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




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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Reference Question of the Week – 3/2/08

   March 8th, 2008 Brian Herzog

damaged Low Clearance signFirst thing one morning, a very pleasant older couple approach me at the desk. The husband asks me (in a Irish accent, which I tremendously enjoyed and won't even try to reproduce in type):

Do you have a book that tells me all the bridge heights between here and Florida?

I felt there was more to this story. After a bit more questioning, I learned that he and his wife bought a new RV, and were leaving next week for Florida. Since buying it, though, he'd started to notice signs everywhere he drives indicating the clearance under bridges. To prepare for their road trip, he wanted a book that will help him plan a route that won't take him under any bridge that is too low for their RV.

We did not have any book that gave this information. One possibility, I thought, was to check our various road atlases to see if they might indicate this. None of them did.

I thought the best bet would be to contact AAA, but first, I tried an internet search for interstate bridge clearance site:.gov. This led us to a U.S. Dept. of Transportation Federal Highway Administration memo on vertical clearances of the Interstate System.

Although not a strict specification, the memo did state that most interstate minimum clearances are 4.9 meters, with some being 4.3 meters.

Patron: Meters? We came to America to get away from the metric system. What's that in feet?

Convert 4.9 meters to feet yields approximately 16 feet, and 4.3 meters = ~14 feet.

This made the patron happy, as his RV is 13 feet high. I still felt I needed to give him more, so I asked if they minded waiting while I called AAA. I often call outside resources who are likely to give an expert answer on something, and luckily in this case I am an AAA member.

I looked up the local AAA office in the phone book, and the first person I spoke to said enthusiastically that yes, AAA's TripTik department does have this information, and he transferred me to them. But surprisingly, when I explained what I was looking for to the TripTik operator, she said they did not have this information.

She did have some advice, though - avoid Parkways. These roads, such as the Merritt Parkway (CT) and the Garden State Parkway (NJ), are designed for smaller, non-commercial-sized vehicles, and often have lower under-structure clearances - especially toll booths. Huh.

I think this bit of information jogged her memory, because she then said that yes, AAA does publish a book with this information. It's called the AAA Truck & RV Road Atlas (Amazon is the only listing I could find), and is available at any AAA office.

I relayed this information to the patron, and he was delighted. He was a brand new AAA member, and was happy to have a reason to go use his membership. The AAA woman said the book retails at about $22.95, but is discounted for AAA members at the local offices. My library does not have one, so I might have to add it to the collection.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/10/08

   February 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Not every reference question I am asked is one that I can answer. This is one of those.

Perhaps the very nature of a small public library prevents librarians like me from being experts in any given field - since we have to respond to questions on any possible topic, it helps to know a little about a lot of areas rather than a lot about a single area. Specialists work in academic and large public libraries, and generalists end up in smaller libraries.

But that's not to say that a librarian won't know quite a bit about an area they are interested in. Coworkers of mine could easily specialize in linguistics, pop culture, cooking and modern fiction. Hiking, conspiracy theories, knitting and dystopian novels are some of the particular holes I've dug for myself.

At least, those are all the excuses I can think of for my behavior with this reference question.

A patron sends the following email to our reference desk:

To: Chelmsford Library Reference
Subject: Corporate Tax Rate

Dear Sir/Madam,

I am living in Kuwait and for study purpose I have a 2 US Corporate tax related questions.

A US-Based Company (Domestic Company) have its operations in Foreign Country what tax is levied on this company?

If this domestic company is acquired by a foreign company (and domestic company is still operating in another foreign country)....what will be tax rate implied for that foreign country?

Hope You answer my question

Here's why I answered this question the way I did:

  • Although we help anyone who comes in, calls, or emails us, we do give priority to local patrons. He didn't say he was a local resident who just happened to be abroad, and I didn't see his name in our catalog. I honestly have no idea how he found our email address from Kuwait, and that makes me suspicious and reluctant to spend a lot of time on this
  • He did mention that he is there for study, and I'm always hesitant with students: the line between helping them do their work and doing their work for them is often blurry. I try to err on the side of less help to start with, but keep checking in to see if they are on the right track
  • This is a tax question (and a very specific one), and we have a policy against giving tax advice. Especially with such a specific question, unless you get an answer from a specialist, it's hard to know how much to trust the answer

So, with all that in mind, my reply back to him is below. I knew I wasn't giving him an answer, but I wanted to at least direct him to some resources that might lead him to an answer:

To: [patron]
Subject: Re: Corporate Tax Rate

I'm sorry, but specific tax questions are beyond our expertise here, and also violates our policy against giving tax advice. I did try looking into your request, and found the Internal Revenue Service's International Business page (http://www.irs.gov/businesses/international/), which may lead to the answers you seek.

The IRS also has an office in Philadelphia, PA, USA, that focuses on international issues. Their contact information is listed on http://www.irs.gov/localcontacts/article/0,,id=101292,00.html

In addition, the IRS has technical support for its website, which should aide you in locating the information on their website that will answer your questions: http://www.irs.gov/help/article/0,,id=97185,00.html

Another potential resource for you to contact is the United States Embassy in Kuwait (http://kuwait.usembassy.gov/), which may have an office to help with your questions, or be able to direct you to the government agency that can answer them.

I'm sorry we are not able to answer your questions directly, but I hope some of the above information might help you. If there is anything else we can do, please let us know. Thank you, and take care.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

This feels like such a cop out, and I feel bad I couldn't come up with a real answer, but this seems like the kind of question someone could spend days researching and still find nothing. The patron did reply with a very polite and gracious thank-you message, but I haven't heard back if he found what he was looking for.

If anyone knows of resource that can answer this, I would appreciate hearing about it.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/20/08

   January 26th, 2008 Brian Herzog

U.S. Elections '08A patron came up to the desk and said:

I keep hearing on the news about other states' primaries and caucuses. I know it's for the President, but what's the big deal? We don't vote until November, right? What's the difference between a caucus and a primary? What happens if you don't win them? Does Massachusetts have one? And I keep hearing good and bad things about all the candidates - who is winning?

I love easy questions like this.

I knew the Massachusetts primary is coming up, so the first thing I wanted to do is search the state's website for information on that. While doing that, I tried to give a brief description of the whole primary/caucus system: candidates win delegates in each state, who then cast votes in the party conventions to decide who actually runs for President...

By this time I had found a few Massachusetts resources:

  • MA Elections Division, which listed the primary's date (Feb. 5th), as well as lots of information on both state- and national-level elections
  • The Voting Process website, which explained how to register, how to apply for an absentee ballot, what do to and where to go on election day, and more

At this point, the patron confessed that she was far more interested in who was winning than in how the process itself worked. A website I found a few weeks ago is perfect to answer this: CNN Election Center 2008.

I like this website for the same reason I don't like USAToday - it breaks everything down into easy to understand chunks, and does so with lots of colors and graphs. It lists who has won each primary/caucus so far, and how many delegates each candidate has earned.

It also explains the major issues and where each candidate stands, has an easy-to-use calendar for upcoming primaries and caucuses, shows which candidates have dropped out, how much money each candidate has raised and spent, and more.

All in all, it seems like a fairly complete election coverage source. And it satisfied the patron (actually, it outright delighted her to see Ron Paul has won more delegates than Rudy Giuliani even though Giuliani has spent $30.6 million to Paul's $2.8 million). She wrote down the url and promised to read more about the issues before Feb. 5th.

I was curious, though - even though I think CNN is a reliable source, I also wanted to see what other election coverage and resources were available. I spent some time searching, and here's what I came up with, broken down by type:

Election News Coverage:

Campaign Finances:

Election/Voting Resources:

Political Parties and National Conventions:

I didn't bother linking directly to each candidates' website, because many of the sites above do that. In fact, since they're all reporting on the same thing, most of the information on these sites is duplicated. I guess the point is to pick at least one resource you trust and stay informed.

2008, campaign, candidates, election, elections, libraries, library, politics, president, presidential, public, question, reference, reference question



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/5/07

   August 11th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Usually, when someone walks up to the desk with something in their hand and asks "can you help me find this," it'll be an easy question. 99 patrons out of 100 will have a piece of paper with a book's title, call number or ISBN written on it.

(In librarianese, this is called a "known-item search" - you know ahead of time exactly which item you're looking for.)

But, lucky me, I met #100.

A woman walked up to the desk and asked "can you help me find this," but she wasn't carrying a piece of paper. She had a little Tupperware container. I knew then that this was definitely an "unknown-item" search.

She took the lid off, and then repeatedly shook it, as if trying to get something inside to turn over. Eventually she righted what was inside, and held it out to me saying, "I found this in my basement and want to know what it is."

House Centipede photoWhat it was was an insect/centipedey thing. About an inch long, light brown, with a lot of very wispy legs, and two long antennae. I was surprised that it had survived the trip and all the shaking, but it was crawling around in there, along with a couple bits of dirt and brick. And she wanted me to help her identify it.

I took her over to the 595's [?], and she started flipping through a few insect encyclopedias. However, not knowing the name of the bug, it became clear that identifying it was going to be tough. I showed her how to use the index to look up centipedes, told her to keep looking, and I went to do some internet searching.

Not knowing what to call this thing, I searched for "bug identification." I was hoping for a website that would guide me through the identification process by asking questions, such as "does it have more than six legs?," "does it have wings?," etc.

I went through the first page of search results without much success (despite promising domain names: whatsthatbug.com, insectidentification.org, bugguide.net, etc.).

But the final website on the first page paid off - Dave's Garden Bug & Insect Identification database. Instead of asking questions, it just had a long list of photographs. These were easy to scan through, and halfway down the page I spotted our quarry: of the family scutigeromorpha, commonly known as house centipedes.

The website didn't offer much additional information (here's more), but at least we learned what it was called (and read some humorous member comments, saying why they do or do not like this bug).

From that, we went back to the book shelf and quickly found a book with a section on them. Granted, the entire search process took more time than it took to read the section, but the patron was happy to know what it was - and that it's pretty harmless.

Unfortunately for this bug, I don't think riding around in a Tupperware container is at all harmless.

bug, centipede, centipedes, house centipede, identification, insect, libraries, library, public public libraries, reference, reference question



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/29/07

   August 4th, 2007 Brian Herzog

This week has been long and hot, and I think the unpleasant weather meant people were in the library for our air conditioning more than anything else.

So, this week's reference question is an article chronicling a not uncommon patron interaction. It takes place at a library in California, but I'm sure any librarian could relate a similar experience:

In the library, paranoia is rare
By Scott La Counte, OC Register

I not making light of the patron's condition, but there is humor in a situation where someone unprepared and unequipped must handle the bizarre in a professional and straight-faced way.

found via ME-LIBS

libraries, library, oc register, paranoia, public libraries, public library, reference, reference question



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