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


Reference Question of the Week – 4/21/13

   April 27th, 2013 Brian Herzog

emailreceiptA patron came up to the desk, saying she had an email question.

After a bit of a convoluted story, it boiled down to this: she was applying for a job, and emailed her information to their HR person. But she never got called for an interview, because the HR person said she had never received the patron's information. The patron wanted to know if there was a way to prove that the HR person did get it, because she knows she sent it.

The patron seemed to be fairly knowledgeable about computers and email, but I explained anyway that it is certainly possible for something not to get delivered, or get blocked for whatever reason, or go into a spam folder, etc.

Having a message in her own Sent folder would indicate when it was sent. That can probably be manipulated so I don't know if it'd be admissible in court, but in this case it might be good enough if the HR person was willing to listen.

But what the patron really wanted was confirmation that the HR person received the email. I didn't know how to find out after-the-fact (other than subpoenaing their server logs), so I told her about delivery receipts and read receipts. These are the little confirmation messages that come back to let you know someone got and opened your message.

Since it was the closest thing to what she wanted, we went into her email account so I could show her how to use them. However I explained that these aren't foolproof either - not all email clients will honor them. In fact, the email client I use offers a setting to ignore them.

receiptoptionhorde

She had both a Gmail and a Yahoo account, and it turns out - much to my surprise - neither one lets you request receipts.

I did some quick checking online, and it seems like Yahoo doesn't offer receipts at all, and Gmail only with their business accounts (not the free version).

Well, like I said, I was surprised. I tried searching for ways to make it happen anyway, and it looks like there are only two options: use an email client like Thunderbird or Outlook (which, for a patron using a library's public computer, isn't actually an option), or use one of the many email receipt services out there. Another website I found had some trickier solutions, but were too complicated for our purposes. There's also Boomerang for Gmail, but since that needs to be installed in the browser, it likewise wasn't appropriate.

Until this day I didn't even know these existed, so I have no idea how well they work. The patron was interested in the free web-based services, but only future-tense. Unfortunately, it looked like she was out of luck with her original question. I think she knew that before she even asked, but hoped librarians had some magic we could work - I hate disappointing patrons.



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Delicious Has A New Home

   May 3rd, 2011 Brian Herzog

Delicious+AVOSBig news - Delicious has been sold, and the new owners sound great.

This announcement came last week (along with an email to every Delicious user), but it hasn't made much of a splash. I've seen a few posts in the library world, but I am surprised* it hasn't been bigger news.

Press releases about the transition were released by both Delicious and the new owners, AVOS (the guys who founded of YouTube), and the future does sound promising: AVOS is apparently hiring staff, plans to work with the Delicious community, and intends to develop new features. Pretty significant for a product that hasn't changed in years.

Delicious users have until July 2011 to opt-in to transitioning to the new platform. I did it this weekend, and it's quick and easy - just log in, verify your details (and at least skim the new terms of service and privacy policy), and you're set.

Here's the message that displays when you begin the transition:

Delicious is moving to a new home

Yahoo! is excited to announce that Delicious has been acquired by the founders of YouTube, Chad Hurley and Steve Chen. As creators of the largest online video platform, they have firsthand experience enabling millions of users to share their experiences with the world. Delicious will become part of their new Internet company, AVOS.

To continue using Delicious, you must agree to let Yahoo! transfer your bookmarks to AVOS.

Reasons to let Yahoo! transfer your bookmarks

As soon as you let Yahoo! move your Delicious account, you will:

  • Enjoy uninterrupted use of Delicious.
  • Keep your Delicious account and all your bookmarks.
  • Keep the same look and feel of Delicious as you have today, and enjoy future innovations for the product.

It's easy to have Yahoo! move your account to AVOS. When you do, you will be subject to the AVOS terms of service and privacy policy.

What happens if you do not move your bookmarks?

  • Delicious in its current form will be available until approximately July 2011.
  • After that, you will no longer be able to use your existing Delicious account and will not have access to your existing bookmarks or account information.

Learn more >>

I, for one, am happy about this announcement - yay for not having to rework the library's subject guides.

 


*This surprises me because, of all the online tools out there, Delicious seems tailor-made for librarians. Even discounting the social part, bookmarking sites like this are exactly what librarians have been striving to do since the internet was invented - catalog it. Delicious (and similar sites) not only lets us catalog websites how we see fit, but also allows the power of critical mass to categorize every website. It seems like library schools across the land should have an entire course dedicated to Delicious (and social bookmarking).



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The Dilemma with Delicious

   December 21st, 2010 Brian Herzog

Leaked Yahoo Slide Showing Delicious SunsetYou probably heard last week that someone leaked that Yahoo was planning on shutting down Delicious - but then later said it will be maintained until a good home could be found.

When I first read this, two things struck me:

  1. This is very bad, considering my library website's subject guides rely on Delicious, plus I've been telling people for years to convert to Delicious
  2. This isn't so bad, because the demise of Bloglines was announced and averted

So, for the time being, I'm not panicking - but it is a perfect reminder that we need to face the realities of third-party tools with eyes wide open. You can integrate anything you want into your website, but remember it may go away at any time. David Lee King has a great post on this (and gwern0's comment is spot-on).

What is a librarian to to? Our options are:

I'm going to be doing a little bit of all of these. Since there is no imminent deadline, I'm going to ignore all of this until after the holidays. Then, I'll backup my bookmarks and start looking at alternatives in case migration becomes necessary. I had been wondering if there was a host-your-own option, so I'm happy to see that. However, although it would be nice to have control myself, I like the shared aspect of these tools. Not to mention I'd be responsible for the maintenance, and there is always the danger of getting stuck in yet another information silo.

If we do have to move, right now I'm leaning towards Diigo because it seems to match most closely the Delicious features I use - namely, linkrolls and a bookmarklet (or toolbar). I haven't investigated very far, but it also looks like importing Delicious links will be easy.

This is just life on the web - nothing is permanent and nothing is irreplaceable. However, the initial "sunset" announcement struck me like a bad Christmas present.

Speaking of which: as usual, I'll be visiting my family for the week of Christmas, and so won't be posting. Because driving this time of year is always weather-dependent, I've been playing with Weather.com's Travel Weather Summary - you type in points along your route and the times you'll be passing through, and it tells you if you'll hit snow there. It's neat, but the interface could be slicker. I've never used it before, so we'll see how accurate it is, and if it's reliable enough to embark on a two-hour detour.

Happy holidays to everyone.



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The Resurrection of Newspaper Obituaries

   September 7th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Yahoo PipesLast week I started talking about newspaper obituaries. Today's post details how we're improving access to the obituaries we do have in our newspaper microfilm records, using an online index created with Yahoo Pipes.

Our microfilm records of the local papers go back to 1940. But microfilm is primarily an archival format, rather than an accessible format, so it can be cumbersome to use. Our biggest impediment was that we didn't know what was there - when a patron contacted the Reference Desk asking for someone's obituary, it was very time-consuming for us to search the microfilm for an obituary, which may or may not have even appeared in the paper - we wouldn't even know until we checked.

So we created an online searchable index to the newspaper's obituaries - not the text of the obituaries, just a name/date/page index. Patrons and staff can use this to know whether someone's obituary appeared in our newspaper, instead of having to check the microfilm every time.

Here's how we did it: first, for about the past 10 months, volunteers have been going through every microfilm reel we have, page by page, and building an Excel spreadsheet with the following information:

Newspaper Year Month Day Page FirstName MiddleInitial LastName Maiden-Jr-Sr

The first column is necessary because we have records for both the Chelmsford Newsweekly (1940-1993) and the Chelmsford Independent (1986-present). The middle columns are reference and retrieval information. In the last column, we included extra information, like maiden name, whether a person was a "Jr." or "Sr." etc., and anything else that was random and didn't fit into another column.

The spreadsheet itself is useful, but I wanted to put this online so anyone could search it. The tool I chose was Yahoo Pipes, which has both pros and cons:

Pros:

  • It's easy to play with and learn (like most Web 2.0 tools), but is also very powerful so we can grow into it
  • It can use a csv file for the data, which is easy to create with Excel
  • Beyond a simple search, it also provides fancy features like RSS feeds and tie-ins with other social media tools
  • Using Yahoo Pipes is covered in Chapter 7 of Library Mashups, written by Nicole Engard
  • The data is easy to update as the file continues to grow
  • It worked

Cons:

  • Searching a database is not what Pipes is intended to do, so it's probably not the best tool out there (I wanted to use DabbleDB, but they're in transition right now)
  • The csv file must be ftp'ed to the webserver, which will be increasingly problematic - right now the file is 17,000+ lines and over 1MB. It will only get bigger, and the entire thing needs to be uploaded each time it's updated
  • Pipes has funny rules that you don't know about until something breaks. For instance, field names must be single words (hence "FirstName" and "Maiden-Jr-Sr"), you can't use certain characters in the data (like /), the search doesn't let you combine keywords (so far - I'm sure there must be some kind of fancy loop setup that will allow it, but right now people can only search either by first name or last name or year)
  • There isn't an easy way to embed the search box back into our website (there are Badge options, but only for search output) - you have to use the Pipe interface to search
  • There doesn't seem to be a wildcard for search
  • The results can't not link to something - I wanted the names and dates just to be displayed, but the way Pipes works requires the results to link to something

The last point was initially a pain, but it forced me to be creative, and I think the solution is actually more helpful for patrons than what I originally wanted. Now, when a patron finds the obituary listing they'd like to read, they click the link, and it automatically fills the obituary information into an email contact form on our website. That request gets sent to Reference staff, who then have an easy time of retrieving the obituary from the microfilm. Unfortunately, our microfilm machine isn't connected to a computer, so we'll just print and mail or fax the obituary to the patron. When possible we'll type them in and email them, and of course that will go into the searchable database too.

To make the connection from the Pipes listing to our email form, I had to use some javascript (which introduced another glitch: javascript makes names like O'Conner problematic, because it stops at the ', but I'll worry about this later).

Here's what the whole Pipe's source code looks like:
Yahoo Pipe for Obituary Search

Here's what it does:

  • The "Fetch CSV" module is the path to the csv file on our webserver
  • The module to the right of that controls what the patron search input box looks like. The "Label" field is "Enter EITHER a First Name, Last Name OR Year:" and you can see where that displays on the Pipe page
  • Both of those modules feed into "Filter" module - this one takes what the patron enters into the search box and filters the data from the csv file to create a subset of just matching records. Whatever the patron enters gets searched for in all the fields listed in the "Filter" module
  • The next module is "Rename" and I'm not sure I'm using it properly - I needed to create two new fields, so I'm just taking two existing fields, copying them, and renaming them so I can work with them later. The fields that got copied still exist untouched
  • Next is the "Regex" module, which is the most complicated and powerful, and I use it to create what the patron sees for the search results. The "Title" field is one I created, and here I'm replacing the contents from when I copied it to display what the patron will see on the screen - the code for it is "${FirstName} ${MiddleInitial} ${LastName} ${Maiden-Jr-Sr} - ${Newspaper}, ${Month} ${Day}, ${Year}, Page ${Page} ${Obituary}" which also includes punctuation formatting. So, for example, the result looks like this:

    Katherine M. Polley - Chelmsford Newsweekly, December 31, 1940, Page 7

    Because this field has to be a link, I also had to define what it links to, which is what I'm doing in the "Link" field. The value for that field is being written as

    http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/reference/ask_us-obits.html?obit=${FirstName}+${MiddleInitial}+${LastName},+${Newspaper},+${Month}+${Day},+${Year},+Page+${Page}

    which carries the data over to the library's website and some javascript pulls the data from the url and puts it in an email form. The patron can fill in their name and contact info into the form and submit it to us as an email message

  • The "Sort" module is self-explanatory, and I chose to list them with most recent first

This feels far more complicated than it should be, and I'm sharing it here to both save someone else from having to figure it all out again on their own, and to hopefully get suggestions on how to simplify/improve it.

Although, speaking of improving it, I do have one idea for future development: the local Cemetery Department has spreadsheet online listing complete burial locations - it would be neat to mashup up that data, so the obituary is linked to the cemetery plot location.

That's down the road a bit, so in the meantime I just keep adding whatever new obituaries appear in the paper to the csv data file - I had planned to do that weekly, but lately there have been many weeks without any obituaries in the paper (see my previous post). Anyway, we'll see how this works - it only went live last week, but already patrons have been using it, and it certainly does save a lot of staff time.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/8/09

   November 14th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Yahoo! Answers logoThis entertained me, so I thought I'd share - Huffington Post collected some funny responses to questions asked on Yahoo Answers.

I wouldn't call them the "funniest of all time" - most of them were snarky answers or just really bad questions. But the one about the sandwich did make me laugh out loud.

Occasionally I use Yahoo Answers to help with a patron's question, but like with any traditional or crowd-sourced resource, it needs to be evaluated critically (and enjoyed).



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/4/09

   October 10th, 2009 Brian Herzog

I was asked these two questions back-to-back one day this week:

I want to sell my car on craigslist, and I want to be able to email people an info sheet. I've already created an Excel spreadsheet with mileage and other statistics, including a couple pictures pasted in. Can you show me how to put arrows and text on the pictures, and how to convert it to a pdf file?

...and...

I've been on Yahoo for a few months now. I know that I can get letters from people, and I can reply to letters people send me, but, can I send people letters too?

Of course, both of these are legitimate questions. I was just struck by such different technology experience levels from two patrons who walked up to the reference desk at about the same time.

And the answers are:

Excel's Drawing Toolbar (View > Toolbars > Drawing) allows both of these things. Click the icon that looks like an Arrow to draw an arrow on a picture, use the Line Style to make it thicker, and the Line Color icon to change the color. Then, click the Text Box icon to create a text box wherever you want words to appear. Use the Fill Color and Line Color to make sure it's legible against the picture.

To create a pdf version, we installed PDFcreator on our public computers. It shows up in the printer selection dropdown box, and creates a pdf file patron can then save to disk

...and...

Just click the "New" button in the upper left corner of the Inbox.



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