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




What’s In Your Ready Ref?

   September 1st, 2009 Brian Herzog

Ready Reference CollectionI've been working on an answer to Debbie's comment about a guide to ready reference, but am sorry to say I haven't been able to find one.

Searches on the web found a lot of great ready reference lists of websites, but not print books. Amazon lists some, but I don't have them to review. I remember having such lists in my library school text books, so maybe that's the best place to look.

But as I thought about this, and looked at what's on the ready reference shelf at my library, I concluded two things:

  1. To be effective, the ready reference collection needs to be tailored to the library and its patrons. My current ready reference collection is very different from the one we had behind the desk of the Kent State University Library when I worked there, but they are equally appropriate
  2. The best thing to do might just be to ask other librarians which print ready reference resources they like and use

So in the spirit of the second one, here's an overview of resources on the ready reference shelf in my library. If you're so inclined, please share what you've got on your shelf - I'd really be curious to know.

For staff to help answer computer questions:

Things that don't really get used but I feel we should have:

Quick Facts & Referencey books (for annual resources, we keep the current year in ready reference and move past years to the reference collection):

Government Information:

Business Directories:

Local Information:

Shelved right next to the desk

Granted, many of these only get used once or twice a year, if that, and almost all have online versions (or equivalents). But I really like being able to answer a question just by grabbing a book within reach, showing a patron how to look it up, and then let them sit at a table absorbing the information. I don't know, it feels more tangible and satisfying than relying on Google for everything.



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Reference Readiness : A Manual for Librarians and Students

   August 13th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Ready Reference coverI was weeding the reference collection when I came across Ready Reference : A Manual for Librarians and Students. It was published in 1984, so I flipped through it thinking the viewpoint of ready reference from 25 years ago might be humorously outdated.

I was wrong. I was 10 when this book was published, but I still use many of the resources author Agnes Ann Hede recommends.

Each chapter in the book is devoted to different types of resources, and describes the best books in each area. As you would expect, most of the book focuses on print:

  • Dictionaries: 31 pages
  • Encyclopedias: 23 pages
  • Indexes, Serials and Directories: 26 pages
  • Bibliographies: 32 pages
  • Computer Sources and Services: 5 pages

I did get a laugh from the page comparisons, but it was certainly appropriate for 1984.

However, when I read the Computer section, I was amazed by how relevant it still is. There was no "computers are a difficult fad we just need to humor" mentality. In fact, the language she used is exactly what is commonly used today. She speaks of "getting into" databases, and casually refers to online searching (not on-line searching or "online" searching).

And her characterization and advice concerning balancing print and online resources is as true today as it was then:

[T]o be today's "compleat librarian," you must add to those [print] sources the increasingly abundant resources offered through computer technology.

The sad part is that this advice, 25 years later, is still not being fully embraced by the profession.

I debated, but ultimately weeded this book. As much as I liked it, it certainly was outdated, even though we do have the current copies of many of the print resources it recommends. But take a look to see if your library has this book. And weed your reference collection!



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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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Reference Dept. Goals for FY10

   June 9th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Dilbert comic about annual reviewsAnother year has passed, which means another round of staff reviews and setting goals for the next fiscal year. Bleh.

In contrast to past years, I was encouraged to be brief. So this years goals are a bit more quantifiable, and a bit less "well, that's part of the job description anyway." You know, the way goals should be.

GOAL #1: Improve access to information resources and library services

  • Weed the reference collection, refine the ref standing order list, and reevaluate how the reference shelving area is used and begin to develop a plan for alternate uses1
  • Work with Tech Services to refine standing order list and evaluate reclassification of subjects to better group similar topics together
  • Continue with staff-assigned sections for weeding, straightening and order suggestions

GOAL #2: Expand and improve the library's technology offerings

  • Work with web committee to migrate website to new content management system2
  • Add more website subject guides to tie together print and electronic resources, and link to expanded offerings of BPL and other MVLC libraries3
  • Work with IT staff towards expanding technology offerings, such as wireless printing and loaning laptops
  • Review current offerings utilizing new technologies, prioritize those needing ongoing maintenance, and document procedures to support maintenance by other staff

GOAL #3: Maintain and/or support web-based resources beyond the library's core collection

  • CommInfo: utilize staff to contact and update organizations every Jan-Feb
  • ChelmsfordVolunteers.org: work with other departments and organizations to keep listings up to date
  • ChelmsfordHistory.org: provide leadership for the Chelmsford History project, coordinating with other organizations and volunteers to locate and index Chelmsford's historical resources
    • Look for ways to better organize and provide access to the library's historical collections, such as the Vertical File, microfilm records, etc.

Admittedly, much of this still falls into the "continuing things we're already doing" category, but that is a large part of my job. And something else covered elsewhere in my review is encouraging all staff to attend at least 5 hours of some kind of training or professional development.

I think it's all doable. I can probably even manage to squeeze in helping patrons at the reference desk, too.

 


Notes:

1. I'd like to interfile the ref books with the circulating non-fiction, and put into the reference area more quiet study rooms or subject tables --Back to Goals--


2. Right now we're using Dreamweaver, but I'd like to see us move to a real CMS - NELA-ITS' CMS Day workshop is this Friday, so yay for good timing --Back to Goals--


3. Patrons like our genealogy subject guide, so I want to make more, incorporating Delicious bookmarks, and also linking to resources at other library to supplement what we offer --Back to Goals--



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Staff Performance Review Time

   May 22nd, 2008 Brian Herzog

The end of May is always staff performance review time in my library, and it seems unpleasant for everyone. Staff doesn't like it, department heads don't like it, and town hall doesn't seem to like it. So why do we do it?

One reason is because we always have done it. But other reason, as cheesy as it sounds, is because it really can help. Whether it provides an opportunity to address an ongoing problem, a pat on the back for a staff person who otherwise might go unnoticed, or just to make you sit down and really think about the way things are going in the library, as awkward and uncomfortable as they are, performance reviews and setting goals are beneficial.

That being said, I loath them. And I'm even lucky - I only have four staff people at the reference desk, and they're all pretty good.

This year, the union requested we use a new, much more simplified form for staff reviews (down from eight pages to three). As department heads, we modified a form that the town already used in other departments and customized it for library staff. The most challenging part was defining which each job criteria entailed, but I think the result works pretty well:

And as ever year, I developed goals for the reference department for the coming fiscal year (if anyone is keeping track, you might notice much repetition from last year):

Reference Department Goals for FY2009

  1. Continue to improve patron access to information resources1
    • Look at ways to improve access to the collection
      • Continue to weed and refine print reference materials to coordinate with non-fiction collection
      • Continue to work with Tech Services to improve standing order list and recataloging of computer books to better group similar topics together2
      • Finish weeding and shifting of the non-fiction collection, and then maintain collection by implementing a continual review through assigning sections to staff members for weeding, shelf-reading, straightening, order suggestions, etc.
      • Continue to add online access listing to the website's comprehensive print periodicals listing
      • Add more website "Subject Guides" to tie together print and electronic resources3
      • Continue promoting database usage through existing methods (bookmarks, signs, links, staff training, etc.) as well as new technologies, and link to expanded offerings of BPL and other MVLC libraries
    • Continue with website improvements, both to Reference section and all of website
      • Work as part of web committee to revamp entire website to meet new design goals and accessibility standards
      • Assist with development of town-wide events calendar
    • Provide better access to the Vertical File, now that indexing is complete and files reorganized4
    • Maintain Chelmsford listings in MVLC's Comm Info database and try to improve data and access
    • Work with Childrens, Teen and Community Services departments to finally launch and maintain a local online volunteer resource5
    • Work with IT on patron-related technology issues, such as timer software for public computers, internet access issues, printing from wireless computers, public faxing, etc.
    • Help coordinate town-wide historical records project to improve access to historical resources both inside and outside of the library
  2. Continue to refine desk area and operations
    • Ensure all procedures and policies are documented and easily available to desk staff
    • Review new technologies and tools to see if paper-based methods can be improved upon
  3. Concentrate on professional development
    • Keep current on journals, literature and blogs, for articles, book reviews and library trends
    • Attend MVLC, NMRLS, NELA and other regional reference meetings
    • Participate in staff, local, regional and national training opportunities
    • Promote training opportunities to staff

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
5/22/08

Footnotes

  1. Like last year, my base assumption is that there is no different between print and electronic resources - back to note 1
  2. Such as, we want to make sure all "powerpoint" books are together, all "sql" books are together, etc., instead of being shelved by dewey and then by author - back to note 2
  3. By this I mean creating subject pages that list research databases, print resources, and links to websites (via del.icio.us), to display all related materials in one place (like this) - back to note 3
  4. Reference staff went through and indexed everything in the vertical file into an Excel spreadsheet, and now we just need to find a way to make that easily searchable by patrons - back to note 4
  5. Our Chelmsford Volunteers resource has been in the works for almost a year; any comments are suggestions are welcome - back to note 5


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Webpage Highlighter Tool

   April 17th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Awesome Highlighter logoHere's a neat web tool I've been waiting to use ever since I read about it a few weeks ago on the Library 2.0 Ning group - the Awesome Highlighter.

It lets you highlight a portion of a webpage, send someone a link, and then they can see exactly what you highlighted. Great for virtual reference work, but also just good in general.

One of our more tech-savvy patrons emailed me asking if there was an easy way to search the Library's catalog right from book's page on Amazon. There is, using Firefox and Greasemonkey, and it is outlined on my Library's Tech Tools page.

But instead of just sending him the link to the Tech Tools page, I ran it through the Awesome Highlighter, so I could send him a highlighted page, with focus on exactly the portion of the page I wanted him to see. Not that he wouldn't have found it on his own, but it just makes it a little bit easier - especially the "jump to highlights" link at the top.

On the Ning page, there's some discussion about the highlighter working or not working depending on whether the user is signed in. I've only used it a couple times, but I haven't had any trouble. The great thing is that someone from the company is participating in the discussion, so hopefully whatever bugs do exist will be corrected as a result - much like Jessamyn's comments on SWIFT.

If we never speak up, then we'll never get tools that do exactly what we need (I'll refrain from inserting my ILS soapbox here).



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