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 – 7/15/12

   July 21st, 2012 Brian Herzog

Tornado Shelter signThis was kind of a fun question. Earlier this week, we received the following email message from a patron:

I have been referred to you by Town Hall. I am hoping to find some archived material relating to the tornado that hit Chelmsford on 21 July 1972. I am quite interested in learning more about the precise path the tornado took through town, the response by the town, and, since I am a meteorologist, more about the weather situation on that day.

This was actually the first time I'd ever heard of this tornado. I knew we wouldn't have any books or anything on such a local phenomena for this time period, so the first place I looked for information was the library's secret weapon, the Vertical File.

A few years ago, staff indexed our vertical file into an Excel spreadsheet, so doing a word search for "tornado" was a snap - and produced these two news clippings:

  • Tornado hits town; Chelmsford Newsweekly, 7/27/1972; article; photographs
  • Tornado strikes Chelmsford; Chelmsford Sentinel, 7/26/1972; article

We also have the entire newspaper from this time on microfilm, which might also contain additional information.

Of course, both of these resources require the patron to come into the library. The Town of Chelmsford's Annual Reports are available online (thanks to the Boston Public Library and the Internet Archive), and searching the 1972 annual report for "tornado" turned up a few matches concerning the Town's response and the overall cost.

I wasn't sure if NOAA would have any information on this storm, but a general web search found http://www.tornadohistoryproject.com, and their entry for this storm gives a very general storm track (zoom out one level).

I emailed all this to the patron, who was very appreciative. He had actually already found some NOAA/NWS information, and sent me the link to the storm summary [pdf, page 9] from the National Climatic Data Center's Storm Data and Unusual Phenomena data files:

1972 tornado summary

This is now one of my favorite reference questions, because:

  • I was able to provide the patron with helpful information
  • I got to answer it using both new and traditional library resources
  • Useful resources were located quickly using a finding aide developed by library staff
  • I got to share a new library resource (online annual reports) with a patron, who may use it again in the future
  • I learned something about the history of my community
  • The patron participated in the search, even sharing his findings with me
  • I learned of a new and useful weather resource from the patron
  • I was able to add to our Vertical File the information the patron shared with me, thus improving our own resources
  • The timing was so perfect that I get to post this question on the 40th anniversary of the tornado

All good stuff. The patron said he'd be into the library soon to take a look at the news clippings, and I'll be ready and waiting with the Vertical File when he comes.



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Library Closed Due to October Snow Storm

   October 31st, 2011 Brian Herzog

The storm that hit New England and the East Coast this weekend knocked out power to my library (like many, many other places). As a result, we're closed until further notice.

Chelmsford Public Library Closed

The "CLOSED" sign by the front door is big enough to be seen from the street. I happened to be there Monday when the mailman came, and he said he was told that anyone who is without power now shouldn't expect it back until Wednesday.

Luckily, the Somerville, MA, library is open and active, and I'm hanging out here until things get back to normal. I hope everyone else affected by the storm is finding a warm haven somewhere.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/21/10

   February 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I Assure You We're Open sheet sign from Clerks movieOnce again, heavy winds and rain has been knocking out power to most of the area (especially yesterday), so this question of the week is a repeat:

Hey, are you open?

My library had power all day, but most of the town and other nearby libraries did not. The library was packed, and more than a few times I was asked if I knew when power would be back on at a patron's house.

I think the power companies learned a public relations lesson last year, and have been more proactive in providing information. In searching the internet, I found some helpful National Grid storm resources:

When I asked my Director if we'd be staying open late to serve as a shelter for people without power, she said we officially cannot do that. Apparently there are strict certifications necessary for a Town building to function as an emergency shelter, and the library is not certified (neither is our Senior Center, which did stay open last year, but was closed when someone noticed the lack of certification). Granted, this week's outage (and weather) is certainly not as bad as last year's ice storm, but I really don't know how involved certification would need to be. We wouldn't be providing food or aid or beds for people, just heat and power and chairs and internet, which we already do every day. Of course, we'd have to pay staff to stay open, and that is tough with our budget situation.

So, not a very inspiring reference question, but it's been that kind of week. For a real Reference Question this week, check out a great transaction from The Surly Librarian.



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Levels of Service

   December 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

503 Error: Service UnavailableSince the outages caused by the ice storm on Thursday, my library has been slowly reestablishing our affected services. First back up was our power and heat and catalog (day two), then wireless internet (day three), then internet to the public workstations (day four).

This progressive-improvement situation made for a good quote. When asked by a staff person if things were working again, the response was:

Everything is working, but we're still working on making it patron-proof again.

It made perfect sense in context, but when I thought about it later, it sounded both funny and counter-intuitive.

Recovering from an unintended power outage really draws a stark line between having something work, and having something work the way we want it to. Just having a computer that turns on isn't good enough - ours also need to automatically log in, track time, connect to printers and the internet, and protect the user's privacy and data. And ideally, do all this without intervention from the user.

On the surface, the answer above might sound like our goal was keep the computers safe from the public. The goal is actually to make sure the public needs to do as little as possible to use our computers (making sure they can do no harm is a side effect).



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Reference Question of the Week – 12/7/08

   December 13th, 2008 Brian Herzog

I Assure You We're Open sheet sign from Clerks movieDue to the ice storm that came through the area on Friday, there is a tie for most popular reference question today:

Hey, are you open?

and

Do you have internet?

My answer all day has been, "we're open, we have lights and heat, and everything is working normally except our internet connection is down*."

Needless to say, it's been a quiet day: not unbusy, just quiet - most of our work tables and all of our comfortable chairs are filled with people researching and reading, which all but goes unnoticed on a regular day. And because lots of area residents are still without power, there's even a couple people napping in the corners, just happy to be someplace warm.

The next most popular reference question has been:

Do you know how I can keep my pipes from freezing?

Most area residents lost power on Friday, 12/12/08, and although many homes are now back on, there are still plenty who are looking at two or three days without power. Temperatures are predicted to be in the teens and twenties for the next few days, so freezing pipes is a major concern.

The best advice came from Home Maintenance for Dummies. Before loaning it out to the first person who asked this morning, I photocopied the necessary page to keep a "reference copy" at the desk. It recommends:

A faucet left dripping at the fixture farthest from the main water inlet allows just enough warm water movement within the pies to reduce the chance of a freeze...

Insulating pipes that are above ground (those that are most susceptible to freezing) prevents them from freezing during most moderate-to-medium chills - even when the faucets are off. This includes pips in the subarea or basement and especially any that might be in the attic.

If your kitchen or bathroom sink faucets are prone to freezing, leave the cabinet doors open at night. This allows warm air to circulate in the cabinet and warm the pipes.

The last tip won't help much for a house that is at 39 degrees, but it's good to keep in mind anyway.

Hopefully the power to my house is back on by the time I get home, otherwise I might sleep at the library tonight.


*I'm sure you're asking, "No intertnet? Then how'd you post this?" As a reference librarian, I know the laundromat up the street has great wireless internet.



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