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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/29/12

   February 4th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Date ChangedI wasn't directly involved in this reference question, but my coworker who did handle it had to consult me because it was just so odd.

Sometime in November, she was working the reference desk when a patron called to ask if we had a specific magazine article. We didn't, and our process for requesting articles through interlibrary loan is to submit the request through the Boston Public Library's online ILLiad form, as they are the regional center for this type of ILL.

The bizarre part came in when the patron called back a week or so later and asked:

I work at a law firm - can my article request be back-dated to July 28th?

This is where my coworker came to me, because she wasn't sure if this was something we would consider doing as a matter of policy, and she also wasn't sure if it was even technically possible.

And as far as I know, it isn't, at least for us. Since we use the BPL's online form, all the timestamp information is on their servers. We have no control over that, and to really completely back-date this would probably be extremely involved.

Regardless though, this isn't something I would have been comfortable doing anyway. The article in question didn't seem like something that would be used in any kind of court case, but who knows. And if their request records were subpoenaed by the court (if it came to that), manipulating library records certainly isn't something a librarian should be caught doing.

We don't keep any article ILL records beyond what is in BPL's system, so there wasn't anything we could do for this request anyway. My coworker called the patron back to let her know.

The article arrived shortly thereafter, and a few weeks later someone from the law firm came in to pick it up - and didn't mentioned the back-dating. We never learned more about what the request was for or why it would be important to back-dated it, but this is something I've never heard of before.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/20/11

   March 26th, 2011 Brian Herzog

The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse DVD coverI like this question on many levels - but mainly just because I just to use the phrase Library Win.

Round One
One afternoon, a patron called to request a movie titled, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. She said she had already requested it through the library, but she got the wrong one - the one she wanted featured Glenn Ford.

It took a little bit of doing on IMDB, but eventually we identified the right one from all the others. And oddly, IMBD had it listed as The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, instead of spelling out the word "four."

I switched back to the library catalog to locate it, searching on the title with both four/4, and also searching just for Glenn Ford. But from what I could tell, it was nowhere in the consortium.

Next, for librarians in Massachusetts, is to search the statewide Virtual Catalog. I started this search for the title The 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Of the five results for that search, one matched both the production studio and original release date - so even though it didn't list the actors, I was fairly confident it was the right one. I requested it for the patron, and told her that since it is coming from outside our consortium, it might take a week or two before it arrives. She had hoped to get is sooner, but was happy that we could find it at all.

Round Two
About two hours later, this same patron called back. She said she had been talking to her daughter, who said that version was available on Netflix - so could I please cancel the library request we just placed, and she'll use Netflix because that will probably be faster. No problem, and I canceled her request.

Round Three
The next morning I had a voicemail from this patron. She said she talked to her daughter again, who said the movie was on long wait in Netflix, so it might take months. In that case, waiting a couple weeks for the library sounded pretty good, so she asked me to rerequest this movie for her.

Library Win
It always makes me happy when libraries can provide better service than businesses - and really, this is the kind of situation where there will almost always be a Library Win. Businesses tend to cater to the new and the sensational, whereas libraries also retain easy access to older items, classics, and items that may only turn over once a year (or less).

This is another danger of HarperCollins' self-destructing ebook plan - it would effectively eliminate this long-tail service (or at least, put a timer on it that is controlled by the publishers, rather than the needs of our communities).

The Irony
I constantly hear about the death of libraries, yet it is a movie with an apocalyptic allusion that we can deliver better than those supposedly bringing about our demise.

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Tracking ILL Requests

   September 15th, 2009 Brian Herzog

library mailMy brother sent me a package via UPS on Thursday, and it arrived on Monday. The neat thing, of course, is that we both could track its progress online (backup link).

It occurred to me that this would be a great feature for a library ILS. Most systems I've seen will only give the current status of a request, which is often cryptic to staff and totally indecipherable to patrons (ie, "recieved," "transit," "recorded," "check shelves," etc).

But sending patrons a link via email or text to track their request step-by-step in plain English could benefit them to no end. Not only would it give them an idea of where their item is and when to expect it, but it would also expose what all is involved in delivering their request to them. But it would be invaluable for staff, too, being able to see all of this information at a glance, for both assisting patrons and troubleshooting the delivery process.

And I bet some patrons would also be please to watch their request be returned to the library of origin after they're done with it.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to think of this, but I'm definitely going to lobby to include it as a feature if my consortium adopts an open source ILS. And this feature will be exponentially more helpful if, as planned, the entire state moves to that same ILS.

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Interlibrary Loaning

   July 3rd, 2008 Brian Herzog

Library Hold ShelfI was sad to read a recent post on Walking Paper, quoting someone who was unhappy with their local library's interlibrary loan record.

Any bad library experience is a blow, but especially so with interlibrary loan: I personally think the ability to freely lend library items across the country is one of our greatest strengths, and one definite thing that sets us apart from other local groups and for-profit organizations.

And honestly, I always get a bizarre little thrill when someone calls to request a book. I like knowing I can pull a book from the shelf, print a hold slip, and put that book on the hold shelf. Then, another staff member will continue to forward that book on to the patron, be it a local patron or someone in another state. Dorky, I know, but I like that sense of being part of a system.

But back to the comments: unfortunately, everything cited is (or can be) true. Requests can take time to fill. Books do go missing. Most ILSs don't provide an easy way to communicate problems upstream. Sometimes, the best a local staff person can do is mark their local copy missing and hope the request is filled by another library.

But that shouldn't be the best we can do. To capitalize on our unique network, and to compete with modern options like NetFlix, any new system (software and people) should be designed to optimize interlibrary loan, not just allow for it. Massachusetts is at least lucky that we have a (mostly-)state-wide catalog, but there is plenty of room for improvement.

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Reference Question of the Week – 4/20/08

   April 26th, 2008 Brian Herzog

The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook book coverSometimes, a very simple question can be the most satisfying:

The phone rang one morning, and it was a colleague and friend from the Newburyport Library (another library in my consortium). She had checked the catalog and found that Chelmsford had a copy of a book she was looking for on the shelf. She gave me a call number and a page number, and asked if I could fax it over to her.

No problem. The whole process took maybe ten minutes to find the book, copy the page, and send the fax, and we even had a nice little chat.

Later that afternoon, I got the following email message from her:

Thanks for the recipe---a patron called and was in the middle of cooking the soup when she realized she didn't have the whole recipe! The recipe you copied did have the last two steps she was missing so now her family can enjoy a big pot of minestrone tonight. 🙂

Not only did I get to help a friend and fellow librarian, but this simple act provided a positive library experience for a woman and her family thirty miles away.

There is always lots of talk about how important the local library is to its community. Which is true, but as this question shows, individual libraries don't exist in a vacuum. I think it's the spirit of networked cooperation between Public Libraries in general (and other types of libraries too) that is our true strength, and that's what allows us to have a positive impact on the lives of the people in our shared community.

At the risk of being too luddite-preachy, I would also like to point out the technology involved here: an opac, a telephone, a photocopier, and a fax machine. I use Library 2.0 tools all the time, but I like that a lot of good library work can still be done without flickr, Google apps, WordPress, del.icio.us, Twitter, Facebook, et. al.

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