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




MA Libraries Moving Towards Open Source

   August 4th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Veruca SaltI've mentioned this in passing, but here's some insider information on the prospect of Massachusetts libraries adopting an open source state-wide catalog.

The update comes courtesy of my consortium's monthly newsletter, the August 2009 MVLC Connections [pdf]*. It's a good article, reviewing current OSS ILS options, how they differ from traditional library catalogs, and what it will take to get one in place.

However, one paragraph set off some alarm bells:

Once the platform has been selected, the second phase of the project – assessing user requirements and system development needs - will begin. This is the point in the project where library staff will begin to be heavily involved.

Here's what bothers me: shouldn't "assessing user requirements and system development needs" be necessary to select a platform in the first place? I'm just worried that the plan is for a lot of major decisions to be made before there is any input from front-line librarians. It's kind of like your mechanic deciding with the dealer which make and model of car you have to buy, then asking for your input on the color and whether or not you want power windows.

But don't get me wrong: this is great news, especially for MVLC libraries (the ILS we're using is woefully dated and inadequate). However, with this project as big as it is, changes won't happen until 2011 at the earliest - which means the time patrons and staff have to continue to put up with not-good-enough software is being measured in years instead of months.

So if I'm sounding like Veruca Salt**, it's because I have to apologize to patrons on a daily basis for such a difficult catalog interface. I know there are much better systems out there, and I can hardly wait. I don't care how, I want it now.

Read more about the pros and cons of OSS (via iLibrarian)

 


*Dear Irony: You have to download the newsletter from my server, because the original, containing this article about the future of libraries, is locked up on a password-protected "wiki," which no one is allowed to edit.

**I just noticed that the wall in the background of the photo is the same as my website background - huh.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



Search Engine Blind Taste Test

   June 18th, 2009 Brian Herzog

blind search screenEven though I use Google for web searching most of the time, I do use other search engines, and I wonder how the results compare.

With the launch of Microsoft's new Bing search engine, a Microsoft employee must have been wondering the same thing - so he created a neat Blind Search tool (and states this is not a Microsoft project).

Type in a search term, and Blind Search shows you the results from Google, Yahoo and Bing - but without telling you which engine produced each list. So without brand bias, you decide which results list includes the most relevant websites.

And the best part is the reveal, when you "vote" and see which search engine the results came from.

I played a bit, and surprisingly, Google didn't always provide the most relevant results. As the creator states, this seems most useful as an observational curiosity, but it certainly is fun and interesting (or, it gives people a way to find pron three times faster).

via Closed Stacks



Tags: , , , , , , , , ,



Building Better Google Searches

   January 13th, 2009 Brian Herzog

google logo in legosSpeaking of learning things, Chris sent me a link that lists special strategies and syntax for searching Google more efficiently.

I use a couple of them all the time (especially site:), but I definitely spotted a few that will be extremely helpful:

  • +[stop word] - having the plus sign before a "stop word" (such as +not) forces the search to include that word, instead of ignoring it
  • inurl: and intitle: - similar to site:, but this limits the search to words just in the web address or title field. Very useful for increasing relevancy on obscure information
  • related: - lists websites that are "related" to the domain you search for (ie, related:swissarmylibrarian.net). This seems just oddly interesting, but there has got to be a very good application

The page also gives some great examples of how these can be combined. It's always good to learn how to search smarter, and it's certainly a conversation starter when patrons see me typing in these weird codes and getting better results than they do - always on the lookout for those teaching moments.

Thanks Chris, and to the faculty of the Valencia Community College for compiling the list. There are also other lists, too, but this one was very helpful.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 10/19/08

   October 25th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Jobs listings on Craigslist websiteBefore I get into this week's reference question, I want to point out that this is my 100th Reference Question of the Week - that's almost two years of weekly reference questions. My, my, doesn't the time just fly when you are giving patrons directions to the bathrooms?

In honor of such a momentous event, I thought I'd share one of the reference questions I just dread. I get variants of this question occasionally, but last week all the components came together in a perfect storm of reference question difficulty:

Patron: I've never used a computer before, so can you help me find a job on craigslist?

Sigh. For non-reference librarians, here's why this simple request is especially hard:

  1. Almost any kind of job-related request can be difficult
  2. Most of the job resources available in the library are online, so having no computer experience is automatically a setback
  3. Craigslist? It is certainly a valid job search tool, but there are other places I'd be more comfortable starting off a computer novice (she never did tell me how she got referred to craigslist)

Lots of people would jump on a question like this and consider it a golden teaching moment. Which I tried to do, but I was alone on a busy Thursday morning and I didn't have the amount of uninterrupted time it would take to teach the patron to use a mouse and then educate her enough about the internet and craigslist to find a job safely.

But happily, she was a fast learner, and really took to the mouse and using the browser. Since she asked for craigslists, I showed her how to get there and use it, and while doing so also told her about other job search websites she could try. We also have a handout for career resources, and pretty soon she sent me away so she could look on her own.

She left before I could talk to her again, but she stayed at least forty-five minutes on the computer. Which is not bad for a first timer. Even if nothing from her first search pans out, I hope at least she knows the library is a resource for job searching.

More About Online Job Searching
Something I've been noticing for awhile is that it seems that online job applications are becoming more and more complex. Lots of large companies are requiring applicants to fill out an online application instead of providing a resume.

The problem with this is, from my and the patron's point of view, many patrons have trouble with the website or application form itself. Some get so frustrated that they quit halfway through, cursing the company for not just taking their resume. I wonder if companies are doing this intentionally, because filling out these applications requires a certain level of computer skills, and so it weed out anyone who isn't computer savvy enough to finish it.

I've helped a few people complete what even I thought was a difficult form, and I wonder if I'm really helping them or not. If the job really does require that level of computer skill, and I spend a half an hour basically filling out the form for them, are they just wasting their time on a job they don't have a hope of getting?

Because of this need (and especially in the current economic climate), my library lately has been partnering with the local career center to hold series of job search workshops. These range from updating resumes to online searching to interviewing to networking to reentering the work force. They've been well attended, and all the library has had to do is provide the space - people from the Lowell Career Center plan and run the programs.

I feel like we can never do enough for patrons looking for jobs, but that this is one of the key roles a library plays in the community.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 6/22/08

   June 28th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Magic 8 Ball: Ask Again LaterThis isn't a reference question, but instead is a list of a few other places where reference questions (and answers) are being archived:

Help Build a Library Q&A Custom Search
A post on the Library 2.0 Ning group mentioned a project to create a Google custom search engine of just reference questions from libraries. If your library does this, be sure to add it to the list - the more data it can search, the more useful it will be.

"The Oracle Collective"
An article in this week's New York Times Magazine talks about asking questions on the internet, and a few services that provide answers (Yahoo Answers, Ask.com, etc). It's an interesting article, and the recommendations at the end are worth reading. Via LISNews.

I Get By With A Little Help From MeFi
No roundup of ask-a-question resources is complete with mentioning Ask MetaFilter. MetaFilter, a.k.a. MeFi, is a community blog to which interesting websites are posted (essentially "filtering" the internet for the rest of us). In Ask MeFi, volunteers from the community provide answers to questions asked by site visitors.

Internet Public Library Reference Desk
Staffed by librarians and library students, the Internet Public Library is always a reliable source for answers. Their list of frequently asked questions isn't as fancy as some, but it still gets the job done. (And in the interest full disclosure, I volunteered with the IPL when I was in library school.)

Surely There Is A Wiki...
Very similar to Yahoo Answers and Ask MeFi in principle is WikiAnswers. As a wiki, anyone can ask or answer a questions, and also edit existing answers. The format of a single answer can be easier that reading lots of individual replies from different people, but here you can also view the discussion of the answer. Part of Answers.com.

I know lots of individual libraries are doing this too, and some are twittering their reference questions. If you know of other good sources to ask questions online and search through answers, please share.



Tags: , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 6/15/08

   June 21st, 2008 Brian Herzog

YouTube logoThis is a reference question I've been holding onto for awhile, hoping I'd have an answer to share. I don't, so now I'm hoping someone else might.

A patron came to the desk asking for help with YouTube. He's one of our regulars, and has a bit of a compulsive personality. He's also a big fan of The Doors: he's working on a book, buys whatever merchandise he can from eBay, and watches any related video on YouTube - or rather, tries to.

One day, he came to the desk and said:

When I search for "the doors" on YouTube, there are over 79,000 videos. However, It only shows the first 50 pages of search results, which is only the first 500 videos. How can I watch the rest?

I had never clicked this far into any search returns in my life. So I tried it out, and sure enough, he was right. I played a bit, but couldn't find any way to get past this barrier to the rest of the videos.

I searched their Help Center with no success, and so sent in the question via their Contact Form. I also searched the general internet, but couldn't find anything relating to this issue.

This was on April 25th, 2008. So far, I haven't heard anything back from YouTube or Google. I resubmitted the question a couple weeks later, but again, no response.

I've played with this search limit again recently, and it looks like now YouTube cuts off the returned videos in the 540's, which is on page 28. The pagination shows out to page 31, and implies there is more, but when you click beyond page 28 the pagination and video numbering starts over at 1.

I can understand the technical limitations and the necessity of an upper cap on returned search matches. But with no explanation or message that there is a limit, and this confusing/resetting pagination, this patron feels YouTube is teasing him personally, and cheating him out of these other 78,500+ videos.

Does anyone have an answer I can pass on to the patron? Thanks.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,