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


Readers Advisory Initiative at the Chelmsford Library

   May 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

QR code labelThis is a neat thing, but is such a large project that I'm still not exactly sure how to explain it all.

At the end of last year, my library created a new position for a dedicated readers advisory person. Since this was a brand new position, we've had to reconfigure the way we do things. Another benefit, though, is that it got everyone in the library thinking about how we can improve readers advisory across the board.

Our Childrens Room really upped their game in this area. They'd long maintained in-house readalike lists, both for specific books and for subjects. Eventually these lists migrated from papers in binders to online lists created using our catalog's "bookbag" feature.

Which is all well and good, but what they really wanted to do was improve access to these lists, and make it easier for patrons to find them on their own.

The best way to promote these lists, they felt, was to print out labels with the list URLs (and QR codes) on them, and stick them in each book that was on the list. I know other libraries use QR code labels in their collections (notably the Dover [MA] Town Library), but I don't know how many are mass-sticking the actual books. And they're trying to stick them in the books as close to the end of the story as possible, so that patrons find them immediately after finishing a good story:

QR code label in book

Along the way, we ran into a few snags that had to be dealt with, and I think our solutions worked pretty well.

Our catalog's bookbag URLs are pretty messy and unfriendly (ie, https://chelmsford.mvlc.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=53439;page=0;locg=18;depth=0), so we wanted to use a URL shortening service to clean them up. The Childrens staff first started with Goo.gl, and reviewed a few others, but hit a major roadblock: with those services, once a short URL is created, you can't change the destination.

This was a problem for us because not too long ago, we had a catalog upgrade that changed the URLs of every single one of our bookbags. This meant that if we had stuck QR code labels in thousands of books, they would all have to be redone with new labels for the new bookbag URLs.

I looked around for an alternative, and found an open source solution yourls.org (Your Own URL Shortener). That was awesome, and with instructions from Lifehacker, I had it up and running on our web server in like fifteen minutes.

However, it kind of defeats the purpose of a URL shortener when you're starting with a URL as long as chelmsfordlibrary.org, so we decided to get a whole new domain name for this project. We kicked around a lot of ideas, but the best one we came up with - short(ish), and memorable - was readmore.in.

Now, the .in is the country code for India, but readmore was available at the domain name service we used, so we went with it. But best of all, it makes for great readers advisory URLs: readmore.in/adventure, readmore.in/magictreehouse, etc. Even though those aren't super short, they're easy to remember, and that's the important thing.

With yourls running on the readmore.in domain, now we can always point readmore.in/poetry or whatever to the right place, even if the underlying bookbag link changes.

And to make the QR code creation process easier, I also installed a open source QR code creator (phpqrcode) on our web server. There are lots of free services out there, but hosting our own lets us pre-set all the output settings, so all staff need to do is paste in the URL, click "create," and then right-click on the QR code to paste it into the label template. It's already the right size, encoding, and everything else.

I admit there was a lot of technical playing to make this happen - but, now that everything is set up, staff is whizzing through the creation and labeling process. Of course, this is an on-going project, but we're hoping it is something from which patrons will really benefit.



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Navigating NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Books

   October 25th, 2011 Brian Herzog

SF Signal presents A Guide to Navigating NPR's Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy BooksThis isn't new, but I read on Slashdot last week that NPR listeners voted for the top 100 science fiction & fantasy books of all time.

But the website SF Signal saw a problem: the 100 science fiction & fantasy books were from all over the genres, and had basically no rhyme or reason. So they created a readers advisory flowchart, to help readers select which of the 100 they'd be most interested in reading by answering a few questions.

A 100-book flowchart graphic is massively huge (see below), so they also made an interactive version - it's great, and worth a look:

Flowchart for choosing science fiction and fantasy books

Does anyone know of other interactive "choose-your-own-adventure" type readers advisory tools out there?



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Reference Question of the Week – 12/12/10

   December 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Lead-Gold tattoosHere's a good example of why having some readers advisory background is very helpful when doing reference - and how not taking shortcuts can save the patron's time.

A young patron came to the desk and says,

I'm looking for a book - I borrowed it from a friend of mine, but only got like 25 pages into it, and then he took it back. Can you find it for me, because I want to finish it.

She couldn't remember the author, but she was sure the title was The Alchemist.

No problem, I thought, as I walked her down to Y/Fic/Coelho - but after skimming the first few pages, she said it wasn't the right book. Then I took her to Y/Fic/Scott, thinking she might have meant The Alchemyst instead of The Alchemist, but that wasn't the right one either. Nor was it Fullmetal Alchemist.

So we walked back up to the desk to search the catalog, and on the way she told me what she remembered from the story: a guy walks into a private detective's (or a psychiatrist?) office and tells her his life story, and that he has been alive for hundreds of years. Since she'd only gotten twenty pages into the book, the only real detail she could remember is that the guy was described has having very engaging colorful eyes, that changed color sometimes.

She texted her friend to ask him who the author was, while I searched our catalog for The Alchemist. However, she didn't recognize any of the covers and the book records didn't include descriptions.

Since she kept talking about the guy telling his life story in the office, I thought we might hit on it by searching the internet. We tried searching online for things like "the alchemist" detective "life story" and alchemist "life story" -Coelho -fullmetal and "life story" book eyes change color but weren't getting anywhere. She was interested and engaged in the search, so I probably continued with web searching longer than I should have.

Eventually, (finally) I switched to Novelist to just see a list of books called The Alchemist and read their descriptions. #26 on their list was one by Donna Boyd, with this description:

As Dr. Anne Kramer listens to Randolf Sontime, who is confessing to a horrific crime that has shocked the world, she is drawn into his story and transported back to the House of Ra, an isolated oasis in the Egyptian desert of an ancient time.

She said that sounded promising, so we looked it up on Amazon for additional description, and then she was sure it was the right one. Yay.

I then searched in our catalog for the author's name, and found that we did indeed own the book - but it was "Lost." Of course it was. I apologized, but she was happy with just requesting it from another library in the consortium.

I also apologized to her for taking so long to find this book - it was a good ten minutes from when she walked up to when we placed the request. I think this would have been cut down to about two minutes if I had just taken the time to search on Amazon for the books in our catalog that didn't have descriptions. I don't know what that didn't occur to me up front, so I subsequently took a very roundabout path to the answer. This girl didn't seem bothered in the least, but it really bugs me to make such a dumb and time-wasting mistake.

There are also two postscripts to this story:

  1. Quite literally the very second I clicked the "submit" button to request the book for her, she got a text back from her friends saying that author of the book he had was Donna Boyd. That even made her laugh.
  2. I know there's nothing to stop an author from titling their book the exact same thing as a very famous work, but it sure makes finding the less well-known works difficult. If I ever write a memoir, I think I shall call it, Harry Potter and the Three Cups of Tea of the Da Vinci Code.

    Actually, slightly related to this is that I've sort of considered writing a biography of the author Saul Bellow, but only because it could be published with the exact same cover as one of his novels:

    Herzog, by Saul Bellow book cover

    Aren't I clever?



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“Readers Advisory” on Hulu

   September 9th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I was watching a show called The Book Group on Hulu recently, and got a taste of how they recommend other shows to people.

The bottom of every show page always has a "You Might Also Like" section, recommending similar shows, which I have used that in the past. But because a couple of the episodes of The Book Group were rated TV-MA, and required me to log in, during one of the commercial breaks I got this ad:

Hulu ad

Which I read as,

Brian, not only are we violating your privacy, but we also think you have bad taste.

I'm sure the "27x more fans" thing is just to induce me to watch the other show (Peep Show, which I did watch a few episodes of and didn't really like). However, requiring me to log in and then using that to track me and "personalize" suggestions does feel like a violation. A different ad seemed more reasonable:

Hulu Ad2

This conveys the exact same message, but doesn't also imply a deficiency on my part. So, I guess a word of caution to anyone providing readers advisory or viewing suggestions on your website - careful how you word the message.

Also, this got me thinking about two types of suggestions: item-oriented suggestions and person-oriented suggestions. Item-oriented is like NoveList or LibraryThing for Libraries - basically, providing suggestions based on the characteristics of an item.

Person-oriented suggestion is more like a personal shopper, or saying, "based on our monitoring of your behavior, we think you'd like this" - providing suggestions based on the preferences (or past behavior) of a person (or people). Amazon's "Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought" or "Frequently Bought Together" sections are like this, as well as their "Recently Viewed Items." Which isn't a bad thing, unless the person being monitored don't know about it, or has no choice about it.

Hulu might be genericizing the data of what other people are doing, but it seems like they're still tracking what individual people do on their website, and I will always feel uncomfortable with that.



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Alikewise is for (Book) Lovers

   August 24th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Heart shadow in bookIt looks like Alikewise.com has been around all year, but I only heard about it this weekend - it's a dating website that matches people based on the books they like.

This is a great idea for a dating website - it seems a much better way to get at someone's true nature than filling out a profile by guessing what will make you attractive. I checked around the site a bit (without creating a profile), and wonder if there's a way to tie-in with sites like LibraryThing and Good Reads to capitalize on peoples' full libraries. LibraryThing sort of already does this, with their You and None Other meme.

But here's something funny: at my first library, we toyed with the idea of a "singles night" book group. We thought it'd be a perfect program for Friday nights, after work, to come and meet other single people interested in books. It never happened, but I always liked the idea. Maybe that'll eventually manifest in Alikewise meetups.

And wouldn't this be a heck of a social networking widget to add to a library catalog? "Like this book? Click here to meet other patrons that do, too."

via Burlington Free Press (thanks, Carney) and more at NPR



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Tests for Hiring and Training

   July 30th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Cones in the stacksOne of my coworkers and her husband run Gibson's Bookstore, in Concord, NH. When hiring new employees, each applicant is given a knowledge of literature test to see how well they'll do at reader's advisory.

Their opinion is that bookstore staff are first and foremost reading advisers, and cashiers and stockers second. The test questions cover a broad scope of literature, just like the questions of customers (and library patrons):

2) Name five characters invented by William Shakespeare.
13) What is Ender Wiggin famous for?
14) James and the Giant ________ by Roald _______.
23) Why do some Sneetches feel superior to others?

To get hired, applicants must get at least half of the questions right. Perhaps libraries could implement something similar? Perhaps they already do.

I also have a list of reference questions and tasks I give to reference staff after they've been hired, to help with training. It is based on something my director found (can't remember what or where), but I tailored it to get new staff familiar with the type of questions we get, our collection, our policies, basic tech support, and reference in general. They get it as a Word document, and work on it for their first few months.

Some people like tests and some don't. But each in their own way, I think these tests are valuable to make sure that the people interacting with the public are really able to help the public.



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