March 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog
One of the most common questions we get at the Reference Desk is something along the lines of:
I tried to print something, but all I got was this blank page. Can you print it for me?
The reason this happens (I think) is that a lot of web pages - especially news sites and free email accounts - compartmentalize information using frames*, and many web browsers have a difficult time trying to print all these different frames at the same time.
When patrons try to print a page like this just using the browser's File > Print function, it often doesn't work. The page designers know this, so they usually embed a little printer icon somewhere within the content frame the person wants to print - the body of the email, the news story, etc. It generally seems to appear in the top-right corner of the content window, and when you click it, opens the important content in an entirely new window that will print nicely. However, it is often so subtle that people never notice it.
But check this out: I stumbled upon PrintFriendly by accident, and I love the idea. It is specifically designed to make printing these annoying pages easier. You can copy/paste in the URL of the page you want to print, it grabs the content, and then you have full control over which parts of the page actually print - it lets you remove anything you don't want.
What I thought was even more useful is their bookmarklet that you can stick right in your browser - that way when you want to print a page, the PrintFriendly button is always right there, instead of having to mess with copy/pasting the URL. Neat.
Since finding this, I've been testing it every chance I get, and it seems to work about 90% of the time. Usually, exactly what I want to print is the only thing that shows up. But even when extra sidebars and things do show - like in this Lowell Sun newspaper article (source) - PrintFriendly makes it so easy to remove all the junk (just click on whatever you want to delete). This means the good content fills the page (a single page), instead of being a very narrow column four pages long.
It didn't work everywhere though. For instance, Zap2it.com listings seem to print much better the normal way than through PrintFriendly.
A few more neat features: once you render a page to print in PrintFriendly, it gives you the option to print, create a PDF, or email it. Very handy.
Of course, my first thought was to put the bookmarklet in all the browsers on our public workstations. This still might be a good idea, but patrons will need to be trained to use it, which will be a challenge. Everyone is so conditioned to File > Print, and usually people don't know something went wrong until after they've paid for their print job (why doesn't anyone File > Print Preview?!?).
So for the time being, this might just be a handy tool in the librarian toolbox (but I do have it installed on my computer).
I have no idea how long PrintFriendly has been around, so I might be the last person to know. Has anyone been using this? I'm curious to see how well PrintFriendly works on a wider array of websites.
*Frames is an HTML way of embedding multiple "windows" into the same webpage. The best clue for knowing whether or not there are frames on a page is to notice if there are scroll bars inside the page. There will always be the main vertical scroll bar all the way on the right edge of the browser window (for pages longer than the screen), but sometimes there are additional vertical scroll bars in the page itself, that just moves some content in a little window. This is a frame, and may or may not print when you print using the browser's File > Print functionality.
March 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This week is actually a crowdsourcing request to find the answer to a question. Last month, a friend of mine at the Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, tweeted:
I followed up with her and got a little more detail on what she's after:
What I am looking for is basically a timeline showing when repair of certain things became obsolete; for example, approximately when most people stopped taking their shoes to a cobbler and just bought new shoes, or when radio or toaster repair became a thing of the past and you just had to get a new one instead.
That sounded like a chart I'd like to see, and I'm always happy to help, so I started researching to see what I could find. The search so far has been unsuccessful, and earlier this week she posted an open request on her blog asking for help. If you're interested, please lend a hand - unanswered question bother me.
The search has turned up some good stuff though. I like making and repairing my own things, so of course this question - and the notion of planned obsolescence in general - interests me. Jenny listed some of the resources we've found so far, including the one I found most eye-opening, "Consumer Society Is Made To Break," because of this:
“Planned obsolescence” may sound like a conspiracy theory but it was once openly discussed as a solution to the Great Depression. In fact, most scholars trace the origin of the term to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which London blames the global economic Depression on consumers who disobey “the law of obsolescence” by “using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”. London’s sinister solution was to propose a government agency that would determine the lifespan of each manufactured object whether it is a building, a ship, a comb or a shoe. Those frugal consumers who insisted on using their products past the expiration date would be penalized.
The full text of the pamphlet is included in their post. To me, planned obsolescence did seem like some kind of manufacturer's conspiracy, so I was surprised to read it originated as a solution to the great depression. I suppose that makes sense, but the idea of deliberately building a short - and unextendable - lifespan into products to force people to spend more money on a replacement is just offensive.
Anyway, if anyone manages to find what Jenny is looking for, please let her know (and me too). Thanks!
March 2nd, 2013 Brian Herzog
This sort of happened once before, and I think it's awesome - although it probably wasn't very awesome to experience.
One member of our staff recently took a two-week cruise, leaving from Florida. She and her partner flew to Florida, took a shuttle from the airport to the dock, and were just about to get on the boat when the realized one of their suitcases was missing. But worst of all, it was the suitcase that contained his blood pressure medicine.
They simply could not go on the cruise without it. And they only had an hour and a half before they had to check in on the ship, so they didn't have enough time to get all the way back to the airport and try to track down the bag.
So, she did the only smart thing - she called the library.
Her logic was this: they knew the name of his doctor and the town in which he practiced, but no other contact information. The Reference Desk was able to easily find the doctor's office phone number, which she then called from her cell phone in Florida.
The doctor's office said they could send a new prescription to a local pharmacy down there - but of course they were at a cruise ship terminal and had no idea where a drug store might be.
The ensuing story sounded like the stuff of a Benny Hill sketch: they found a taxi, but the driver barely spoke English. He tried to locate a CVS Pharmacy on his smartphone's GPS, while my coworker tried to keep the doctor's office on the phone. I can just hear Yakety Sax playing while picturing this cab racing down the street, cell phones blazing, communication barrier humming, and the clock ticking.
They finally find a pharmacy, (hopefully) convince the cabbie to wait in the parking lot because they'll be right back out and need to race back to the dock - my coworker still has the doctor's office on the phone and gives it to the pharmacy technician so they can work out where to send the prescription.
After a few tense minutes the new prescription is filled, the smiling taxi driver is happily waiting for them, and they make it back to the cruise ship just in the nick of time. The rest of the cruise goes smoothly, they have a wonderful time, and they even manage to pick up their lost suitcase on their way back through the airport going home.
And the moral of this story? Never go on vacation without taking your local library's phone number with you.
February 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog
This isn't a reference question, but I think it is by far the most interesting email the library received this week. The message below was sent to my Director, and was then forwarded to our cataloger and me to look into:
Subject: former(?) Rare Chelmsford Library Book 1743 MASSACHUSETTS Bay COLONIAL Laws
Hello, I noticed this rare book for sale on ebay and an image shows an ownership label of your library. I'm not interested in buying it, just wanted to bring it to your attention in case this rare item had been removed from your collection. No response needed to me.
Wow. We checked out the ebay listing for this book, and sure enough, the inside cover has a old Chelmsford Library bookplate:
None of us ever recalled seeing this book in the collection, or even anything remotely like it. We have lots of old historical and vital records, but none leather-bound or particularly valuable.
There was no record in the catalog for this item at our library (although a nearby library does have it) - which means this item could have been weeded and discarded, sold as a fundraiser, or stolen by fiends any time in the last 100+ years.
Since we have no way to know, there's nothing we can do. I do occasionally hear about stolen library books being sold at auction (or worse, maps or color plates cut out of library books), but in this case I'm willing to give the benefit of the doubt. It is an interesting situation though. If anyone would like to purchase it and donate it to the library, please let me know.
February 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog
One common question at the reference desk is a patron asking for a specific book by describing the cover - they don't remember the title or author, but know it was "kind of red, with an airplane or a submarine, and maybe something like a roundish square type thing."
Being librarians, we take whatever information the patron can provide and do our best. I know many people dread this type of question (because it's often just impossible), but I sort of enjoy them. Since the expectation of success is so low to begin with, it's a fun challenge, and finding the right book is all the better for it.
In this case, the patron was actually a coworker of mine - she had taken her niece to a different library, and was trying to re-locate a book her niece had picked out and loved, to see if the author had any others. But all she could remember was that it was a newish kids book with a girl holding a duck on the cover.
I first went to Amazon's advanced search with this question. My keyword search was for "girl duck," limit to Condition=New, Format=Printed Books, Pub date after November 2012, and then submitted individual searches for each of the different kid ages one at a time. None of the searches has a likely-looking cover, so I decided to just use "duck" as my keyword (thinking that if a duck is on the cover it must be the important part of the story). I also dropped the idea of using the age limiter in favor of the Subject option limited to Children's Books.
In that search, result #10 looked promising. I called my coworker over to check, and she was excited - the book she'd seen with her niece was indeed Lulu: Lulu and the Duck in the Park (Book 1), by Hilary McKay and Priscilla Lamont*.
Awesome. But then I started to wonder - was Amazon the best tool for this question? There is no really good "look up a book by cover" resource out there, although I would love there to be. LibraryThing started down this road with CoverGuess. The genius of their approach was to gamify the data entry part of tagging cover art, but I don't think a searchable interface has ever been created.
Anyway, out of curiosity I decided to run the same search process in Novelist and the library catalog, to see if I could have successfully located the book with those tools.
Novelist's advanced search is more complex than Amazon's - I used "girl duck" as a keyword, limited to Audience = 0-8 Years, and Publication Date from = November 2012:
In my library's catalog's advanced search, I used "duck" as the keyword, limited to Format = Books, Audience = Kids, and Publication Year after 2011:
And now the results - each one has the number next to it indicating how far down this book was in the search results:
In all cases it was findable, but Novelist ranked it the highest with the fewest search limiters. However, since Novelist is a subscription database, getting to the search interface is a much more cumbersome process than using Amazon. The library catalog is easy to get to and the search interface is reasonable, but burying the book at #55 is bad because many people give up log before the sixth page of search results (thanks for that, Google).
Something else I noticed, and what I think is another strike against the library catalog, was the various sizes of the cover images. Comparatively, the library catalog's cover thumbnail is tiny, and because of this it's not really evident that the girl is holding a duck. Since that's all I had to go on with this search, if I had started with the library catalog, I probably would have missed this book entirely. I don't know why the thumbnails are as small as they are, but it seems the catalog would be improved by making them almost twice the size they are now.
So there you go, my curiosity was sated. Anyone else have a favorite method for finding books by cover descriptions?
*I don't know why Amazon has the publication date as September 2013, since the other library apparently had it cataloged and on their shelf. Ah, sweet mysteries of life.
February 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog
Earlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.
And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.
This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.
First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.
Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."
Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.
Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.
All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.
This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."
This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.
Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.
This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.
Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.
The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).
But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.
Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.
Tags: closing, complain, early, forms, grouch, libraries, Library, public, Reference Question, snow, storm, tax, taxes