October 27th, 2007 Brian Herzog

String tied around fingerAs I was finishing up helping one patron, I noticed a co-worker just behind him, waiting with a second patron. When the first patron left, patron number two step forward and my co-worker said, "Brian, perhaps you can help this patron."

This was odd, because when my co-workers refer patrons to the reference desk, they don't usually wait with them in line and then introduce them to me. So of course, I immediately became suspicious. When I turned and greeted the patron, he said:

I've been losing my memory. Can you help me get it back?

Are you kidding me? I thought this must be some kind of joke, but when the patron didn't crack a smile, I looked to my co-worker. She Just smirked and walked away, mouthing "good luck" over her shoulder. Thanks, Linda.

I turned back to the patron, still kind of stunned, and pressed on:

Me: Can you explain a bit more about what you're looking for?
Patron: Well, I can't remember things like I used to, and I was hoping you could help me with that.
Me: I don't think we can help you recover specific memories, but...
Patron: No, that's not what I mean. I just want to remember things better.
Me: You mean you'd like to improve your memory skills?
Patron: Yeah, something like that to start with.

Well, so at least now I had some hope of helping him. I searched our catalog for just "memory," and after sifting through the results by skimming the titles, I noticed a few books at 153.1. I also noticed we has some audio books at this same Dewey number.

I walked with the patron over to the shelf, and we found about five books that had promising titles, like The memory key: unlock the secrets to remembering and Total memory workout: 8 easy steps to maximum memory fitness. He took them over to a table to see if they were what he was looking for.

After about a half hour, he came back up to the desk. He said that two of them were great, and gave me the rest to reshelve. I next walked him upstairs to the audio book section for him to browse, and went back downstairs.

This question ultimately ended up being pretty straight-forward, but the way he asked it really threw me.

libraries, library, memory, public libraries, public library, reference question, remembering

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Trying CAPTCHA Word Verification

   October 25th, 2007 Brian Herzog
no spam CAPTCHA imageMy library's website has the standard "contact us" forms - one for general comments, one for purchase suggestions, one for reference questions, etc. Lately, we've seen an increase in spam comments coming through these forms, and I wanted to see if I could put a stop to it.

On the library's blog (and mine), I'd been using the "Challenge" plugin for WordPress, which requires someone to solve a simple math problem. This seemed to work pretty well, but 1) didn't look high tech, and 2) it only worked with WordPress.

For the forms on our html pages, I searched around the internet for an easy-to-install client-side CAPTCHA (read more) solution. What I found was a javascript solution called "jcap" provided by Archreality.

I didn't really see anything on the internet about this jcap thing, other than someone having trouble installing it. I installed it and got it to work, but unfortunately it didn't seem to cut down on spam at all. When I installed it on this blog's comment form, the number of spam comments actually increased. With the math challenge, I'd get maybe two or three a week. With this jcap, I'm up to maybe fifty a week.

Here's what it looks like:

To prove you're human, please enter the word seen below:

I'm going to leave it on for awhile longer, just to see what happens. I think I'll end up switching back to the math challenge, but I sure do like the way jcap looks. Oh, and another advantage of the math challenge is that I think it is ADA-compliant, in that it can be read by screen reading software - the CAPTCHA images (at least in this version) cannot.

If you want to try installing and testing yourself, here's the steps I used:

1. Download the zip file from http://www.archreality.com/jcap/jcap.zip

2. Unzip the file (two .js files and one image directory) to your webserver where ever you want them - just remember, because you'll need to reference this location later

3. Modify jcap.js

  • line 10: change the imgdir variable path (to the cimg/ directory) to reflect where it will be on your webserver (be sure to keep the trailing slash after the cimg)
    Note: I used absolute path (http://www.domain.com/cimg/) instead of a relative path (../cimg/) because this lets you put the captcha on various pages that may be on different levels within your directory structure
  • line 91: optional: you can edit the text that appears in the alert box here (follow standard javascript syntax so as not to break the script)

4. Modify your html page on which you are including the captcha word verification

  • Include in the <head></head> tags these two lines (be sure to modify the path to reflect where ever you put these files on your server:
    <script type="text/javascript" src="http://www.domain.com/md5.js"></script>
    <script type="text/javascript" src="http://www.domain.com/jcap.js"></script>
  • Include the attribute below to your <form> tag that processes your script:
    onsubmit="return jcap();"
    (for example, yours might read <form action="http://www.domain.com/cgi-bin/email_ref.cgi" method="post" onsubmit="return jcap();">)
  • Include the lines below within your form where you want the word verification to display:
    Enter the word seen below:
    <input type="text" name="uword" id="uword" value="" size="20">
    <input type="hidden" id="required" name="required" value="uword">
    <script language="javascript" type="text/javascript">cimg()</script>

    Note: I ended up changing the "uword" field name (be sure to also change the field name on lines 84 and 92 of the jcap.js file). My logic was that, since this was the only script out there I could find, spammers probably already know to look for a field named "uword." But even with using a different field name, spam still comes through

Optional Extra Error Checking
This has nothing to do with this particular script, but I added it just for error-checking convenience. This is totally optional. The line below can be added to your submit button tag to make sure people fill in all the right fields - you'll have to edit it to reflect the fields you want to make "required"
onClick="javascript:if(document.commentform.author.value == ''){alert('You must provide your Name to sumbit a comment.');document.commentform.author.focus();return false;}else if(document.commentform.comment.value == ''){alert('You must type some sort of comment to sumbit a comment.');document.commentform.comment.focus();return false;}"

Good luck. If anyone has a better solution, please share.

update: After a two month trial period, I found this method was letting a lot of spam comments through. It was pointed out to me that javascript, being client-side, is easy to defeat, and that I should modify this to run in the php code of my site. I did not do this, but instead went back to using the WordPress Challenege plugin, but a programmer I know did, and he said his php code works well and that this javascript version was a great place to start.

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