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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Computerless Email

   April 15th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Presto Email Printing ServiceOccasionally spam email messages catch my eye. I recently saw one with this subject: "Send Email and Photos to Loved Ones Who Don't Use a Computer."

I'm not promoting this service, but I think it's an interesting idea, and I'd never heard of it before. The company is Presto.com, and what they sell is a way to electronically communicate with someone who doesn't have email.

The product is a printer that plugs into a home phone line, and their service converts incoming emails into color printouts - with no user intervention.

The demo is worth watching, but how it works seems fairly simple. Each HP printer gets an email account (which is managed by someone who is comfortable with the internet), and in addition to printing messages from loved ones, the company also provides free content like crosswords, recipes, and newsletters. And since you control the "approved sender" list, it means no spam and no ads.

I keep thinking this might actually have a place in a library, but I can't exactly figure it out. I certainly would rather teach someone how to use email than give them a crutch, but lots of people don't have the time or desire to learn - but do want pictures of their grandkids.

The catch would be if each printer is only associated with one email address. If it could handle more, then this might be a service we could provide to patrons. They set up an account with us, and then we hold whatever printouts they receive just like we hold their requested books. That would definitely strengthen the library's sense of community, but perhaps this product is better suited for senior centers or retirement homes.

Besides, kids today are practically issued cell phone numbers and IM handles at birth, so this type of technology is probably pretty short-lived.

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Customer Anti-Service

   January 4th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Library: Love Some, Serve SomeA couple stories recently caught my attention, as examples of threats to the service libraries can provide.

First was an (much talked about) New York Times article, about a library in New Jersey. They were being overrun by kids after school let out. Their solution? Close the library between 2:45pm and 5:00pm.

I don't agree with this, but I can empathize - I used to work at a library with the same concern, but to a much lesser degree. Even still, this is not a long-term solution. My current library is lucky enough to have both a Childrens and a Young Adult Librarian, who do after-school programming as well as special programming on early-release days - recognizing who your patrons are and preparing for them is the key.

The second story is an issue brought up recently on the Maine Libraries listserv (MELIBS-L). The following message was posted to the list on behalf of an unnamed library:

...city council [is requesting] to apply the following to non-residents: Anyone who walks through the door must prove they have a card or will be asked to leave. Anyone who asks a reference question or brings children to storytime or uses any service from this library will be asked to pay a fee. This will not apply to use of internet connectivity as that is not permitted under e-rate rules...

Maine librarians have always been open and supportive, and a great deal of discussion ensued (the highlights of which are below in the comments). Again though, although I can understand how someone could reach this as a solution, it just goes against everything libraries stand for. I haven't heard yet what happened with this city council request, but will post the result when I do.

Geez. We all talk about how outstanding customer service needs to be our bottom line if libraries are to have any kind of future, so it is shocking that situations like these exist in American libraries today.

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The Ubiquitous Reference Model

   November 14th, 2006 Brian Herzog

I know the idea of "Ubiquitous Reference" has already been covered elsewhere, but I thought it was interesting. I first learned about it during Linda Braun’s session at NELA 2006, and have since done some reading about it on the internet. Here's what I've found:

Ubiquitous Reference actually refers to two ideas. The first of which is that libraries should be everywhere our patrons are. Usually this refers to creating our own profiles on popular (and useful) websites like MySpace and flickr, as well as having our own blog with rss feed. Also, this idea can be taken into the physical world, by setting up a library presence in coffee shops, bars, bookstores, etc - you know, where our patrons hang out when they're not in the library.

The great thing about this idea falls under the "if you build it, they will come" notion. If we're active on the internet (outside of our own websites), and talking about interesting things, people will find us. I've only been doing this blog for about a month, and I've already gotten hits (and questions) from people searching Google for bookprospector, as well as questions from people reading my comments on other peoples' blogs. Plus, just by being visible, we can get questions without even trying.

The second meaning of Ubiquitous Reference is even more proactive than that. Brian Mathews of Georgia Tech University developed a new model for doing reference, in which he not only set up shop in the virtual world, but actually monitored online conversations of Georgia Tech students. Then, any time one of them mentioned a specific keyword (article, assignment, book, help, journal, research, etc.), he would read their post, prepare an answer for them, and then contact that student with the answer.

Personally, I would have thought that such an approach would have freaked out the student, in a very Big Brother kind of way. But, Mathews found that students were receptive, and viewed him as an online equal. What's more, these initial encounters would often lead to the student saying something like "Thanks. You know, I'm also working on this other project…"

Now that's great. Granted, this would be a lot easier to implement in an academic library (targeting a student body) than it would in a public library, but I do still like the idea.

library 2.0, patrons, reference questions, service, Ubiquitous Reference

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What is the Library Expanding into?

   November 9th, 2006 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford One Book One Town logoAs part of my library's "One Book" program, I spent the evening of Election Day at a local polling place, asking people to vote for their choice for "One Book." Overall it was a positive experience, in that I felt like a lot of people were interested in voting and supporting the library.

However, this is the first time I've ever been in the wild on behalf of the library, and it was really eye-opening. I mean, I spend most of my time either in the library helping people who come to me (who therefore are supportive library users), or in talking with other librarians (or reading their blogs).

So, I was really surprised by some of the reactions I got at the polling place as I asked people to vote for the book they would like to read. Of course there was what I expected ("sure," and "hey, that's a neat idea") and what I was happy to hear ("oh, I read about this in the paper," and "the library is so great"), but there was also the other extreme.

I guess it is because I am fairly surrounded with pro-library people (and those forward-thinking pro-library 2.0'ers) that I was so unprepared for that other extreme. Here's a sampling of a few of the answers I got to me asking "Would you like to vote for the Library's One Book Program?":

  • No, I don't read.
  • Hahahahaha...
  • What the hell is the point of the entire town reading the same book?
  • I've never heard of any of these books.
  • Can't you see that I don't have time for this?
  • Do I get a prize?
  • The library? Why do you even bother?

And these comments didn't come from rowdy/disrespectful toughie kids - these comments came from adults. Not that I was upset or scarred by any of this, just surprised. It was such a far cry from all of the "you have to do IM reference and offer RSS feeds to survive" kind of talk that I usually hear.

As a public librarian, I really do include everyone who lives in town (and beyond) under the "patron" umbrella, and not just students, or parents of storytime kids, or some other target market segment. I guess this really stuck with me because it was a very definite demonstration that, no matter what the library does, and no matter how we use technology to reach out with service, there will always be people we want to serve that we never will.

But since that's far too melancholy a note on which to end this post, how about this: a hotdog walks into a bar and asks for a beer. The bartender looks at him and says, "sorry, we don't serve food."

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