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

Reference Question of the Week – 9/20/12

   October 6th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Abacus as adding machine for financial servicesThis might be one of the strangest questions I've ever been asked.

A patron called to ask what information we could find out about the business her husband worked for in Chelmsford in the 1990's. She gave me the name and address of their office from that time, and just said that she had recently been contacted by the IRS concerning his pay and benefits from his time there.

Whew. I told her it might take me some time to research it, and she gave me her name and phone number to contact her when I found something. Interestingly (to me), the phone number she gave me had a California area code.

So anyway, the first step was just to search online for "Financial Applications Consulting Services, Inc." (the name of the company, which unfortunately is also a common description of this type of business) to see if they were still around. I also checked local phone directories and ReferenceUSA, but from what I could tell, they were no longer in business. If that's the case, I'm not sure what I could possibly find to offer this woman, but now it became a personal challenge to find anything at all.

I thought the Town Clerk would have information on businesses in town, when they filed for permits or paid taxes or whatever. However, when I called over there, the Clerk said they had no record of this business - which, she said, isn't unusual, because only certain kinds of businesses need to be on record with them.

Next, since I had the business' old address, I thought I'd try to track down the owner of that building (since it was sort of a strip mall of office suites). I hoped the business would have left some kind of forwarding address when they moved, or at least I'd get the date they closed. I called the current tenants of the same address and explained that I was looking for the building owner to find a previous tenant, and they were happy to give me his name and number. However, they also cautioned that he's difficult to get a hold of because he travels a lot.

So I noted this to pass on the patron, but didn't try contact him myself.

Instead, I went back to web searching, looking more for information about the company than the company itself. This turned up an interesting history:

From Bizjournals.com:
...Financial Applications Consulting Services Inc., which does business under the name Fastech. It is based in Livonia, Mich. ...

From Businesswire.com:
...On July 25, 2003, FASTECH filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. On Nov. 18, 2003, the court ordered the granting of FASTECH's motion to sell certain assets, including its customer base, to Kronos....

Kronos happens to be one of the larger companies based in Chelmsford*, but I don't know if it's a coincidence that a Michigan-based company had a small office here, or if there had been some connection to Kronos all along.

Regardless, I think this gave me the information I was looking for - since Kronos was involved with taking ownership of the company the patron where the patron's husband worked, their legal or human resources department is probably the best resource to answer her questions regarding whatever questions the IRS is asking her.

So I gathered contact information for Kronos, Fastech, the building landlord, and also the URLs for the articles I had found online, and called the patron back. No answer - bummer. I left a message, saying that I had made some progress and asked her to call me back.

A couple days later, the patron's daughter called. She explained that after her father retired, her parents left Chelmsford and moved to California. Recently, her father had died, and in the course of finalizing his estate, the IRS contacted them about outstanding benefits from the time he was employed at this company in Chelmsford. She didn't know what it was about, but really appreciated the information I was able to provide.

That's great, and I was happy to help - but this is one of those questions that still feels opened-ended, because I have no idea how it was ultimately resolved. Of course, it's not about me - I hope the family was able to accomplish whatever they needed to do.


*Kronos has been extremely generous to the Chelmsford Library, donating laptops and other equipment - thank you very much!

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/14/10

   March 20th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Hours SignDue to the nice weather this week, the library has been extremely slow. I'm glad people are outside enjoying the weather, but because of that, this week's reference question is one left over from Christmastime.

So, cast your mind back to the holiday season, below-freezing temperatures, a foot of snow on the ground, and the stress of finding gifts for all the people on your list in time for the big day. That's the spirit in which the following email was sent to the reference desk:

> Date: January 11, 2010
> Subject: Researching Rip-Off Company
> This is a wild shot at trying to correct the errors of a company in
> your city. Six weeks before December 25, I ordered two gifts from the
> company called Young Explorers. They have a P. O. number, not a street
> address. They failed to deliver. January 9, I received a note to that
> effect.
> Kinda late for a Christmas gift.
> A second person I talked with had the same problem.
> Is there a Better Business Bureau?
> Any help you can give to stop the scoundrels will be appreciated.

This wasn't the first time I've gotten a question like this. In all cases, the resources I forward to the patron are pretty much the same.

Starting off with a simple search for "young explorers" chelmsford usually verifies the address and provides some good leads. More often than not, if someone has a complaint about a company, other people do to, so they will show up on various company review websites. For this company, there were a few complaints listed on RipoffReport.com.

But despite the power of Web 2.0, the resource I still like the most when it comes to company complaints is the Better Business Bureau. It may not be perfect, but at the very least it lists accurate contact information for the company. In this case, "Young Explorers" is one business under a parent company which has an A+ rating, despite having complaints lodged against them. I think means the company addresses and rectifies customer complaints, which, short of the problem not happening in the first place, is the best that can be hoped for.

Two good overviews of the complaint process are The Wall Street Journal's How to Complain About a Company and eHow's How to Complain To A Company If Your Initial Complaint Goes Unanswered, and I point patrons to these to put things in context. They contain lots of links, including government consumer protection resources.

But along with those, I also forward them a few other websites related to reviews and complaints:

Finally, depending on the patron and the company, I will also include links to the Chelmsford Police Department, the Chelmsford Business Association, and Middlesex Community College Law Center, which provides free mediation services to local consumers and businesses.

I never heard back after I replied to the patron's message, but I hope he contacted the company and worked something out. An unsatisfactory transaction is bad enough, but much worse when it's a gift. Customer service doesn't end after the transaction is complete - user experience starts with the first impression and continues through every time the customer (or patron) uses the product.

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Redbox Rights and Wrongs

   February 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

redbox dvd rentalsI like to think I'm the kind of person open to the opinions of others, and I certainly don't expect myself to be right all the time. However, it's still rare for me to advertise when I think I am wrong, yet today is one of those days.

Last week my director received the following email from a patron and forwarded it to all the department heads to see what we thought about it:

Ms. Herrmann,

I just heard about Red Box doing a trial with Libraries across the country. This is a fantastic idea, there currently is no Red Box in Chelmsford Center. Attached is a link for you to look at.


In case you've never heard of Red Box, they are dvd vending machines which rent new movies at $1 per night. The machines are located outdoors and are available to the consumer 24/7. Red Box pays the library and also allows the library to free up cash from having to purchase current films.

It would be great if Chelmsford could get in on this trial!!

I had heard of libraries using both Redbox and Netflix, but never really gave it too much though. So I was kind of surprised at my response to my director:

Maybe this is just a reaction based on the kind of day this has been, but I have mostly negative feelings about this. Based on http://tametheweb.com/2009/07/01/red-box-rentals-at-princeton-public-library/ is seems any money we get is minimal, and I'm always reluctant to give
businesses a green light to target library patrons.

If we did put one of these in, I sincerely hope it wouldn't mean we'd be buying fewer DVDs and rely on this as a crutch, because just like Rosetta Stone, they can pull out at any time and we'd be left
scrambling to fill the holes in our collection.

Its biggest benefit would be providing patrons access to DVDs 24 hours a day, but it also means patrons have a reason to be at the front door 24 hours a day, doing who knows what - the police department might not like that idea. Then there's also the patrons who return the RedBox
DVDs in our dropbox, those who put ours into the RedBox, patrons demanding refunds and tech support from the circ desk, blah blah blah.

More reading on this:

I know Conway makes money off our printers and the FaxVend people do too, but RedBox feels way more commercial - like letting a dealership put used cars in our parking lot to make it easier for patrons to shop for cars. Or letting a bookstore set up a table of bestsellers in the lobby and sell books so patrons don't have to wait on a long reserve list.

I don't know exactly why I don't like it, but right now I'm leaning against it - but again, it might just my mood. Blah.

So my question is this: why I am wrong?

I don't feel like I'm right, because I can see positive aspects to a Redbox being in front of the library (especially for libraries that already charge $1/DVD), and it's unusual for me to be this negative. I don't think that every new idea or technology has a place in every library, but still, my answer on this surprised me.

So I thought I'd ask the wider library world for your opinions on Redboxes and libraries. Lots of good comments were posted on Tame the Web when Michael talked about this last year, but I'm still not entirely convinced. What do you think?

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Example of Direct Advertising

   January 26th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Guerilla Marketing book coverA patron asked for help finding books on Taoism, so we walked over to the Religion section. As we were flipping through the index of books in the 294's and 299.514, I noticed something odd - many of the books we picked up all had bookmarks in them.

It's not uncommon for people to leave bookmarks in library books. But in this case, all of the bookmarks were identical - they were all business cards for a local yoga studio. Interesting. After I finished helping the patron, I went to the 613.7's, and sure enough - all our yoga how-to books also had these business cards tucked in them.

I dislike businesses targeting patrons, and in fact it's against our library policies, but I did think this approach was clever (although I shudder to think whose business card would end up in the 613.96's).

It also reminded me of a library tactic I fail to use effectively: put promotional bookmarks in books. It's a great way to drive traffic to your subscription databases, online subject guides, special programs, or general announcements, but it's also tough to maintain.

But too, this book-based advertising could be used as a fundraiser for libraries. Local business could donate money to purchase books on a certain topic, and in exchange they'd get a label on the book saying it was donated by them. Libraries would be able to expand collections, and perhaps also charge these businesses a fee on top of that.

This last idea is of course a terrible one. But the one before that is legitimate, really. And for another interesting library/business idea, check out Brett's idea for "Amazon Libraries."

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Library as Selling Point

   March 10th, 2009 Brian Herzog

new england real estate teamI use a couple Google Alerts to try to keep on top of websites that mentioned the Chelmsford Library or just Chelmsford, MA in general.

I set these up in the hopes of connecting to people in the community, or people talking about Chelmsford. I thought if someone mentioned the town, a local event, or the library on their blog or website, I might be able to comment and contribute on behalf of the library (but it's also an interesting way to find out what's happening in town - example).

A recent alert led me to the website of the New England Real Estate Team where I saw, big as day right on the top of their website, a photo of the library. I was kind of surprised at first, but then I was happy that a realtor is using the library as a selling point for the town. It certainly is, and it's also a nice looking building.

I think this is great, and I wonder if it would be worth it to encourage other local businesses to use the library's image to promote their services or Chelmsford. It certainly wouldn't make sense for every business, but it's nice to know that at least one feels we're worth showing off.

Now they just need to link to our website, in addition to the local schools.

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My Visit to ReferenceUSA

   October 23rd, 2007 Brian Herzog

ReferenceUSA's phone book libraryLast week I was in Omaha, NE, at the headquarters of InfoUSA (which produces the ReferenceUSA database) to participate with other public librarians in a "customer conference."

Their goal was to get feedback from us on how we (and our patrons) use ReferenceUSA, and what we felt could be changed or added to improve the database. They also gave us a sneak peak at a bunch of new product offerings, as well as a tour of their facility and an overview of how they actually construct their database (and other products - they also produce the Polk City Directories).

I felt a bit out of place in the group of librarians they assembled. Here I am, representing Chelmsford, MA (pop. 32,000), and the other librarians are from places like Dallas, Denver, Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Annapolis - all bigger library systems by far. Most of them were also business specialists, and if it weren't for my undergraduate marketing degree, I would have been lost somewhere between the "SWOT analysis" and "B2C channel positioning." But we all had experiences and viewpoints to share, so it worked out.

The Process for Data Integrity
Upon the conclusion of the conference, my overall opinion was that I was very impressed. I had always trusted their data, in the same way I more or less trust the data and articles in the other databases the library subscribes to. But after the tour of their work area, their claim of "99% accuracy" really means something.

They subscribe to over 6,000 phone books from across the country (which they have in a resource library - see photo above), and then, using a variety of processes, move that information into their database. A lot of it is automated, with most of their software being proprietary and home-grown. But the emphasis was clearly on using actual people to review the data make intelligent decisions to ensure accuracy. And then those peoples' work was checked, and the checker's work was checked. Which all makes for a high degree of accuracy.

Some notes about the data:

  • Data for their consumer database comes almost entirely from white pages. Since there is no reliable source for cell phone numbers, those are not in ReferenceUSA
  • All consumer data is scoured against national and state "do not call" lists, as well as the DMA's "do not mail" lists (so, even if a person is listed in the phone book, they won't be in ReferenceUSA if they've properly registered to protect their information)
  • ReferenceUSA is easily reached to add/remove/change records, either business or consumer
  • It is difficult to remove people who have died - their main sources are death benefit check records, but since these are often sent to next of kin at different addresses, it is hard to reconcile that back to the deceased's home address and social security number
  • They've been adding "store front images" of businesses in the database. There are over 3 million so far (each business has one close up shot and one wide shot)
  • Address changes (people who move) are identified via the Post Office's National Change of Address system, magazine subscription lists, credit card billing lists, and prison rolls
  • In the case of moves, they keep previous address records for at least five years, but this information is not in the database or otherwise available to the public
  • The competitor report in the business module is compiled based on SIC and geography. So, if you want to see all the competitors of a local pet store, it's great; but if you want to see a bigger or national company's competitors, it's not much help at all

New features in the business module:

  • New data points include the number of PCs per location, square footage per location, and the gender of the executives
  • Annual reports are now included in the database, as are the last three years historical financial data
  • More powerful custom field selection/sorting for downloading records (hard to explain, but it's pretty slick)
  • They added all public libraries and branches into the database, based on ALA's library directory (neat)

Up-and-coming things for the next 6-8 months:

  • section 508 compliance (mostly ALT tags)
  • Adding US territories (Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands) to the business file
  • Adding a search for brands and products, so you can find out which parent company manufacturers and sells them
  • Enhanced mapping, which will allow searching by map, plotting data points and drawing corridor grids (as in, "let me see all business of this type between point A and point B")
  • A historical module, with last 10 years worth of business financial data
  • An analytical module, with industry reports, size of business, etc (this is what my notes say, but I forget what it actually means)
  • Increased data points in the financial section (such as auditors, cash flow, etc)
  • Executive biographies
  • A guided search, which prompts you to design a properly-formed search (only available on some modules initially)

New Products coming out soon:

  • New Movers module (people who have moved recently)
  • New Homeowners module (people who have recently purchased a house)
  • Business to Consumer Research module (for business to identify customers based on "lifestyle choices," such as hunters, skiiers, pet owners, etc)
  • New Business module (which pulls data from city, county, utility and tax records, which business have to file before they open - which means that these new businesses will be in the database before they even open their doors. This is great for insurers or other business-to-business companies, but also can answer "what restaurants are coming to town?" 50,000 business are added weekly, and they stay in this database for two years
  • EmployersUSA (a rebranded version of ReferenceUSA, specially geared for job seekers

I have some photos from the visit, most of which were provided by ReferenceUSA, as their facility and processes are industry secrets.

The trip to Omaha was also fun because I stayed in the Embassy Suites, and got to visit the Omaha Library and the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

I don't want this to sound like a sales pitch for them, but I will say this: contact your sales rep and ask about being included in the next customer conference. It's worth it.

business, consumer, dataabse, infousa, libraries, library, ne, nebraska, omaha, public libraries, public library, referenceusa

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