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


Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/13

   February 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Oscar the GrouchEarlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.

And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.

This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.

First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.

Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."

Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.

Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.

All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.

This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."

This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.

Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.

This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.

Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.

The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).

But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.

Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/6/08

   January 12th, 2008 Brian Herzog

The Library Is OpenSometimes, even before the patron has said anything, I just know that they are going to qualify for "Reference Question of the Week."

A couple in their sixties or seventies walked up to the desk, and the wife takes charge:

We just got back from my son's house, and while we were gone it snowed. I know it, because there's snow in my yard. What I want you to tell me is how much snow there is. My neighbor told me it snowed on December 13th and again on the 16th, and you have to tell me how much snow it snowed in them storms.

Well, I told her that it would take me some time to find this information, and that I'd call her when I did. I took down her number, and over the course of the next couple hours, searched for some kind of snowfall record in between helping other patrons.

The first place I always try for weather data is NOAA. I tried various searches in Google and restricted to the noaa.gov site, but didn't have much luck. I did find snowfall monitoring data files, which seemed promising because each file was for a specific month and year, broken down by day, and covered lots of cities in every state. However, the nearest city to this patron's yard didn't have data, so that didn't help.

I also found the National Climatic Data Center, which is the "World's largest archive of climate data." However, the free data they offered unfortunately didn't address this question.

So, I kept searching. I must tried twenty different ways to find this data, from scanning news reports from days after these storms to trying to contact local weather monitoring stations for their data to checking snowfalls at nearby airports. But in every case, either the data was missing, or the station was too far away to extrapolate to this woman's yard, or the data wasn't free, or the website seemed too unreliable to even bother with.

Then, happily, a colleague of mine walked by, and I asked her to help me out. I was getting frustrated, and I hoped a new approach to the problem would produce something useful.

We both looked, and found the Weather Underground's historical data about the same time. This was a wonderful little tool, letting us search by zip code and date. But the "precipitation" listed for that day was much lower than we expected. I remember getting about 8 inches of snow in each storm, but wunderground was reporting 0.81 inches.

Eventually we decided they were reporting "precipitation" as the equivalent of rainfall, not the snow that accumulated. This realization led us on a tangent to see if we could find a formula to convert inches of rain to inches of snow.

Even though the formulas we found actually did convert the wunderground data into snowfall levels close to what we expected, we decided this was still questionable research, at best, and kept on.

And it was then that my colleague found it.

She tried a simple search for "snowfall chelmsford," and noticed the url of one of the returns was accuweather.com linking in to their current weather report for North Chelmsford. At the bottom of that page was a link to a Past Weather Check.

Although this data only seems to go back one month, it was far enough to cover the two dates the patron provided. And, best of all, it gave both precipitation and snowfall, for our exact zip code.

This came about three hours after the patron originally asked me the question, and with much relief I called her to give her the amounts. Even her response, "yeah, that's about what my neighbor said" [click] couldn't dampen my spirits after answering this one (with a tremendous amount of help from a coworker, of course).

But recent-past questions like this are always tough, especially weather questions. It's easier to find what the weather was like years ago than what it was like a week ago, which just seems wrong to me. But as long as I keep bookmarking these resources, maybe next time the answer will come a bit quicker.

Incidentally, Accuweather.com said we got 10.1" of snow on the 13th and 7.6" on the 16th. That means I shoveled 17.7" that weekend, at my house and at the library.

amount, archive, historical, libraries, library, public, reference question, snow, snowfall, totals, weather



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Providing Access to Information, with a Shovel

   December 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Outside Shoveling - Be Back SoonLike much of the country today, Chelmsford was hit by the "fast-moving, intense" snow storm. And, throughout most of the storm, my library stayed open.

Even though I do not know what they are, the powers-that-be in Chelmsford Town Hall decreed that we remain open until 5:00 pm. For eastern Massachusetts, that was five hours into the storm, after dark, and after about six inches of snow. Wouldn't it be better to send staff home before the storm, so they can drive home before rush hour, in the daylight, and not in a blizzard? But I complain.

Anyway, we stayed open, and I spent most of the afternoon shoveling the steps and walks, making sure patron still had the regular access to information that it is a librarian's duty to provide. A few pictures from the day are shown here:
Library in Snow 12-2007


The Library Is Open

</whine>
blizzard, chelmsford, closing, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, shoveling, snow, storm



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