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


Reference Question of the Week – 5/12/13

   May 18th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Juicing with Kids book coverMy library tracks desk statistics only one week each quarter, putting tick marks on a tally sheet whenever people ask desk staff a question.

We also use these sheets to create a "no list" - a record of any time we have to tell a patron "no" for any reason (to help improve our yes-based policy). Usually, the reasons are "no, we don't have that book/subject," but also things like "no scanner" or "no jumper cables" show up.

Last time we did this, one staff person wrote down, "no juicing books." To me, "juicing" has always meant taking steroids, but in this case I guessed they meant making your own fruit and vegetable juices at home. So, I wanted to fill this hole in our collection by ordering a few juicing books.

My first stop for topics like this - popular topics I want to purchase quickly - is to search Amazon. I always use the Advanced Search so I can limit to new printed books, in this case published after 1/1/13 - there are quite a few.

But I was surprised, as I started to click into titles that looked good, just how many were CreateSpace books. It's not unusual to see them on Amazon of course, but they generally don't make up 80-90% of new books on a topic. But in this case, that was easily the percentage.

I found a few non-self-published books to purchase, but also ordered the CreateSpace title Juicing Recipes From Fitlife.TV Star Drew Canole For Vitality and Health. Our Selection policy specifically mentioned we don't buy self-published books, but in this case it was by far the most highly-reviewed book on the topic, so I figured our patrons would like it too.

With the rise of ebooks, I suspect lots of libraries will have to amend their "no self-pubs" policies, as self-published books - and quality self-published ebooks - become more prevalent. We'll still need to apply some selection criteria, but at the same time, I suppose the risk is lower - hopefully these ebooks will be cheaper, and we won't have to worry about them falling apart quickly.

Regardless, I think I will always consider "juicing" an undesirable activity, so I can't help but do a double-take on a title like Juicing with Kids. Not entirely unlike my perennial favorite bit of irony, Homeschooling for Dummies.



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New Biography Selection Criteria

   April 22nd, 2010 Brian Herzog

BiographiesMy library's ever-shrinking book budget has made me be more discerning when it comes to selection. However, one area that is always difficult for me is biographies.

It seems like every troubled athlete, aging celebrity, recovering musician, reality television personality, unfaithful politician (and their wives), have all signed book deals. I don't pay much attention to pop culture personalities, so it's hard for me to tell if the person is someone significant.

So I was joking with a coworker about a new selection criteria for all of these celebrity memoirs. Since the importance of many of these people is based on social zeitgeist, I thought I could use Google to help me decide. I figure that if a person is important, a Google search for that person's name should return at least one million webpages. If they're above that (arbitrary) threshold, I'll buy their biography - if not, then I'll check again when the paperback comes out.

Granted, not all my ideas are practical, but here's how some current biographies fare with this "hive mind" selection criteria:


Obviously, not flawless, but this Google criteria might help tell me who I should pay attention to. And in addition to traditional reviews and ratings, another one of my tactics is to wait until requests for a book reach a certain number before ordering it, but that method only addresses demand after the fact, and leaves out the patrons who didn't think to request it.

Selection is a fine art, but when it comes to biographies, most my crayons are dull.



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Edelweiss Interactive Publisher Catalogs

   October 6th, 2009 Brian Herzog

EdelweissI don't think this is a new thing, but my Director recently showed me Edelweiss Interactive Publisher Catalogs.

It appears to be geared more towards bookstores than libraries, but Edelweiss is a free product from Above the Treeline for searching book vendors' catalogs. The goal seems to be to avoid wasting the paper of printed publisher catalogs, which I am all for. Searching can be filtered to limit to certain publishers or topics, and that is useful, but sometimes, flipping through a printed catalog is just better.

More features and explanation from their homepage:

Why edelweiss?

  • Paper catalogs are out of date and inaccurate before the ink is dry.
  • Reduce expenses and environmental costs by eliminating wasteful catalog printing and reaching more, and more targeted customers.
  • The American Booksellers Association has endorsed edelweiss as the preferred solution for its membership.
  • Search keywords, authors, excerpts, and more across all participating publishers and catalogs.
  • Easily tag, filter, sort, view, and export title lists in custom formats.
  • Exchange notes, comments, and suggested order quantities between peers, publisher sales reps, and retailers.

So what's the difference between searching this and searching Amazon? The filtering for one, but the last point could make collaborative ordering easier. However, we use an entirely different system at my library, and are unlikely to change.



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Doing Selection Via RSS

   March 12th, 2009 Brian Herzog

review journalsI have always struggled with doing selection, but it only recently occurred to me that technology could make the process easier.

My normal procedure for selection was to pick one Friday a month and go through whatever review journals I could find in the library that I hadn't already looked at and read reviews. This rarely happened each month as planned, and I'd slip further and further behind - making catching up that much more daunting.

I decided my relying on journals was the problem - it wasn't something I routinely did, so it was easy to forget or ignore. But, I do check rss feeds in my Bloglines account almost every day, so I thought if I could get reviews delivered to me (into a "Selection" folder), selection could become something I did for a few minutes each day, instead of an entire afternoon once a month.

So far, I've found a few good sources for rss feeds, and am always on the lookout for more:

  • Feeds from BookLetters
    My library subscribes to BookLetters to offer our patrons readers advisory resources through our website. Most of their various reading lists are available as rss, so that's perfect. I added the Books on the Air, Book Sizzle (ie, "hot" books), Nonfiction Preview and Nonfiction Best Sellers feeds, although they have plenty more to choose from
  • Feeds from Amazon.com
    Amazon also offers both best seller and new release lists as rss feeds. Each grouping is also broken down by subject, so I can grab the feeds for just the nonfiction subjects I do selection for - for instance, Travel best sellers and Travel new releases
  • Feeds from Library Journal
    Library Journal offers a ton of different feeds, but I'm still experimenting to see which is the most useful. Most include subjects I'm not interested in, or news and articles beyond just book reviews, so I'm going to keep refining how I use their feeds. However, as opposed to being a "new" source like BookLetters and Amazon, this is just getting in a new format the same information I've been using for years

Of course, I'm not abdicating my responsibilities as a professional librarian just because I'm getting information from sources other than print journals and vendor catalogs. I still read the reviews, check local holdings, and make educated decisions about the books on these various lists, just like I would if I learned about a book from a print journal.

As I see it, here are the pros of this method:

  • It fits better into the way I work, which means it gets done better and faster than something that doesn't (which means my patrons get better service because I'll mark books to order on a daily basis instead of a monthly [or worse] basis)
  • My library is very much a popular materials library, and these are reliable sources for what's popular right now
  • When reviewing books on Amazon, a greasemonkey script linking right from the Amazon page to our catalog makes seeing if we already own it very easy (another greasemonkey script lets me add it to our ordering queue with just a single click, too)
  • If a title is showing up on multiple lists, it's a pretty good indicator of how many copies my patrons will demand

However, there are also things to watch for:

  • Amazon often pushes things, like Kindle editions, that I'm not interested in
  • Re-releases and paperback editions will also show up on these feeds, and since the greasemonkey script does an ISBN search, double-checking with a title search to make sure we don't already own a copy is important
  • Many new books don't have online reviews (even using my online book reviews search)

I've only been using this method for a couple months, but already I feel like I'm ordering more books, and more quickly. Anything that makes selection easier is a step in the right direction - and it's certainly easier than trekking all over the building to find out who had Library Journal last.



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Selection Speculation

   November 18th, 2008 Brian Herzog

We Buy Books photoPersonnel changes at my library are changing the way we do collection development. So for the past couple weeks, I've been thinking about how to incorporate more review-reading and book selection into my workday.

Since this has been on my mind, I had two slightly unusual ideas for potential ways to supplement more traditional selection.

Selection via LibraryThing Early Reviewers
I've been a part of the LibraryThing.com Early Reviewers program since it started (if you haven't, and enjoy reading, it's worth checking out). I've used this as a resource for new books for awhile, but something I noticed recently was that the books I like often had the most requests.

My idea was for Tim to whip together one of his useful tools, so that librarians (or anyone who signed up) could receive an email (or rss feed) each month after the list has closed, with the title of each book, how many requests it got, and also a link to LibraryThing or Amazon. My logic was that if a book appears popular with LibraryThing'ers, there's a good chance it will also be popular in my library.

I wrote to Tim and asked him about this just a couple days ago, and I'm hoping for a positive response. But if you like the idea, contact LibraryThing and ask them to implement it. Lobbying like this is probably the last thing he wants, but I do think this could be a valuable and unique selection tool.

Selection via Universal Medical Database
For awhile now there's been talk about the government and hospitals trying to start a single database of health information of every American.

The pros are that it'd be easier for a doctor anywhere in the country to access someone's medical history in an emergency, and it could also prevent conflicting medications and stop people shopping around for prescription narcotics. Drawbacks of the idea are that it potentially leaves people open to an invasion of privacy, or allows employers and others to discriminate based on medical conditions.

What does this have to do with libraries? It occurred to me that if such a universal system ever were put in place, it could potentially be used to help improve a library's collection of medical books. If real-time statistics could be provided on what conditions and illnesses were prevalent in a particular community, the library could use that information to make sure it had books and information on those topics.

Not that either of these might ever come to pass, and they both have a very big-brothery feel to them. These ideas are just some idle speculation on alternative selection tools to supplement traditional methods.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/17/08

   February 23rd, 2008 Brian Herzog

I know I said I wasn’t going to post anything this weekend, but I’ve heard a lot of talk about this and wanted to help disseminate:

Libraries get solicitations and purchase suggestions all the time. A few times a week I’ll get emails from authors or publishers, asking us to buy their books, or from patrons, asking us to buy a book they want to read or that would be a good addition to our collection.

But this week, I (and many other librarians, it turns out) got a cross-over: a message from someone apparently posing as a patron.

I am not providing links out of sheer irritation, and I won’t publish the person’s “name” for privacy reasons, but the email came from someone with the initials M.T., and the text of the message read:

Hi there -

I was searching in the library and trying to find the book [title] by [author], ISBN [isbn] and did not find it.

I heard about it on NPR, BBC America and saw it on Amazon and the author's website at narcissism.ca.

Will you be getting a copy in soon?

With requests like this, I always check our catalog to see if the book is available from another library in my consortium, and I look up the patron to place them hold for it. But this time, I found neither the book nor anyone by this name in our system. But I did read about it on Amazon, so I replied:

Hello-

This does look like and interesting book, so I'd be happy to order it for our collection. I searched for your name in our catalog to place you on reserve for it when it arrives, but did not find a [patron name] listed.

If you can email back your library card number, I'll be sure you are first on the list when the book arrives. Thanks for the suggestion, and take care.

Brian Herzog
Head of Reference
Chelmsford Public Library

I then got a message back saying "Hi Brian - I just moved. I'll be down soon to get my card."

That's when I started seeing other libraries asking about this strange request. I wrote back saying that when they came to get a card, to come to the reference desk and I'll order the book then. I haven't heard anything back.

So, any library getting a similar request can probably safely ignore it, as it is a dishonest sales pitch. It sounds like most library book vendors don't have it, anyway.



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