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




Reference Question of the Week – 6/22/14

   June 28th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Davy CrockettIn the time my website was down, I kept collecting the odd reference question whenever they came up. Not that it really matters, but some of these questions are from a few weeks ago.

I was sitting next to a coworker at the reference desk when she answered the phone. She listened for a moment, and then covered the phone, turned to me, and asked,

Before I start answering this, was Davy Crockett a real person?

Ha. I said yes, and she said turned back to her computer and looked something up online. She found whatever it was she was looking for, and said into the phone,

Yes, there are descendents of Davy Crockett still alive today.

You're welcome

And then hung up. Apparently, that's all the patron wanted to know.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/25/13

   August 31st, 2013 Brian Herzog

Because this is Labor Day weekend and I want to be outside instead of in front of a computer, this week's reference question is going to be a little different so I can hurry things along.

In fact, it's not a question at all - it's answers to questions I truly hope someone asks me about at the Reference Desk. Part of being a librarian is having the information ready to go for when someone comes looking, but the problem is that people don't always ask about the really cool stuff. To wit:

  • A couple years ago a huge earthquake hit New Zealand, and among the damaged buildings was the cathedral in the city of Christchurch. While they wait for a new cathedral to be built, the constructed a temporary one out of cardboard:
    cardboard cathedral

    Read more here and see construction photos in the Christchurch City Library's flicker set.

  • Speaking of cathedrals, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, has a stained glass window called the "Space Window." Its imagery depicts planets and stars, but best of all, at the center of one image is an actual moon rock:
    space window
  • And finally, out in the plains and deserts of the American west, there are huge concrete arrows on the ground. Why? To guide early airmail pilots:
    air mail arrow

    At one point the arrows stretched from New York City to San Francisco - now that is cool. Read more at Snopes.

If anyone ever gets asked about one of these things, please let me know. Or if you have some trivia you're just waiting to be asked about, share it in the comments. Happy Labor Day.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/4/13

   August 10th, 2013 Brian Herzog

shooting starThis was a simple question with an interesting answer, but also a case of continuing after the patron had left just for my own entertainment.

A patron overheard me telling a coworker about the upcoming Perseid meteor shower this weekend, and asked me for more information. We looked up a few websites, all of which described the best way to enjoy the show (this from Sky and Telescope):

" ... find a spot with an open sky view and no late-night lights nearby. Bundle up warmly, lie back on a ground pad or reclining lawn chair, and watch the stars. ...

"Be patient, and give your eyes plenty of time to adapt to the darkness. The direction to watch is not necessarily toward Perseus but wherever your sky is darkest, probably straight up."

Even with there being no moon, the patron was still wasn't sure if our area would be dark enough. Chelmsford is somewhat rural, but not too far from a few large urban areas, and I really didn't know how much their lights would affect us.

I was hoping someone had done some kind of light pollution map mashup, creating a tool that let us zoom right into this area to see how much light pollution would affect us. So, I did a hopeful search for "light pollution map" and the first result was exactly what I was looking for.

The Dark Sky Finder is a Google Map superimposed with light pollution data, and we were both surprised to see how illuminated our area is. However, it gave the patron some ideas on where to go, so he was happy.

I, on the other hand, love maps so I was having a great time. I played with the Dark Sky Finder for a bit, then went back to the initial search results because it also brought up a few static maps too. But, something occurred to me while I was looking at this NOAA light pollution map:

light pollution map

Obviously, light pollution is concentrated around large urban areas. It reminded me of recent election results maps, with Democrats centering around urban areas, and Republicans covering rural areas:

2012 election map

Matching up the red areas on the light pollution map to the blue areas on the election results maps produces only one obvious conclusion: Democrats cause light pollution.

Okay, now back to work.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/28/13

   August 3rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

parade fire truckI just ran across this saved reference question, from the week before July 4th. It would have been a little more appropriate to post it then, and I don't know how I forgot, considering I have a memory like a steel sieve.

But anyway. So, a program we offer at my library is called "conversation circles," which are available in a few different languages. They are informal groups, lead by a volunteer, open to anyone trying to learn the same language. It's not a formal class, just a casual opportunity to practice something you're learning.

Our most well-attended conversation circle is for people learning English, and most of the attendees are recent immigrants from a variety of countries. As such, the volunteer leaders help them learn American culture in addition to English.

The week before the Fourth of July, I got an email from our volunteer coordinator:

[The volunteer leader of the English circle] is looking for some suggestions to help teach the folks in the Conversation Circle about the town's 4th of July celebration. They all currently live in Chelmsford but are from China and Russia, so I thought if she could refer to a holiday they celebrate in their countries it might help her explain our 4th of July more easily. The folks she works with have none (or very limited) English skills.

We actually have a DVD documentary about our Town's July 4th parade made by a local filmmaker, and our local cable station's website has online videos of past parades, too. Another immediately-to-mind resource is our Town's Parade Committee's website.

Those visuals should give a good portrayal of what an average American parade is like, but not exactly explain why we celebrate that particular day. The best way to answer that seemed to equate it to a comparable holiday in other countries, so the first resource I went to was our print copy of Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary.

Unfortunately it didn't give a ton of information, but I was able to get the names of some holidays to further research online - which lead to:

Neither Russia nor China really have a comparable independence day - celebrating the birth of their nation by fighting for independence from a colonial power. But these two holidays both seemed close, and the way they celebrate them are similar as well. Both are celebrated with parades, fireworks, and parties nation-wide (although I don't know if they have cookouts and hotdogs).

This wasn't an especially difficult question, and since it was just a quickie answer, I may have missed a few other options. But I thought I'd share this anyway because I really enjoyed it - not just the mental exercise of the self-reflection of July 4th in terms of what and why it is, but also looking for parallels in other nations to bridge cultural gaps. I had never heard of either of those holidays, so yay for learning something new.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/21/13

   July 27th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Save the Wales t-shirtRemember in library school, during the reference course, how they taught that the reference interview is important? The example I heard more than once was, if someone asked for a book on "whales," do they mean whales or Wales?

Obviously, a little of the mystery is lost when you see it typed out instead of hearing it, but I think you get the idea. However, with that in mind, I'll type out a question I got this week, spelling the important word phonetically.

Two men in their early fifties walked up to the desk on Friday afternoon, and one of them asked me,

Where are your "say-uhl" books?

Now, I immediately start running through the options:

  • Books on sailing, or sailboats, or rigging a sail?
  • Books on sales, and being a salesman?
  • Books on selling things on eBay?

I really had no idea, and had to ask him to clarify. However, before I tell you the answer, take a guess on what you think he was after.

Give up? He was looking for the books we had for sale. Our Friends group maintains a book sale cart of books, and after the reference interview got us on the same page, I happily directed him to it - and the two men happily walked off toward it.

I don't know why, but it's little things like this that entertain me during the day. And trying to come up with a phonetic spelling for "sale."



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/14/13

   July 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Removed pay phonesI've talked about pay phones before, but I like them - and we do still get asked about them - so here's the latest pay phone question.

This week, a man came to the Reference Desk asking if we knew where any pay phones were. The phones in the shopping plaza across the street were removed earlier this year, which were the last pay phones in town I knew of.

Since the pay phone was removed from our lobby, our policy has been to let people use desk phones. I offered this to the patron, but he declined because it was going to be a long call to Worcester, MA (which would also be a long distance call). He said he preferred a pay phone, so my coworker and I and the patron brainstormed where one might be.

We thought of all the high-traffic retail centers, but couldn't definitely remember seeing one anywhere. Eventually the patron thanked us, and just sort of wandered away.

This bothered me, so that night after work, I went grocery shopping. My grocery store is in a big shopping plaza*, and I drove around slowly really looking for a pay phone. And, success! I found one right outside the entrance to Wal-Mart:

Wal-Mart pay phone

At the library the next day, I relayed my find to my coworker, and also the patron who came in later. We thought this could very well be the last pay phone in town, and thought the only way to be sure was to drive around trying to spot them. Not being a digital native, you see, it took awhile before I realized that this is why Facebook was invented.

I asked on the Library's Facebook page if anyone knew where there were pay phones in town, and immediately got some responses:

Facebook pay phone post

Great! Crowd-sourcing Reference Questions is kind of fun - and certainly provided a better answer than I did for the patron. This might even motivate me to create a Custom Google Map of local pay phone locations - it would be a challenge to maintain, but there certainly is no other resource for this question.

 


*This plaza just got a Five Guys!



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