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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/27/11

   April 2nd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Lifehacker QR Code #1Instead of a reference question, here's something in honor of April 1st:

Yesterday, Lifehacker posted an April Fools QR Code Internet Scavenger Hunt - the point is to find and decode a series of QR codes hidden on various websites. But the trick is that you not only need to decipher the clues, but use reference skills to search and find the right websites.

It was fun, and the information provided in the clues is remarkably similar to library reference transactions - cryptic and obscure, but usually enough to go on.

So test out your reference skills - it's fun. It's also a very good example of how a library can use QR codes for an enjoyable and engaging project.

It would have also been interesting to sort of track peoples' search techniques and strategies, to see if librarians are any better at something like this than anyone else.

The article also linked to a handy online QR code decoder - neat.

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King County Library System Launches Evergreen Catalog

   September 28th, 2010 Brian Herzog

King County Library System + EvergreenI found out yesterday that the King County (WA) Library System is now live on Evergreen. They did a lot of work to develop the online catalog, and many of their customizations will become part of the core Evergreen code.

Which is good news for many Massachusetts libraries, as we'll be following in their footsteps in May 2011. But development continues, and we can still customize beyond what KCLS has done - so if anyone has comments or suggestions, please submit them to Kathy Lussier at http://masslnc.cwmars.org.

And for the curious, these introductory videos show and explain a little more:

Yay for open source!

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The Resurrection of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 7th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Yahoo PipesLast week I started talking about newspaper obituaries. Today's post details how we're improving access to the obituaries we do have in our newspaper microfilm records, using an online index created with Yahoo Pipes.

Our microfilm records of the local papers go back to 1940. But microfilm is primarily an archival format, rather than an accessible format, so it can be cumbersome to use. Our biggest impediment was that we didn't know what was there - when a patron contacted the Reference Desk asking for someone's obituary, it was very time-consuming for us to search the microfilm for an obituary, which may or may not have even appeared in the paper - we wouldn't even know until we checked.

So we created an online searchable index to the newspaper's obituaries - not the text of the obituaries, just a name/date/page index. Patrons and staff can use this to know whether someone's obituary appeared in our newspaper, instead of having to check the microfilm every time.

Here's how we did it: first, for about the past 10 months, volunteers have been going through every microfilm reel we have, page by page, and building an Excel spreadsheet with the following information:

Newspaper Year Month Day Page FirstName MiddleInitial LastName Maiden-Jr-Sr

The first column is necessary because we have records for both the Chelmsford Newsweekly (1940-1993) and the Chelmsford Independent (1986-present). The middle columns are reference and retrieval information. In the last column, we included extra information, like maiden name, whether a person was a "Jr." or "Sr." etc., and anything else that was random and didn't fit into another column.

The spreadsheet itself is useful, but I wanted to put this online so anyone could search it. The tool I chose was Yahoo Pipes, which has both pros and cons:


  • It's easy to play with and learn (like most Web 2.0 tools), but is also very powerful so we can grow into it
  • It can use a csv file for the data, which is easy to create with Excel
  • Beyond a simple search, it also provides fancy features like RSS feeds and tie-ins with other social media tools
  • Using Yahoo Pipes is covered in Chapter 7 of Library Mashups, written by Nicole Engard
  • The data is easy to update as the file continues to grow
  • It worked


  • Searching a database is not what Pipes is intended to do, so it's probably not the best tool out there (I wanted to use DabbleDB, but they're in transition right now)
  • The csv file must be ftp'ed to the webserver, which will be increasingly problematic - right now the file is 17,000+ lines and over 1MB. It will only get bigger, and the entire thing needs to be uploaded each time it's updated
  • Pipes has funny rules that you don't know about until something breaks. For instance, field names must be single words (hence "FirstName" and "Maiden-Jr-Sr"), you can't use certain characters in the data (like /), the search doesn't let you combine keywords (so far - I'm sure there must be some kind of fancy loop setup that will allow it, but right now people can only search either by first name or last name or year)
  • There isn't an easy way to embed the search box back into our website (there are Badge options, but only for search output) - you have to use the Pipe interface to search
  • There doesn't seem to be a wildcard for search
  • The results can't not link to something - I wanted the names and dates just to be displayed, but the way Pipes works requires the results to link to something

The last point was initially a pain, but it forced me to be creative, and I think the solution is actually more helpful for patrons than what I originally wanted. Now, when a patron finds the obituary listing they'd like to read, they click the link, and it automatically fills the obituary information into an email contact form on our website. That request gets sent to Reference staff, who then have an easy time of retrieving the obituary from the microfilm. Unfortunately, our microfilm machine isn't connected to a computer, so we'll just print and mail or fax the obituary to the patron. When possible we'll type them in and email them, and of course that will go into the searchable database too.

To make the connection from the Pipes listing to our email form, I had to use some javascript (which introduced another glitch: javascript makes names like O'Conner problematic, because it stops at the ', but I'll worry about this later).

Here's what the whole Pipe's source code looks like:
Yahoo Pipe for Obituary Search

Here's what it does:

  • The "Fetch CSV" module is the path to the csv file on our webserver
  • The module to the right of that controls what the patron search input box looks like. The "Label" field is "Enter EITHER a First Name, Last Name OR Year:" and you can see where that displays on the Pipe page
  • Both of those modules feed into "Filter" module - this one takes what the patron enters into the search box and filters the data from the csv file to create a subset of just matching records. Whatever the patron enters gets searched for in all the fields listed in the "Filter" module
  • The next module is "Rename" and I'm not sure I'm using it properly - I needed to create two new fields, so I'm just taking two existing fields, copying them, and renaming them so I can work with them later. The fields that got copied still exist untouched
  • Next is the "Regex" module, which is the most complicated and powerful, and I use it to create what the patron sees for the search results. The "Title" field is one I created, and here I'm replacing the contents from when I copied it to display what the patron will see on the screen - the code for it is "${FirstName} ${MiddleInitial} ${LastName} ${Maiden-Jr-Sr} - ${Newspaper}, ${Month} ${Day}, ${Year}, Page ${Page} ${Obituary}" which also includes punctuation formatting. So, for example, the result looks like this:

    Katherine M. Polley - Chelmsford Newsweekly, December 31, 1940, Page 7

    Because this field has to be a link, I also had to define what it links to, which is what I'm doing in the "Link" field. The value for that field is being written as


    which carries the data over to the library's website and some javascript pulls the data from the url and puts it in an email form. The patron can fill in their name and contact info into the form and submit it to us as an email message

  • The "Sort" module is self-explanatory, and I chose to list them with most recent first

This feels far more complicated than it should be, and I'm sharing it here to both save someone else from having to figure it all out again on their own, and to hopefully get suggestions on how to simplify/improve it.

Although, speaking of improving it, I do have one idea for future development: the local Cemetery Department has spreadsheet online listing complete burial locations - it would be neat to mashup up that data, so the obituary is linked to the cemetery plot location.

That's down the road a bit, so in the meantime I just keep adding whatever new obituaries appear in the paper to the csv data file - I had planned to do that weekly, but lately there have been many weeks without any obituaries in the paper (see my previous post). Anyway, we'll see how this works - it only went live last week, but already patrons have been using it, and it certainly does save a lot of staff time.

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Library Blog Search

   August 31st, 2010 Brian Herzog

LISZENSometimes when I am working on a post, I wonder if another library blogger has already covered it - an am afraid I'll look kind of dumb rehashing something.

So I thought, wouldn't it be great to set up a Google custom search engine to search all library-related blogs? Before I did, I checked if anyone already created one, and it turned out Library Zen had - four years ago (I'm even further behind than I thought).

LISZEN Search searches over 500 library blogs, and has an accompanying wiki to keep track. If you write about the library world, add yourself.

Something related that would also be nice is a custom search of just library websites - so it would be easy to quickly see what other library's policies are regarding ebooks, or circulating laptops, or how much they charge for printing, etc. But considering the breadth of libraries and the complexity of maintaining it, just using regular Google might be more realistic.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/15/10

   August 21st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Google Books search linkThis question might get me into a little trouble* but it's a good example of the importance of librarians, so here goes:

The phone rang, and the person on the other end said she was a librarian fresh out of library school, working at elementary school in Colorado, and having trouble locating some poems her teachers wanted for class. She knew the titles and authors, but couldn't find the actual text in her library or online. She called me because she likes my website and hoped I could help.

My first suggestion was Granger's Index to poetry - it wasn't in her collection but was in her local public library. But because online resources are more useful for these long-distance questions, and it was a very quiet afternoon at work, after we hung up I thought I'd try searching for the text myself, too.

The four poems she was looking for were Eating the World, Last Kiss and Statue by Ralph Fletcher, and Spaghetti by Cynthia Rylant. I started by searching for title/author combinations, grouped together with quotes (ie, "ralph fletcher" "eating the world"). I was somewhat surprised that, even after going through the few pages of results, the texts weren't there.

Then I thought maybe they were scanned as part of the Google Books project, so I clicked the link on each page to switch to searching Google Books (see image above). And if I was surprised at not finding the texts in a regular web search, I was doubly surprised to find they were the first or second result when searching Google Books.

So far, including the phone call, this all took me literally less than ten minutes.

I emailed the four story links to the librarian, and she replied that they were exactly what she needed. So that's nice.

But I do think this is also a nice example of why librarians remain relevant in the internet age - an inexperienced searcher may not have known to enclose the author names and titles in quotation marks, or may not have known to try the more specialized Google Books search when the first attempt produced no results (keeping in mind that there are also lots of non-Google tools available, too), or may not have recognized the answer even though it was in a form other than what they were expecting (these poems turned out to be short stories).

This is especially true in light of the recent Northwestern University study that shows "digital natives" aren't actually all that web-savvy. The study's results seemed to imply that kids expect the internet to present them with the answer to their question, rather than expect to be engaged in the information search and critically evaluate resources themselves.

My favorite quote:

During the study, one of the researchers asked a study participant, "What is this website?" The student answered, "Oh, I don't know. The first thing that came up."

If it were someone from the iGeneration searching for these stories, it seems likely they would have stopped after the first search, empty-handed. So, yes, there certainly is, and will be, a need for librarians and experienced information searchers.


*Since I work in a public library, my tax-funded salary is intended to be spent on helping local patrons. It's hard for me to say "no" when people ask for help, but I do not (and ethically can not) make a habit of helping other librarians with their questions on work time - unless, of course, I'm contacted to check a resource my library owns. There are forums that can help with questions like this, such as Unshelved Answers, the PUBLIB mailing list, the Internet Public Library question form, Ask Metafilter, and many others of varying degree of credibility. Something I love about librarianship is the collaborative and cooperative nature of the profession, but I guess there has to be limits, too.

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Google Offers Secure Searching

   June 1st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Locks and glassesI read last week that Google is now offering an encrypted search option, and was surprised the story didn't get more coverage.

Anyone wanting to use it needs to go to https://www.google.com (note the https:), and it appears it only applies to web searching - not images or the other searches. Read more at:

This is good for those library patrons who want extra privacy while searching the internet. However, online privacy increasingly seems to be an illusion (remember, Google will still see and track these searches - this just cuts down on other people monitoring the searches).


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