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

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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Reference Question of the Week – 5/20/12

   May 26th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Kindness of Strangers signIt's been a very slow week in the library (school winding down + beautiful weather), so this week's question isn't an actual reference question - but it is something I recently learned.

Did you know Wikipedia has a reference desk?

The Wikipedia reference desk works like a library reference desk. Users leave questions on the reference desk and Wikipedia volunteers work to help you find the information you need.

Questions/answers are broken up into categories, and are both interesting and sophisticated. I also like the format of crowdsourcing answers - even when someone had given what I thought was a great answer, subsequent responders added new information or aspects that were useful.

Actually, it reminded me of any other online forum, which I use all the time for answering questions (especially for coding problems or frustrating technology issues). No one response provides a complete answer, but putting all the bits and pieces together often solves the problem.

Not that using the internet as a big Help archive is anything new - I was just happy to find another source to search when I get a real stumper. But if nothing else, the Wikipedia Reference Desk Guidelines does make for interesting reading.

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Check to ALA from 1919

   June 10th, 2010 Brian Herzog

1919 check written to the ALAIn 2008, Chelmsford started a town-wide history project, to index the historical records in all the various locations around town. We're still chugging along, and a volunteer found something interesting in the library's archives.

This check for $1.50 was written by the treasurer of the North Chelmsford Library Association to the ALA Publishing Board in 1919. The back of the check is interesting, too. We're still discovering things in the archive, so I'm hopeful we'll be able to figure out what this check was for.

There's three more things about this, if you're interested:

  1. The signature on the check is Stuart MacKay, brother of Anna C. MacKay, who the Anna C. MacKay Branch Library in North Chelmsford is named after. North Chelmsford has been, and is now, very supportive of the library, and I like this continuity of history. Also interesting that he was working on Christmas Eve.
  2. Also uncovered in the archive are circulation records from the early 1900's - including every book each patron checked out. An interesting philosophical question is this: at what point do library records go from being a matter of patron privacy to a matter of historical record or curiosity?
  3. For our indexing project, we're using Past Perfect, and will be providing access through Past Perfect Online (but nothing's been uploaded yet). Until that's ready, we're using a Google Custom Search Engine to index all the existing online resources we could find. It works well enough for the time being, and I know this is going to be a long-term project, but I'm looking forward to having a real index available.

Neat, huh?

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Town-Wide History Project

   November 20th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Town of Chelmsford sealSomething new my library is undertaking is a Town-Wide History Project. Our goal is to create a master index of all of the historical records in town, so we'll know where different types of information is stored. Phase 2 will be preservation and digitization of as much of this as possible.

Good idea? Yes. Lot of work? More than we realize.

We expect this process to take years, so we're trying to start slow and small so as not to get overwhelmed. We're also trying to document everything as we go along, so we'll have a record of how we went about doing this, and when certain things were accomplished. Since other libraries might be interested in the same sort of project, here's our progress so far (I'll occasionally post updates, too).

Our Process
I'm told that this was tried about eight years ago in Chelmsford, but was abandoned less than a year after it started. The library was approached a few months ago to try again, and I immediately took to the idea. A comprehensive local history finding aid would be very valuable at the reference desk.

In addition to library staff, we also have a volunteer who has been helping with a lot of the work. She's been responsible for most of the data entry and envelope stuffing, and will also be helping when it comes to visiting each site to do an inventory. Without her, most of these steps would have been much more difficult.

  1. Meet to organize project - A project like this will have a lot of meetings. Initially library staff met with our volunteers to define the scope and goal of the project, and to create a rough timeline
  2. Identify groups in town with historical records/artifacts - In our case, we had a few resources that helped with this. Since a similar project was begun a few years ago, some of their records still existed, including a list of the organizations involved. Another tool is our Community Information database, which lists non-profit groups in town. My volunteer also found official Town departments and boards which might have historical records
  3. Compile a list of groups - The volunteer took these various lists and created a master contact list as an Excel spreadsheet, with just name, address, phone, email, website and contact name
  4. Contact the groups - While the volunteer was compiling the spreadsheet of names, we were also drafting a letter that would introduce the project to these groups, and a preliminary survey, which would be sent along with the letter. The goal of the survey was to give library staff an idea of how much materials each group had, what kind of shape it was in, and where it was located:

    To mail them, we did a simple mail-merge between Word and Excel, and enclosed a stamped return envelope. We also enclosed a list of all the groups contacted, in the hopes that the recipients will be able to suggests organizations we didn't think of.

    Also in the cover letter, we invited everyone to a meet-and-greet type introductory meeting, scheduled about a month in advance

  5. Compile the returned surveys - As the surveys were returned, we compiled the answers into the same spreadsheet we had begun. We used a different worksheet, and kept track of who replied, if the contact information had changed, and how they answered the questions. On another worksheet, we aggregated the answers for all groups, so we'd know how many map collections were in town, how many were available online, etc.

    At this point we have outgrown Excel, and need a database for our needs, not just a simple spreadsheet. I'm going to have to find a tool to accomplish this before the project grows more, because the less data we have to rekey, the better.

  6. Introductory meeting - We wanted our first face-to-face meeting not be a lecture by library staff, but more of a conference, where all participates in the group were equal. Library staff did lead the meeting to give an overview of what we had in mind, but once things got going the other attendees really began to take ownership of the idea and see a role for their organization.

This is as far as we are in the process right now - which is to say, the very, very beginning. The consensus at the meeting (which was just last night) was to invite a speaker to give an overview on what kind of materials are historically-important, and what groups can do to prepare for an on-site inventory. The groups also wanted to see examples of what the end result will look like (for our project, we're using communities like Westford, Sudbury and Ipsiwch as models).

We're going to plan that for late January/early February, and then start scheduling site visits for initial inventories. How those first few site visits go will shape how we proceed, and help define who does what. Eventually we will apply for a grant, to help with the preservation and digitization aspects.

It's an exciting project, just massive. I'm happy that the town is behind such a project, and that it is being coordinated by the library. Local history questions are often the most difficult to answer, and a project like this will go a long way to ensuring this information is both available and accessible to researchers and the curious alike.

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Old Timey Photo Editing

   August 14th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Before and after photos of Cedar Point dock, circa 1900The library in my hometown has a blog, which I read because it's well done and because it's a way for me to stay connected with where my family lives.

I particularly enjoyed one recent post. Someone found a photo in the library's historical archive that had been later doctored for use in a promotional book.

Check the original post for bigger photos. It is interesting to see how the photo, circa 1900, could be altered so well - as opposed to some of the bad work being done now with Photoshop.

This shows that fun can come from library archive, especially photo archives. Also, too, the subject of the photo is interesting. It's the dock of Cedar Point, an amusement park in Sandusky, OH. And I am always amazed at how dressing nicely was just a matter of course in that era. People at Cedar Point don't dress like that anymore.

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Information Wants To Be Free

   March 18th, 2008 Brian Herzog

free informationIn the wake of the recent announcements of companies ditching DRM* as a mechanism to control access to audio files, the New York Times is reporting that Sports Illustrated is opening up access to its entire archive.

The Times did this itself not too long ago, as did Atlantic Monthly, but SI's project is supposed to go a step further - not just text, but they're making available their photographs and video and everything. They're also including a handy search interface that lets people search by athlete, team, coach, year, etc.

Hopefully, more and more periodicals will start making their archives available, too (after all, Information Wants To Be Free). This of course would dramatically change the relationships libraries have with long-time vendors like EBSCO, NewsBank and Proquest, but information is information. If all the information is free, then the real value-added piece becomes the interface.

By the way, I found about this through The Huffington Post. I've also read recently about a few more free online resources:

*update: OverDrive just announced (at PLA, anyway) that they, too, are finally moving in the right direction. In June they'll start offering mp3 files - which, best of all, will be iPod-compatible. And they'll finally come out with a Mac interface, too. Read the entire announcement [pdf, 70kb].

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