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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/9/11

   January 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Movie Suggestion FAILThis week's question wasn't difficult, and isn't particularly unusual, but I'm sharing it because I like the resource we ultimately found to answer it.

An older patron walked up to the desk and said,

I don't really follow popular culture, but I think I should start watching more movies. Can you tell me which movies were the most popular in each of the last five or so years?

My first suggestion was to check the Academy Awards and Golden Globes, but he felt that winning an award didn't necessarily mean it was popular. Besides, he said, he didn't just want a list, he also wanted to read summaries of the movies.

When he said that, I walked him back to where the film and movie books are (791.4375). I showed him Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, and a few others. None of the books on the shelve arranged films by year, but he did like all the reviews and ratings, and he especially liked 1001 Movies... because it listed movies by genre.

The patron took those over to a table while I went back to the desk to find a chronological list. At the desk I told my coworker about the question I was working on, and just then the phone rang. I answered it, helped the caller with their question, and by the time I hung up my coworker had already searched online and found the perfect resource for this question.

The website is Films101.com, and it lets you see lists of movies in all kinds of different ways - by rating, year, gross revenues, genre, award winners, and on and on. Clicking on any movie led to reviews, and the website's layout was uncluttered and easy to navigate.

The listing that best fit this question was their Yearly Top 10. Since the website format was clean with no sidebars full of ads, I was able to print a double-sided list all the way back to 2003 on a single sheet of paper. I brought this over to the patron, and his face lit up - he said it was exactly what he was looking for.

He came by the desk a few minutes later, saying he was checking out Leonard Maltin's latest book, so he could go down the list and look up each one. He also pointed out that he was happy foreign films were included, because "there's a lot going on outside this country."

Any kind of movie suggestions (or readers advisory) can be tough because once you get beyond award winners, everything is so subjective. Something else I liked about this website was that it continually took in new data, so rankings sometimes changed based on new review sources.

Yay for giving a patron what he wanted, and for teamwork.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Zagat Doctor Reviews. Zagat?

   February 19th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Zagat Rated logoLast year I talked about the resources available that offer consumer information and rankings of doctors. According to the New York Times, there's now one more.

The ubiquitous Zagat guides are known for an assortment of mostly leisure-related topics...Now the editors are asking people...to post reviews of their doctors and rate them...

Huh. I didn't see that coming (maybe I should have), but I don't see why it won't work. The Times article quotes Dr. William Handelman, a kidney specialist in Torrington, CT, as saying, “It is curious that they would go to a company that had no experience in health care to try to find out how good a doctor is.”

But it's the patients writing the reviews, and if the public (be they patients, customers, passengers, subscribers, or patrons) are experts on anything, it's customer service. So once a critical mass of reviews is reached, it'll be useful. And Zagat already has the experience and infrastructure in place for publishing such information, so it seems like a good match to me*.

To begin with, it looks like this information will only be available online, and only to customers of one health care provider. But hopefully, this information will eventually be available to the general public and libraries.

In fact, I think it'd be interesting if Zagat chose to review public libraries. I know most people wouldn't travel to libraries outside of their community, but in some areas, communities are larger than individual towns. And we can all build off of the good ideas and practices of others.

Via Huffington Post


*To truly display how much of a dork I am: The doctor-restaurant crossover has a precedent - the idea appeared in an episode of the Dilbert animated series. The Zagat reviews make much more sense in the context of that episode.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Reference Question of the Week – 8/10/08

   August 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

One difficult question I get occasionally is "do you have rankings for doctor/lawyers?"

I think what people are expecting is a Consumer Reports-like ranking of these two professions, but unfortunately, we don't have anything exactly like that. We do have some resources for doctors, but lawyers are different.

Scales of JusticeA patron asked me to help her find lawyer rankings this past week. I did find a few websites showing some rankings, but I had no idea how reliable any of them were, and none of them got down to the local level needed by a patron in a small public library. Another thing I found were lots of articles talking about lawyers suing websites about their rankings, so that might explain the scarcity of resources.

In the end, two resources appeared promising, but only one ended up helping:

  • The American Bar Association has a Lawyer Locater, which is powered by martindale.com and LexisNexis. It does provide some information on a lawyer's background, including the Martindale-Hubbell peer review rating from their Law Directory. The amount of information varies by lawyer, but in this case, the lawyer my patron was looking for wasn't listed at all
  • The Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers provides an attorney status report which, while it doesn't rate lawyers, does indicate when the lawyer was admitted to the bar and if they've had any complaints against them (my patron was shocked to find out her lawyer was admitted to the bar just eight months ago)
  • A third resource the patron left with was the phone number of the Massachusetts Bar Association's Dial-A-Lawyer referral program, which assists private citizens in choosing legal council

The CaduceusFinding resources to research local doctors is slightly easier. This might be because the medical profession is more closely watched than the legal profession, or that people are more willing/able to travel for medical procedures than law suits.

One book I often turn to in our reference collection is America's Top Doctors, which lists doctors by region, specialty, hospital, and by name.

Another nice local resource is the Boston Consumers' Checkbook (which is also available for other cities). This magazine is similar to Consumer Reports, but instead of rating products, it rates services, including many medical services.

Part of the Mass.gov website reports on Health Care Quality and Cost Information. It includes lots of information for patients, but what I usually steer people towards are the "Volume by Surgeon and Hospital" reports - these aren't rankings exactly, but instead show how often a doctor or hospital performs a certain procedure. Other reports also list cost and mortality rates for doctors and hospitals.

Another state-level website is the Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine's On-Line Physician Profile Site. Each profile includes general biographical information supplied by the doctor, and also has sections showing any malpractice payments made or any disciplinary and/or criminal actions taken against the doctor.

Additional web resources are:

  • The American Medical Association's doctor finder doesn't provide rankings, but it does show contact and biographical information for both AMA members and non-members (it gives priority to members, it does list non-members if you click the right buttons)
  • DrScore.com lets people score their own doctors and report on their experiences. Although the ratings are voluntary and anonymous, I did notice they indicate "Castle Connolly Top Doctors," which is the America's Top Doctor's resource I mentioned above. And in addition to the ratings, this website is also useful as doctor finder
  • RateMDs.com seems more commercial than DrScore.com, but it also seems to have more ratings and comments. This also has nice feature search for finding local doctors

I list these because they are free and useful, and accessible for my patrons. I'm sure there are many more not-free websites out there too, as well as additional good print resources. I'd appreciate hearing suggestions for more resources in the comments below - thanks.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Library Investigation

   July 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

WHDH-7 logoOne of the local television stations in Boston, WHDH 7, just aired an investigative story into libraries:

Theaters and video stores usually require an age of 17 or older to see or rent an R-Rated release, unless there is parental permission. But something altogether different is going on in some local libraries. 7News' Jonathan Hall investigates.

Read the transcript, or watch the video.

This is similar to the situation we had here a little while ago (except without the undercover investigators), which prompted us to put label ratings on VHS and DVDs when possible. And it looks like the Boston Public Library, "in line with American Library Association guidelines," is on the same page as us.

Libraries do not raise children, we provide access to information. Parents raise children, and we do what we can to support that need - while at the same time supporting the informational and educational needs of everyone else in the community.

I found this news report interesting, but a bit sensationalized. I'm sure as long as there are parents and children (and news outlets in need of ratings), issues like this will never die.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Libraries and Parents and Children

   July 26th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Movie poster for 'Thirteen'We recently have been faced with an interesting problem in my library. On the surface it seemed like a pretty simple issue, but the more we thought about it, the more complex it became.

The Situation
A mother came in and said that she had found the movie "Thirteen" (Official Website, IMDb, Wikipedia) in her (thirteen year old) daughter's room. It was overdue, which means that she must have had it for weeks. It also means that we checked out an R-rated movie to an underage child.

The mother was angry that her child could have checked out such a movie, and didn't understand why the library wasn't enforcing the MPAA movie ratings.

One unusual twist in the story is that the woman wasn't directly challenging the movie being in the library's collection (which is usually the case). She understood that it is a movie people in the community might want to see. She was just upset that her daughter was able to check it out, since the mother had seen this movie and felt it was particularly graphic and inappropriate for her young daughter.

As librarians, our collective first response was the party line: we do not censor materials, we don't tell people what they can and can't check out (based on content, anyway), and library staff certainly can't keep track of what every parent in the community allows their particular children to do. Besides, no matter we may do at the desk, kids can use the self check-out machines and we'd never know.

However, none of us felt that this answer was good enough. Yes, all of it is true, but it also felt like a cop-out. We wanted there to be something we could do, rather than just throwing up our hands and telling parents they're on their own. So, we brainstormed what could be done, and came up with options:

1. Regulate Materials Based on Item/Patron Type
We felt that there must be a way within our ILS [?] to make certain types of borrowers unable to check out certain library materials. We use SirsiDynix Horizon 7.3, and we already use Item Type codes to differentiate between feature films, documentaries, kids DVDs, audio books, fiction books, etc. Horizon also allows different borrower types. We thought that we could let parents choose to give their children a "child" card, which would prevent them from checking out anything with the Item Type for R-rated movies.

Unfortunately, after checking with our system administrator, we found that Horizon does not compare these two codes, and so this idea would not work with the Horizon software. There is a "birth date" field, which we have never used, and we're not sure if Horizon can block certain Item Types based on birth date, either.

2. Create a Separate "Adult" Video Collection
Another idea was for us to shelve any R-rated (or unrated) feature film separately from the rest of the films. This way, at least, a parent can tell their children they are not allowed to check out "adult" videos (we called it "adult" for lack of a better word. We thought about "Mature," but then had a hard time calling something like Jackass "mature"), and it would be up to the kids to obey their parents.

The drawback in this situation, apart from the snickers at the library having "adult" videos, is that it makes browsing for movies more difficult for all the other library patrons. Now, instead of having to look in two places for a movie for tonight (regular videos and also in the Children's room), they'd have to look in three places. Plus, there's the inadvertent stigma for people being seen browsing the "Adult" collection. We didn't want a solution to one problem to create new problems for other patrons.

Another issue with separate collections is that, years ago (I'm told), a nearby library was successfully sued by the ACLU for not allowing children into an adult reading room in the library. In that case, the library wanted to keep kids out to give adults a quiet place to read, but the ACLU said that the library could not discriminate based on age in this way (oddly, many libraries have a similar policy to keep adult males without kids out of the Childrens Room, but I don't think any of them have ever been sued over it). So, we couldn't use a method that barred kids from an area of the library.

3. Label Movies Clearly with Ratings Stickers
Since we didn't want to shelve these movies separately, another idea was to keep them all interfiled, but to put rating stickers on the movies. That way, parents can still tell their kids that they can only check out movies with certain stickers on them.

This seemed to be a good option, but it also puts the Library in the position of possibly judging the content of the material. It really isn't up to us to decide what's "mature" or "family" and what's not, because it's a subjective decision and people will disagree on it. MPAA ratings are not exactly definite indicators either, but at least they are a recognized "standard."

Something interesting I learned through all of this that MPAA ratings are just guidelines and not legally-binding in any way. The mother in this case thought that we were breaking the law by letting underage children check out R-rated movies, but there actually is no law that says this. Movie theaters that enforce age limits based on ratings are doing it of their own accord, not because they have to.

In addition to stickers indicating ratings, we also talked about putting stickers on the movies marking them as "comedy," drama," "horror," etc., as we already do for many books. Of course, DVD cases are so small that the stickers necessarily need to be small, too. Also, more than two or three stickers will looked cluttered and hard to read, which would be counter-productive.

Another concern with starting a labeling program, as I see it, is in knowing where to stop. If we do start labeling movies, and parents successfully use this, it's really not much of a leap for them to want us to put rating labels on books, too (because we certainly have some that some parents might not want their kids reading). And from there it's just a short hop to internet filtering, so although well-intended, even this is a slippery slope.

The argument in support of labeling said that DVDs are different than books. When reading a graphic book, your own imagination plays a large part in how disturbing the book can be. Also, reading a book is a solitary event, and the read can put them down at any time. When watching a movie though, very little is left to the imagination - once something very graphic is flashed on the screen, it'll be in your head whether you are ready or not. Also, kids watching naughty movies is usually a group event. So, one kid, even if they know they're uncomfortable and want to stop watching, might not be able to stop because of peer pressure and not wanting to look scared.

4. Start a Viewers Advisory Program
We already have a few Readers/Listeners Advisory stations in the library. These computers are dedicated to this purpose, and so do not go out to the general internet. Instead, patrons can use them to access our catalog, recently-added books (using the Delicious Library software), NoveList, and iTunes (to listen to music before they decide to check out the CD). Also, we create printed reading guides for various subjects and authors that are available in the library, as well as having a Reading Room webpage.

Our thought was to do the same thing with movies. We could add movie review related resources to these stations (such as Common Sense Media, Rotten Tomatoes, Kids-In-Mind, Yahoo's Movie Mom), as well as creating and printing viewing suggestion guides, such as "Family Movies," "Movies for Girls," etc.

Where We Are Now
At the moment, nothing has been finalized. Since this is a pretty big issue, we wanted to make sure whatever we choose will be useful to parents, but won't interfere with other patrons' use of the library. I think we're leaning towards a mix of options 3 and 4, but the exact outcome depends on what is actually available to us, and how much extra work the Technical Services department can handle in the processing of new movies.

The bottom line for us is that we don't want to be making choices for patrons, nor do we have the staff or mandate to enforce parenting decisions on a child-by-child basis. But what we can do, what we can use our librarian expertise to do, is provide parents with tools and information to raise their own children the way they want to.

Of course, knowing how I was as a kid, it probably doesn't matter. If there was something I wanted to do, I'd continually look for a loophole or a way to accomplish it, regardless of what my parents or the library said.

challenge, challenges, children, dvds, libraries, library, material challenge, materials challenges, movies, parents, patron challenge, patron challenges, public libraries, public library, rating, ratings

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,