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


Where The Good Stuff Lives

   September 4th, 2014 Brian Herzog

I just got back from an extra-long Labor Day weekend, which of course means my desk had accumulated a variety of items in my absence. Most are fairly routine to deal with, but a few - namely, donations from patrons - sometimes require special tactics.

For regular donations (like books and DVDs), we either add them to the collection or give them to our Friends group for the book sale. But other things, local history items, photographs, old newspapers, and other assorted ephemera, don't fit into an existing slot somewhere in the library, which means a Decision must be made.

In my case, all that stuff (a.k.a. Deferred Decision items) goes under my desk. It occurred to me that it's possible that the best stuff in libraries lives in places like this - and only because we don't know what else to do with it.

So, as an exercise in public shame, I thought I'd share what it looks like under my desk, and explain what's there and why. Here's what is under my desk:

Under The Desk

Now, going from left to right:

  • The tall thin boxes are unassembled acid-free archival boxes, waiting to be used
  • Next is an assembled archival box, which is my catch-all for any local history item that isn't a book. This currently includes (but is not limited to) a route map for the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail bike path (the white roll on top), old and newish newspapers, unmarked photographs, random notebooks and records, loose yellowing pages from who knows what, and some duplicates of things we have in our Local History Room. Most of these things I found while cleaning out different cabinets in the library and just consolidated here - beyond that, I don't have any idea where most of it came from
  • The white box is where I keep the current year of our local newspaper - we have a "reference" subscription to the paper, which I send out to be microfilmed after the year is complete. The publisher doesn't provide microfilm copies, so this is the only way we can continue to build a clean filmed copy for our archive
  • The "tax products" box is something I keep just because it makes me laugh, although I haven't found an actual use for is yet
  • And finally on the right, this entire box was donated by a patron and is full of magazines, newspapers, and scrapbooks of clippings, all from the 1960s and relating either to the Kennedys or the moon landing

Since we're a public library and not at archive, we really don't have a way to make most of this stuff publicly-available. But I also can't bring myself to just throw it all into the recycling bin.

I've tried to find homes for some of it - I called the JFK Library to see if they'd be interested in the old Kennedy stuff, but they said they have loads of it. Everything else, I just keep telling myself that some day when it's really slow at the desk, I'll go through it all and do something with it. Some day.

Anyway, I'd be curious to hear if anyone else has a treasure trove like this under their desk (or elsewhere). I hope I'm not alone, and I suspect that I'm not.



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/20/12

   May 26th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Kindness of Strangers signIt's been a very slow week in the library (school winding down + beautiful weather), so this week's question isn't an actual reference question - but it is something I recently learned.

Did you know Wikipedia has a reference desk?

The Wikipedia reference desk works like a library reference desk. Users leave questions on the reference desk and Wikipedia volunteers work to help you find the information you need.

Questions/answers are broken up into categories, and are both interesting and sophisticated. I also like the format of crowdsourcing answers - even when someone had given what I thought was a great answer, subsequent responders added new information or aspects that were useful.

Actually, it reminded me of any other online forum, which I use all the time for answering questions (especially for coding problems or frustrating technology issues). No one response provides a complete answer, but putting all the bits and pieces together often solves the problem.

Not that using the internet as a big Help archive is anything new - I was just happy to find another source to search when I get a real stumper. But if nothing else, the Wikipedia Reference Desk Guidelines does make for interesting reading.



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Digital Picture Frames as Informational Signs

   July 21st, 2011 Brian Herzog

Digital picture frame at the Childrens DeskUsually I'm pretty good at math, but in this case it took me awhile to put two and two together.

Awhile ago, our Childrens Department put a digital picture frame on their desk, using it to display photos of their various programs*. I'd seen and heard of other libraries using digital picture frame like this, and for in-building informational signs (like upcoming events), but I never thought of an application for it at the Reference Desk.

Until a couple weeks ago, when I was in the Apple Store in Boston. I'm not at all an Apple fanboy, but I admit that once in awhile, they come up with a good idea.

A friend of mine was having trouble with her Mac laptop, so we took it to the genius bar to having someone help us with it. I still really like the idea of the genius bar in and of itself, but what got my attention was that, behind the genius bar were great big screens scrolling through tips and information. The messages were all about using or fixing Apple products, which were perfectly targeted at the captive audience of people waiting for the genius bar.

I didn't get any photos myself (Apple is funny about taking pictures in their store), but here are some from the interweb:

Apple Store Genius Bar
Apple Store Genius Bar
Apple Store Genius Bar

You get the idea.

When I saw that, it finally dawned on me - this would be an easy thing for libraries to do at service desks, using a simple digital picture frame. As soon as I can get approval (and funding) to purchase one, I'd like to try one with rotating tips on topics like:

  • how to renew books
  • how to book museum passes
  • using online resources and databases
  • where the bathrooms are
  • online events calendar
  • how to find summer reading books

Really, good topics are anything that might be interesting to someone waiting in line at the Reference Desk.

The "photos" will just be slides created in PowerPoint, and hopefully, having something interesting to look will give patrons waiting in line something to do (in addition to teaching them something they may not have known).

I bet other libraries have already thought of this, so if you're doing it, please comment with how it's working. When I get ours up and running, I'll post an update with how it went.

 


*They decided to use a digital picture frame rather than flickr or other online service, because they were reluctant to post photos of kids on the internet. Keeping the photos offline and in the Childrens Room was a good compromise (between online or not at all), and it might be more likely for the kids to see themselves, too.



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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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