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

Where Is A Library’s Community?

   September 29th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Here's an interesting situation - so interesting, in fact, that I find my self in agreement with both sides of the issue.

Concord (NH) Public LibraryThe Concord (NH) Public Library found that it couldn't afford to purchase all the books it wanted. So, it started a program where patrons could purchase and "donate" a copy of a book from the Library's wish list.

Great idea. They explained the program on their website, set up wish lists on Amazon, and waited for the books to roll in. Good use of Web 2.0-ish technology, right? Patrons could just click and pay for the book, and it would be shipped right to the library. Kudos to the library for being creative and proactive and making it easy for the public to support the library in a very useful way.

But after four weeks, only four of the 30+ books on the wish list were purchased.

Gibson's BookstoreLast Thursday, the owner* of the independent Gibson's Bookstore in Concord sent out a message to his customers. He explains very well what he feels the library did wrong, and appealed to his customers to support the local library buy purchasing the books locally. He even created a duplicate click-to-purchase wish list for people to use to donate books to the library.

The result? In less than 24 hours, all of the remaining wish list books were purchased to be donated to the library (which is why the wish lists are now empty).

This benefits the library, right? And it benefits local business, which benefits the tax base and the local workers, and everyone is happy, right? So why didn't the library just do that in the first place?

I wonder: could the library have done anything differently? I think the Amazon wish list was a good idea, but it wasn't successful. I don't know what kind of promotion it got, but perhaps the library's website just doesn't get enough traffic.

Also, the idea of a library partnering with a local business is a bit of a sticky wicket**. Being a non-profit government department, libraries usually cannot do anything that would imply it favors one business over another. But I suppose it would have been okay if the library approached all the bookstores in town - which I think is limited to Gibson's and a Borders, anyway.

This then starts to make the program more complicated and difficult to manage, to make sure patrons don't purchase duplicate books. But by opening the program up to the customers of the stores, the library would have been able to reach more members of the community.

Library communities are not just the people who come through the door, and certainly not just the people who visit the website. When libraries reach out to the community, we have to go to where the community is, and not just wait for them to come to us.

UPDATE: Article and reader comments at the Concord Monitor newspaper

UPDATE 10/1/09: The Concord Library created a second wish list, and distributed it to Amazon, Gibson's and Borders (in-store lists only). That's the best way to get it filled quickly, by distributing it as widely as possible to get the message to the patrons. And then, as Michael from Gibson's says, "It's up to us to convince you to shop at Gibson's--as it always has been."


*Full disclosure: the Director of my library is married to the owner of Gibson's.

**I love that phrase.

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What is the Point of Reading?

   July 9th, 2009 Brian Herzog

kids sharing a bookSome interesting comments on my last post got me thinking about reading, and why we encourage kids to read.

I know reading is vital for learning and personal development. But beyond that, is reading just for the benefit of the reader?

I wonder: is reading without sharing the experience akin to amassing a tremendous fortune and doing nothing with it? Society tends to paint as "greedy" people who accumulate wealth just for the sake of having more money than they know what to do with. At the same time, we reward philanthropists with awe and gratitude for "giving back" and sharing their excess wealth to benefit society.

So, should reading programs not just encourage kids to total up the number of pages and hours spent reading (which can lead to competition), but to also be "knowledge philanthropists" and share what they've learned and experienced from reading (which might lead to collaboration)? Or would that intimidate kids away from reading at all?

I'm not a children's librarian or parent, so perhaps I'm just late to the party on this.

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Computerless Email

   April 15th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Presto Email Printing ServiceOccasionally spam email messages catch my eye. I recently saw one with this subject: "Send Email and Photos to Loved Ones Who Don't Use a Computer."

I'm not promoting this service, but I think it's an interesting idea, and I'd never heard of it before. The company is Presto.com, and what they sell is a way to electronically communicate with someone who doesn't have email.

The product is a printer that plugs into a home phone line, and their service converts incoming emails into color printouts - with no user intervention.

The demo is worth watching, but how it works seems fairly simple. Each HP printer gets an email account (which is managed by someone who is comfortable with the internet), and in addition to printing messages from loved ones, the company also provides free content like crosswords, recipes, and newsletters. And since you control the "approved sender" list, it means no spam and no ads.

I keep thinking this might actually have a place in a library, but I can't exactly figure it out. I certainly would rather teach someone how to use email than give them a crutch, but lots of people don't have the time or desire to learn - but do want pictures of their grandkids.

The catch would be if each printer is only associated with one email address. If it could handle more, then this might be a service we could provide to patrons. They set up an account with us, and then we hold whatever printouts they receive just like we hold their requested books. That would definitely strengthen the library's sense of community, but perhaps this product is better suited for senior centers or retirement homes.

Besides, kids today are practically issued cell phone numbers and IM handles at birth, so this type of technology is probably pretty short-lived.

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Story In The Streets

   July 17th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Photo of stenciled sidewalk

I read about a cool idea on BoingBoing the other day - a "choose your own adventure" story stenciled onto city sidewalks.

Players can start in either of two locations - I think either as "him" or as "her" - and then progress through the story making decisions and following the directions. It's a love story, so if both players choose the right paths, they end up together at the same place.

I thought this would be a great thing for a library to try - not only does it involve reading a story, but also the community. It would get people out and interacting with each other and their neighborhood, and it really sounds like fun.

I suppose any story would work, but it would be even better if it could be place-specific - perhaps following the path of a prominent local historical figure, or the growth of a local enterprise, or even highlighting local attractions or businesses. I think there are many way to make this work, but the bottom line (as I see it) is that it is a way for the library to get outside the building and doing something that people can have fun with.

boing boing, boingboing, community, libraries, library, public libraries, public library

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Libraries as Community Places

   April 28th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Project Public Spaces logoA post this week to the Maine Libraries listserv highlighted Project Public Spaces, and their recent newsletter - it was all about libraries.

Mainly, the theme is this: libraries are natural community gathering spaces, and we should embrace and emphasize this. If we want to play an important role in our communities, we should act accordingly.

A partial table of contents is below, and the articles are really worth reading to get ideas:

community, community place, community space, community spaces, libraries, libraries as place, libraries matter, library, pps, project for public space, project for public spaces, public libraries, public library, sense of place

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Yo – What’s the 211?

   March 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

211.orgI learned of a new tool in a meeting today - it's called 211, and is similar to the national 411 information phone line. The difference is that 211 is geared only towards community organizations. So, if you wanted to know about homeless shelters in your area, you could call 211 and they would tell you.

The meeting in which this came up was a planning meeting for my library consortium's Community Information database. We've had declining usage of the CommInfo database consortium-wide, and have been trying to come up with ways to make it both more visible and more useful. Also, it is a module of SirsiDynix's Horizon v7 product, but it is not going to be supported in v8. So, we feel we need to do something in order to keep this resource.

In the course of doing research for alternate software we could use to power the database, someone stumbled across 211. It seems to focus on human services, whereas our database includes all community organizations - little leagues and stamp clubs as well as Alcoholic Anonymous and food pantries.

Also, it seems entirely phone-based. This initially stuck me as odd, since everything seems to be "web or bust" nowadays. But after I thought about it, it occurred to me that many people looking for these services are probably better served by the reliable and universal telephone system, rather than requiring internet access and savvy.

In addition to 211, we also discovered a group called the Merrimack Valley Hub, whose sole purpose is to be an online community database for the Merrimack Valley (which works out nicely for my library, since we are part of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium). I was told that this group had approached MVLC five or so years ago when they were starting up, asking for our records and wanting us to use them instead of our own system. I think there has been no cooperation or communication in the years since, so rediscovering their thriving website surprised some people.

But with the apparent demise of our own system (which SirsiDynix does promise will continue to function to some degree even if we take no action), our choice is to either migrate to a new software solution we would maintain ourselves, or else discontinue our resource and rely on someone else. The Tyngsborough Public Library, a member of the consortium, has been working on developing their own Community Database, as a possible tool the entire consortium could share.

But adding new tools where resources already exist seems to be a major problem with libraries. We currently subscribed to a number of databases, many of which overlap. I think we pride ourselves on offering so much to patrons, but all we're really doing is extending and confusing their search by giving them an entire workshed full of tools when all they really need is a hammer. It is frustrating continually having to reinvent the wheel, especially when you know so many other people are also doing the exact same thing.

2-1-1, 211, comminfo, community, community information, community resources, i & r, i and r, i&r, information and referral, libraries, library, merrimack valley hub, mv hub, mvhub, public libraries, public library, tyngsborough, tyngsborough library, tyngsborough public library

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