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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/15/09

   March 21st, 2009 Brian Herzog

Thomas JeffersonSince Obama became President, we've had a new regular patron at the Reference Desk.

I don't remember ever helping her before the Inauguration, but since then we get a couple questions from her a week - all relating to government actions or political news. Often they're questions like "how many Democrats are in the House of Representatives, and how many are Republicans" (254 [D], 178 [R]) or "can you print the text of Obama's Inagural speech" (text from NYT, text & video from the White House blog).

But sometimes her questions require a bit more work. In early February, she wanted copies of both the House and Senate versions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus bill so she could compare them to see the differences. And more recently, she asked what were Barack Obama's accomplishments while he was in the Senate.

For these types of questions, I always turn to the Library of Congress' THOMAS database ("In the spirit of Thomas Jefferson, legislative information from the Library of Congress").

Searching it is always a bit daunting, just from the sheer amount of information it contains. But the flip side is how much you can learn when you start sifting through it.

When researching the stimulus bill, a search for "HR1" found a record that includes the bill's history in Congress, detailing each vote at each stage (since researching this question, I notice the LOC put a nice link to another handy schedule overview on the THOMAS homepage).

But as far as comparing the two bills, I'm not entirely sure what the patron was expecting. The House version of the bill was 679 pages [pdf] and the Senate's amended version was 736 pages [pdf]. That is certainly beyond printing, and this particular patron will not use a computer, so she just gave up on that quest.

As for Obama's legislative record, THOMAS also offers an Advanced Search for every Congress. It allows searching by Member of Congress, and can be limited to role and bill status. Since Obama served in both the 109th and 110th Congresses, I search both for the number of total bills he sponsored or cosponsored, and then also filtered to see how many of those bills have become law (sponsored 282 bills, with 2 becoming law; cosponsored 977 bills, with 29 becoming law).

The patron was happy with this, and I am still fascinated with THOMAS. The oldest records seem to be from the 93rd Congress (1973-1974), and a search on "impeachment Nixon" yields 36 various resolutions and bills. A search in the 107th Congress (2001-2002) for "USA PATRIOT Act" shows that H.R.3162 (132 pages [pdf]) was introduced into Congress on 10/23/01 and became law on 10/26/01.

Good stuff.

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Government 2.0

   February 3rd, 2009 Brian Herzog

obama on iphoneBefore and since the Obama Administration moved into the White House, there's been much talk about how Obama was using technology, really using it properly, to get things done.

These ranged from his change.gov and recovery.gov websites to the Blackberry battle to tech problems in the White House to Obama's Technology Agenda to the newly revamped White House website and blog.

I subscribed to the White House blog's rss feed on 1/20. In addition to reading the posts, I also paid attention to how many other subscribers there were. At the end of the first week, there were about 800 subscribers in Bloglines, and about 3,000 in Google Reader. As of 2/2, it's up to 1,100+ Bloglines and 16,000+ Google Reader.

This is out of a country of 300 million people - I'm surprised it's so low*.

I think it's great that the government is putting effort into reaching people in new ways, so people can get the information the way they want to be reached. But at what point does it become worth it? These numbers don't take into account people that use other rss readers or actually visit the website, but they do seem low.

Regardless, leading by example is a good thing - if the White House is taking bloggery seriously, then perhaps other parts of the government will also be making information available quicker and easier via technology. The Library of Congress blog predates Obama (191 Blogline/241 Google Reader subscribers), and it has a flickr stream too (~90/226 subscribers). Also, iLibrarian recently pointed to a recap of the Best Government Uses of Web Technology, and that's interesting reading.

These web 2.0 communication channels are now an integrated fact of life for many people, so it makes me feel better that our government is deliberately addressing it instead of trying to ignore it.


*My library's blog isn't much better - out a of a town of about 32,000, we've got 3 Bloglines and 4 Google Reader subscribers (we average over 700 page visits a month).

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It’s Official: I’m Not A Terrorist

   October 9th, 2008 Brian Herzog

FOIA LetterLast year, I read a blog post giving instructions on how American citizens could request a check into your personal flight history, to find out if your name appears on the "no-fly" list. So I did.

The website seems to be gone now, but it was a simple form that submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Department of Homeland Security. I'd never requested anything under FOIA before, and my personal history seemed like a place to start. I thought it was a good exercise, both as an information professional and as a private citizen.

So I was happy when, earlier this week (almost exactly one year later), I received a letter from the US Customs and Border Protection saying,

A search was conducted of the [Automated Targeting System] database, and we were unable to locate or identify any responsive records.

Which means I am flying under their radar (until this request, probably).

Not that I thought there would be anything untoward in my flying patterns, but these days, you never know. Now all I need to do is take my official "he's no terrorist" letter to the nearest TSA worker for a smiley face.

[To request your own, try starting at CBP's FOIA webpage]

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Free Citizenship Resource

   September 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

U.S. Customs and Immigration logo
I recently received this announcement in email. Free to public libraries, this is a Federally-produced citizen toolkit, geared to immigrants working towards American citizenship.

September 12, 2007
To: Public Libraries serving New Immigrants/Newcomer Populations

The Task Force on New Americans, a federal interagency effort to help immigrants learn English has developed The Civics and Citizenship Toolkit. This free toolkit is designed to serve as a self-study resource for immigrants but can also be useful for librarians and adult educators in a classroom or community literacy setting. Included in the kit are guides in English and Spanish, Welcome to the United States, that contain a wide range of practical information as well as basic civics information introducing newcomers to the U.S. system of government. Also included are Civics Flash cards for individual study or instructional use and Learn about the United States: Quick Civics lessons. In addition, the kit includes a Citizen's Almanac and Pocket size Declaration of Independence, copy of the U.S. Constitution and a DVD covering an introduction to U.S. History and Civics.

Interested? Please go to http://www.citizenshiptoolkit.gov/ and register for a FREE copy of the Civics and Citizenship Toolkit.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Registration limited to PUBLIC LIBRARIES ONLY.
  • Please DO NOT REGISTER IF YOUR LIBRARY IS PART OF THE FEDERAL DEPOSITORY LIBRARY PROGRAM (FDLP)*. Registration is subject to review to ensure eligibility.
  • If eligible, registrants will receive a copy of the Toolkit on a first come, first served basis.
  • Resources are limited. Registrants will receive one Toolkit at no charge.
  • Registration for the toolkit is now open and will be available while supplies last.

The Toolkit is a joint effort of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the U.S. Government Printing Office.

All questions about the toolkit should be directed to the federal office at the above website.

citizenship, government, immigrant, immigrants, immigration, librarian, librarians, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, resource

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NASA Making Archive Available

   August 28th, 2007 Brian Herzog
NASA logo & Internet Archive logo

This has been kicking around for the last week, but I'm still looking forward to it: NASA and Internet Archive are partnering to digitize and make freely available 50 years of NASA photographs, historic film and video.

The sheer amount of data must be staggering. I can easily see this as being one of the most interesting websites on the internet, but at the same time, it can also be the most boring. Hopefully it will be heavily annotated and have a great search function, so people can find and make sense of what's there.

A few links about this:

archive, government, internet archive, libraries, library, nasa, space

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/26

   December 2nd, 2006 Brian Herzog

About 9:15 a.m. yesterday morning, December 1st, the reference desk phone rings:

Me: Reference desk, can I help you?
Patron: I get my social security check every month on the third except sometimes it comes on the same day as the SSI check and for other people the checks come together if you are disabled instead of retired when the checks come together but this month the third is on a Sunday and my mailbox is a P.O. box in the city next door because I live with my daughter now and whenever the third falls on a Sunday they send the check out on the first which means it comes with the SSI check for the disabled people and it's quite a drive for me to check my mailbox and I don't want to go into the city if my check isn't going to be there and can you tell me if my check is in my mailbox can you do that for me do you understand what I'm asking you?
Me: You're asking if I can find out the mailing schedule for social security checks?
Patron: No, that's not what I'm asking you at all see my check always arrives on the third and I want to know if it is in my mailbox before I drive to the city because the third is a Sunday so they usually mail it on the first which is today can you find that out?
Me: Well, I can try, but it might take me a little while. Can I call you back when I find it?
Patron: You don't know it right now is ten minutes enough I'll call you back in ten minutes. [click]

Okay, at this point, I'm only about 10% sure I even know what this patron wants, let alone if I'll be able to find it. And of course, since I'm under a deadline, three patrons all walk to the desk at this point and ask questions.

After helping each of them, I'm back on the case. I can't remember the URL of the Social Security Administration (which I have since remembered is very cleverly ssa.gov), so I go to Firstgov.gov, search for social security, and the first search result links to http://www.socialsecurity.gov.

Very happily, front and center on their homepage is a "Questions about:" dropdown box, and the third option is "Checks and Payments." That links to an FAQ, and question two is "When are benefit checks paid?"

This page kind of answers the patron's question, but I hit real pay dirt when I notice a link for a Schedule of Social Security Benefit Payments 2006. This page turns out to be a calendar, with each day a checks are mailed highlights (taking Sundays into account).

How great is that? Here is a somewhat obscure question, on a topic I knew nothing about, and yet I was able to find the answer on a government website in about 3 clicks. When the patron called back (twenty minutes later), I was able to tell her with confidence that her check should have been mailed that day (but I couldn't promise it was in her mailbox). And she was happy.

Who says our government is inept?

firstgov.gov, government, patron, reference question, social security

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