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

In Praise of Short URLs

   April 7th, 2009 Brian Herzog

mass.gov logoThe Mass.gov website has a lot of great information, and being a librarian in Massachusetts, I use it all the time. However, one thing it does very poorly is URLs.

The powers that be at Mass.gov recently launched a new section of the website, devoted to the Massachusetts Recovery and Reinvestment Plan for the state's economy. What's the URL, you ask? This:


A recent promotional email introduced the site's resources, and listed the URL. My first thought was, wow, that pretty much guarantees it won't get used. Perhaps it's the Marketing degree in me, but if something doesn't have a catch name, or at least a moderately decipherable one, it automatically has less chance of succeeding.

I'm sure whatever CMS software the state uses is to blame for the ugly URLs, but they certainly have the power to do better. To wit: about a week later, a second email went out saying the new URL for the website was Mass.gov/recovery - perfect.

I use redirects on the library's website, and am glad that the state is too (and I'm sure it took more than my complaint email to do it).

But in addition to local redirects, URL shortening services like tinyURL.com, icanhaz.com and others can also help. Their popularity seems to have shot up with Twitter, but I use them in email instead of having monstrous URLs wrapping to multiple lines and thus not working. There are drawbacks to these services, but now that custom URLs are possible, I feel a little more comfortable using them with patrons.

It'd be great if all domains offered these short URL redirect services, and were limited just to that domain. That way, anyone could turn one of the standard Mass.gov long URL into a nice and clean Mass.gov-based useful URL, while at the same time not redirect a Mass.gov short URL to a porn site. I checked around and didn't see such software, but I'm going to keep looking.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/19/07

   August 25th, 2007 Brian Herzog
Boston Herald logoVS.
Mass.gov logo

This question is more interesting to me for the resource it turned up than for the question itself...

A coworker and I were both at the reference desk when a patron walked up and asked,

Can you find a list of what all state employees are paid?

Since there were two of us there, we both started looking, each in our own way.

My Approach
I started with a Google search à la state employee payroll site:mass.gov (I've been getting a lot of mileage out of Google's "site:" search ever since I learned about it). However, even with trying different keywords, I wasn't getting anywhere.

My Coworker's Approach
My coworker just did an open Google search for Massachusetts State Employee Payroll, and found an amazing website with the first result. Apparently, the Boston Herald provides all of this information in a neat little searchable payroll database.

The patron was very pleased with that, and with the speedy turnaround. And we all had a good time looking up a few people.

However, feeling like this was the fast-food version of the answer, I still went back to Mass.gov to see if I could verify the information from an official source. I spent about twenty minutes over the course of the rest of the day looking, but never did find it.

I'm sure with a few phone calls or emails, I could have turned it up, but it's amazing how much better secondary sources are sometimes than the obvious primary resource.

boston herald, libraries, library, ma, mass.gov, massachusetts, payroll, public libraries, public library, reference question, state employees

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/13

   May 19th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Picture of scissors and a bad haircutA woman with a bad haircut walks up to the desk and asks...

(bad haircut? Yes, bad haircut. Even worse than mine.)

"Can you find the phone number of whoever issues licenses to hair stylists?"

Since two of us were working the desk at the time, and there was nothing else going on, both of us started looking. It didn't take much time to find the answer, but I thought it was interesting that we took two different routes to get there.

My Coworker's Approach
Started with Google (which is on our desk computers' start page) by searching for "cosmetology association massachusetts." The first result was for National Cosmetology Association: Recommended Links, and under their State Cosmetology Regulatory Agencies section was a link to the Massachusetts Board of Registered Cosmetologists.

That link lead into the Mass.gov website (MA's official government website), which, after a couple more clicks, offered a telephone number.

My Approach
Figuring this must be a state agency, I went directly to Mass.gov, even though their site search is generally less than ideal. I search for "cosmetology license," and the first result was a list of Frequently Asked Questions about Board of Registration of Cosmetologists. One of the last questions was How would I contact a cosmetology association in Massachusetts?, which provided a phone number in the answer.

Also at the bottom of the page was a Contact Us link for the Office of Consumer Affairs, of which the Division of Professional Licensure is a part, and which in turn has its own Contact Information page. This is the same page my coworker ultimately found, which strangely lists four categories for Cosmetologists and Aestheticians, but all of them have the same phone number.

The Result
The patron had wandered off right after asking the question, so we wrote all the websites and phone numbers down. I found her a few minutes later, herself searching the internet, and she was happy with the information we found.

But this was one of those cases where just finding what the patron wanted didn't feel like enough. There was definitely a story here, between the way her hair looked and the question she asked. As a librarian, I am trained not to pry or ask why a patron needs certain information, but I came close here to offering to call these numbers, just so I could learn if she was trying to complain about a salon she just came from, or wanted to open her own salon, or what. There had to be something interesting there; I still think a television show set in a library would be endlessly entertaining.

association, cosmetologists, cosmetology, libraries, library, licensure, mass.gov, professional license, public libraries, public library, reference question, searching

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