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


A Quick Note On The Importance Of Software Updates

   September 5th, 2013 Brian Herzog

blackhatI don't know if anyone else noticed, but the swissarmylibrarian.net server came under attack yesterday, to the point that it had to be taken off-line.

It seems like a small library-related blog wouldn't be worth attacking, but if someone could get control of the server and have it to other things, then yes, it probably is. This applies to library websites, which is why I'm bringing it up here.

In my case, it was my own fault. I use WordPress to run this site, and had not been keeping up with updates. Even though things run fine with older versions and it's tempting to just let things go, it's always very important to keep web-based software updated - here's why:

When a new version of software is released, the developers usually list all of the problems it fixes in the previous version. This list tells the bad guys exactly how to exploit old versions of the software.

Then, all they need to do if find lazy people like me who haven't updated yet and exploit those vulnerabilities to take over your website.

So, and not to be all preachy about it, please make a point of updating your web software as soon as a new version is released. The server that hosts my website was crawling yesterday during the attack, and as soon as I finished the update last night, the speed immediately went back to normal.

Also: I'm sure this is purely coincidental, but on the drive home last night I heard on NPR how the Syrian Electronic Army has been attacking anyone they can, not just government-related websites. With those kind of bad guys out there, you can't be too careful.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/6/13

   January 12th, 2013 Brian Herzog

The Lowell SunThis reference question happened before Christmas. As I came into work one afternoon to start my evening shift, the staff person I was replacing had to pass off to me a patron she had already been helping for a little while.

The patron was looking for an article she had read in the Lowell Sun (a local daily newspaper) within the last couple months - she couldn't remember the title, author, or date, but knew it had something to do with with how changes in Social Security will affect the pension the spouse of a state employee will receive.

The patron had called the newspaper and they told her they didn't know exactly which article it was, but it probably would have run on a Thursday.

When I came in, the patron was going through a stack of newspapers, looking at Thursdays issue-by-issue, working backwards. My coworker had already spent time searching our Lowell Sun subscription database, but neither approach was succeeding.

After my coworker left, and since the patron was still using the physical newspapers, I thought I'd try again with the database. Different people use different search techniques, so perhaps (and hopefully) I'd find something my coworker missed.

I started with just keyword searches for combinations of "social security" "pension" "spouse" and a few other things, limited to the last 3 months, but none of the results really seemed to fit the patron's description. I opened it up to six months, then removed the date limiter all together, and still nothing. Then I stopped combining keywords, and just searched the individually - still nothing.

I knew the database wouldn't contain AP stories or articles from other sources, but the patron was pretty sure it was a regular column of a local writer. She knew what he looked like too (from his headshot running along side each column), so she was hoping that she could at least find one of his columns and then we could get his name.

Since I wasn't having any luck in the subscription database, I thought I'd try their website's searchable archive - it's not full-text, but an index of authors and titles could still be helpful. However, the only thing coming up were the same articles I'd already seen - and the website said "Generally, the material is current 24 hours after publication," so it should have been up-to-date with no embargo.

Just then, the patron came over very excited - she recognized the columnist's picture in one of the papers. It wasn't the right article, but at least we now had his name: John Spoto.

While she was looking over my shoulder, I searched the database for author/byline=John Spoto, and oddly, only two matches came up. Odd because there were so few for a regular columnist, and because they were both dated July 2012. I did a keyword search instead of an author search for his name, and then got 55 results - much better (however, slightly annoying).

But we still had a catch, because the most recent was dated September 9th. The patron was sure the article she read was more recent than that, but no matter what I tried I couldn't find any other articles by this person in the database (nor on the website, which indicated it was current).

However, when I started reading the dates - September 9th, August 26th, July 29 - I noticed that most were Sundays. Because the paper had told her this column ran on Thursdays, she had only been looking at Thursday's papers. So, the patron went back to check the Sunday editions, and hit the jackpot on Dec 2nd.

The column was titled "Public pensions do affect Social Security benefits," by John Stopo. We both thought it was odd this didn't come up in the database, so I tried searching by the title - guess what? No luck.

It looks like the database hasn't been updated in awhile, at least for this writer's columns.

Regardless, I helped the patron photocopy the column*, and while we were doing that she talked about the importance of perseverance and how you can do great things by taking only little steps at a time. It seemed to me that, in this case, the work the patron put into finding the article made it that much better when she did find it - if she came in and found it right away, it would have been a whole different experience.

Not that things need to be difficult, but it's nice to appreciate the results of extra effort.

 


*Helping patrons photocopy odd-sized newspaper articles, that don't readily fit on legal-size paper, is a reference question unto itself.



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Single Serving Site: Is The Library Open?

   June 6th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Aaron highlighted a great tool on Walking Paper - a single serving script that shows whether the library is open or not:

Is the library open? screenshot

Great job Durham County Library for coming up with it, and thank you very much for making the code freely available.

This is definitely going on my library's website (when I get a chance) - but of course, with 24/7 Library Anytime, the answer is always YES!



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Library Anytime: Highlighting 24/7 Library Services

   May 23rd, 2012 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford Library Anytime logoHere's an idea that my coworkers and I had talked about for a little while, but really saw take shape at PLA12.

We wanted to create a webpage that really focused attention on all of our library services that patrons can use without having to come into the library. Good idea, right? We went round and round coming up with a name, but eventually settled on Library Anytime.

The PLA session that gelled everything was Designing and Building a Social Library Website, with Rebecca Ranallo (Cuyahoga County [OH] Public Library) and Nate Hill (San Jose Public Library). Their talk was inspiring, and we tried to blend* all their ideas into a single website:

  • Cuyahoga PL has a "library after dark" website, that pops up on their homepage when the library is closed over night - it focuses on resources and services people can use from home or elsewhere
  • San Jose Public Library's website looks great - very distinctive and eye-catching. However, Nate said that after using it for a couple years, they're going to be making some changes (which made me feel less bad about completely lifting their design)

We didn't create any new content for this website - it's just a (hopefully) easy-to-use portal to get to tools that already existed on our main website. But: having a second website to supplement the main website probably means the first website needs work, so our plan is to use this as a basis for a complete redesign of our main website.

Anyway, we launched Library Anytime during National Library Week (which, for those who are counting, gave us a three week development window following PLA), and so far patrons seem to like it. And I can't tell you the number of "I didn't know you guys had..." kind of comments I've heard since.

 


*steal



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/15/12

   April 21st, 2012 Brian Herzog

Virtual catOne evening this week, a patron walked up to the desk and said,

Can you find me a website to adopt a cat? But not a real cat.

What he wanted was an online virtual pet. I had never looked for this before, but a search for adopt a cyber cat returned lots of results.

We looked at a few sites*, but he ultimately chose adoptme.com, because it had the best graphics. For the next forty-five minutes, he sat at the computer playing and chatting with it, and every once in awhile he'd come up to the desk to tell us something the cat did or said.

But the last time was the funniest: he came up and said, "the cat said I talk too much." Maybe he exhausted the repertoire of the artificial intelligence of the program that responds to chat messages, and that was how the program forced the conversation to end.

He wasn't deterred though - he left, saying he couldn't wait to come back the next day to play with the cat some more.

 


*One that didn't make the cut, but made me laugh, was virtualkitty.com. Their Create an Account screen included this field:

Pick an Emergency Web Address (URL):
(You will be sent to this address if you click the special emergency button while playing with your cat. We recommend your company website, or something business related, in case you need it to look like you are working on something else.)



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On Maintaining Extra-Library Websites

   December 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Chelmsford Volunteers logoThere was an article in our local paper this week about a resident's experience volunteering in the community. Nice, but what I especially like is that he cited http://www.chelmsfordvolunteers.org as the way he found his volunteer opportunity.

This stood out to me (and others at the library) because this website was created and maintained by the library - yay us! The article doesn't mention the library at all, but it's still a win because the resident found what he was looking for.

I'll be the first to admit that the Chelmsford Volunteers site isn't a marvel of design. We created it a few years ago to be a centralized listing of organizations in town that have volunteer opportunities, because this is something we get asked about a lot. It's evolved over time, and now a simple WordPress website, with a calendar of upcoming events, and one page for each organization so that it's easy for people to search.

The reason I bring it up here is because I was curious if any other libraries maintain websites under a domain different from the main library's website. My library also maintains the website for our town-wide history project.

Our logic for creating these as separate websites includes:

  • branding: it's easier to remember "chelmsfordvolunteers.org" than "chelmsfordlibrary.org/volunteers" or something else
  • shared resource: the chelmsfordhistory.org is a project involving other organizations in town, and I think having a non-library website makes us all co-owners of the project, instead of the other groups just contributing to a library project
  • focus: the library does a lot of things, but each of these separate websites are very focused on one specific area - having standalone websites lets visitors see only what's relevant to that topic, instead of all the other stuff we do, which might be a distraction
  • it's easy: all our websites are hosted at bluehost.com - creating a new website is a matter of buying a new domain and clicking a button, and it's ready to go

I'd be very curious to hear about other libraries' experiences with maintain websites beyond the primary web presence - how you do it, why, is it successful, etc. If this is something you do, please leave a note in the comments with a link to your website - thanks.



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