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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/9/09

   August 15th, 2009 Brian Herzog

screentoaster.com demoThis isn't exactly a reference question - well, Part 1 is, but Part 2 is the real reason for the post.

Part 1
A patron called in asking for help using ReferenceUSA. I was talking her through how to create a custom search, and everything was going fine. But when I told her to click the "View Results" button to run the search, she said she couldn't find it.

"It's the big green button on the right," I said, while actually thinking, "are you kidding me? How can you miss it?" But no matter what I said, she couldn't find it. So now I'm thinking it's a coding bug on the ReferenceUSA website, so I run through all the "which browser are you using?" questions to narrow things down.

It turns out, we were both using Firefox 3 on Windows XP, so we more or less should have been seeing exactly the same thing. But just to be on the safe side, I opened IE to see what was happening there. I resized both browser windows so I could see them side-by-side, which required horizontal scrolling to see the entire screen. When I switched back to Firefox and scrolled to the right, my "View Results" button was gone!

I maximized the Firefox widow, and it appeared again. So I asked the patron if she had her Firefox maximized, and she said no. She maximized it and let out a little shriek when the button appeared. We both marveled at this for a minute, then I helped her through the rest of what she was doing with the database before we hung up.

Part 2
Later, I was trying to figure out how to report this occurrence to ReferenceUSA tech support. To type it all out in email would be long and perhaps not completely clear (as I sure you just witnessed). Then I got the idea to create a screencast - I had just read about Screenjelly on TameTheWeb, and Mick made it sound so easy. So I tried it, and it didn't work. The Screenjelly website didn't work, I mean, and I have no idea why.

But further in the post Mick also mentioned ScreenToaster as another one-click screencasting tool. So I tried that, and I made a little video in one take (no audio, but it wasn't necessary in this case).

So instead of a long-winded and convoluted email to ReferenceUSA, I basically sent them this:

Hey guys-

I noticed a weird thing happening in ReferenceUSA that I think might be a CSS coding bug. Please take a look at the video below to see what happened - I hope you can fix it:

A few days later, a RefUSA tech support person called to thank me for sending the video. She said others had reported the same thing, but she was having trouble replicating the error. But now that she saw it, they were going to get to work fixing it.

So, yay for a screencast being worth a thousand words. And now that I've done one, I'm going to keep playing and try to make some instructional demos for our website, databases and catalog. I'll even try to find a microphone, so I can add some audio instructions.

Oh, and a bit about ScreenToaster: you record your screen with one click, and then the video is either stored on their website or uploaded to YouTube. They can also be embedded into your website - here's the one I made (it's clearer at full size):

And thanks to Mick and Michael for the TameTheWeb post that explained things so well - check it out for more on screencasting.

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My Visit to ReferenceUSA

   October 23rd, 2007 Brian Herzog

ReferenceUSA's phone book libraryLast week I was in Omaha, NE, at the headquarters of InfoUSA (which produces the ReferenceUSA database) to participate with other public librarians in a "customer conference."

Their goal was to get feedback from us on how we (and our patrons) use ReferenceUSA, and what we felt could be changed or added to improve the database. They also gave us a sneak peak at a bunch of new product offerings, as well as a tour of their facility and an overview of how they actually construct their database (and other products - they also produce the Polk City Directories).

I felt a bit out of place in the group of librarians they assembled. Here I am, representing Chelmsford, MA (pop. 32,000), and the other librarians are from places like Dallas, Denver, Brooklyn, Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Annapolis - all bigger library systems by far. Most of them were also business specialists, and if it weren't for my undergraduate marketing degree, I would have been lost somewhere between the "SWOT analysis" and "B2C channel positioning." But we all had experiences and viewpoints to share, so it worked out.

The Process for Data Integrity
Upon the conclusion of the conference, my overall opinion was that I was very impressed. I had always trusted their data, in the same way I more or less trust the data and articles in the other databases the library subscribes to. But after the tour of their work area, their claim of "99% accuracy" really means something.

They subscribe to over 6,000 phone books from across the country (which they have in a resource library - see photo above), and then, using a variety of processes, move that information into their database. A lot of it is automated, with most of their software being proprietary and home-grown. But the emphasis was clearly on using actual people to review the data make intelligent decisions to ensure accuracy. And then those peoples' work was checked, and the checker's work was checked. Which all makes for a high degree of accuracy.

Some notes about the data:

  • Data for their consumer database comes almost entirely from white pages. Since there is no reliable source for cell phone numbers, those are not in ReferenceUSA
  • All consumer data is scoured against national and state "do not call" lists, as well as the DMA's "do not mail" lists (so, even if a person is listed in the phone book, they won't be in ReferenceUSA if they've properly registered to protect their information)
  • ReferenceUSA is easily reached to add/remove/change records, either business or consumer
  • It is difficult to remove people who have died - their main sources are death benefit check records, but since these are often sent to next of kin at different addresses, it is hard to reconcile that back to the deceased's home address and social security number
  • They've been adding "store front images" of businesses in the database. There are over 3 million so far (each business has one close up shot and one wide shot)
  • Address changes (people who move) are identified via the Post Office's National Change of Address system, magazine subscription lists, credit card billing lists, and prison rolls
  • In the case of moves, they keep previous address records for at least five years, but this information is not in the database or otherwise available to the public
  • The competitor report in the business module is compiled based on SIC and geography. So, if you want to see all the competitors of a local pet store, it's great; but if you want to see a bigger or national company's competitors, it's not much help at all

New features in the business module:

  • New data points include the number of PCs per location, square footage per location, and the gender of the executives
  • Annual reports are now included in the database, as are the last three years historical financial data
  • More powerful custom field selection/sorting for downloading records (hard to explain, but it's pretty slick)
  • They added all public libraries and branches into the database, based on ALA's library directory (neat)

Up-and-coming things for the next 6-8 months:

  • section 508 compliance (mostly ALT tags)
  • Adding US territories (Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands) to the business file
  • Adding a search for brands and products, so you can find out which parent company manufacturers and sells them
  • Enhanced mapping, which will allow searching by map, plotting data points and drawing corridor grids (as in, "let me see all business of this type between point A and point B")
  • A historical module, with last 10 years worth of business financial data
  • An analytical module, with industry reports, size of business, etc (this is what my notes say, but I forget what it actually means)
  • Increased data points in the financial section (such as auditors, cash flow, etc)
  • Executive biographies
  • A guided search, which prompts you to design a properly-formed search (only available on some modules initially)

New Products coming out soon:

  • New Movers module (people who have moved recently)
  • New Homeowners module (people who have recently purchased a house)
  • Business to Consumer Research module (for business to identify customers based on "lifestyle choices," such as hunters, skiiers, pet owners, etc)
  • New Business module (which pulls data from city, county, utility and tax records, which business have to file before they open - which means that these new businesses will be in the database before they even open their doors. This is great for insurers or other business-to-business companies, but also can answer "what restaurants are coming to town?" 50,000 business are added weekly, and they stay in this database for two years
  • EmployersUSA (a rebranded version of ReferenceUSA, specially geared for job seekers

I have some photos from the visit, most of which were provided by ReferenceUSA, as their facility and processes are industry secrets.

The trip to Omaha was also fun because I stayed in the Embassy Suites, and got to visit the Omaha Library and the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

I don't want this to sound like a sales pitch for them, but I will say this: contact your sales rep and ask about being included in the next customer conference. It's worth it.

business, consumer, dataabse, infousa, libraries, library, ne, nebraska, omaha, public libraries, public library, referenceusa

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Trips to NELA and Omaha

   October 11th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Next week is going to be a busy week for me - I have two back-to-back trips planned.

NELA2007NELA Annual Conference
On Monday and Tuesday I'll be in Sturbridge, MA, for the New England Library Association's 2007 annual conference. I went last year (session notes) and of course had a great time.

This year I'm also attending as an official conference blogger. A group of us will be posting notes from (hopefully all) the sessions to the NELA2007 blog, so add the feed to your reader to catch all the action.

There's also a flickr pool, for those of you who like looking and photos of librarians.

ReferenceUSA logoReferenceUSA Conference
On Wednesday and Thursday, I'll be in Omaha, NE, participating in a conference held by ReferenceUSA. They invited about 20 librarians from across the country to come and meet with their product development team. I think we'll be talking about how their database is currently used by libraries, and what new avenues they could pursue to improve delivering their content to our patrons.

That should be a fun trip. I even have friends in Omaha, but they chose that particular week to fly to Japan. Sheesh.

It'll be an active week, and if you can't reach me, this is why. But if you happen to see me anywhere along the way, please come up and say hi.

libraries, library, nela, nela2007, public libraries, public library, referenceusa

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/21

   January 27th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Eccentric patrons are actually kind of fun to work with when they are nice and polite. This week's reference question was asked, not only by a very nice and polite woman, but also someone who was previously featured here.

She called Thursday afternoon, and again wanted to know when her SSA check would arrive. Very happily, I accessed my own blog and used the links I put there to find the 2007 calendar to answer her question. I know I've used other peoples' blogs to answer reference question, but this is the first time I've used my own. Neat.

Anyway, the patron continued:

Patron: ...so you think the check will be in my mailbox on Friday? Thanks. Okay, can you help me with a personal matter? Can you find out if a company named Hillard in Chelmsford is still in business? They came to fix my outside hose faucet that was leaking and he replaced it and then it was leaking again and he replaced it and now since its cold and the town is flushing the pipes the faucet is leaking again and when I called them last week they told me that two faucets couldn't both be bad and I am just wondering if they are still in business after talking to their customers like that.
Me: Oh. Well, I don't think I can tell if they are still in business. But I can see what I can find on them. [type, type, type] Well, I did find them mentioned on the internet, although they're listed as being in Lowell.
Patron: Well, I guess that's possible. I never can keep straight the town lines, since they move them all the time.
Me: And I checked a database we have of all the businesses in the country, and they are listed in there. It looks like they've been in business for 12 years, and the owner is Gary Hillard.
Patron: Okay, I guess I'll give them another call...

Now, I didn't feel like I completely gave her the answer she wanted, but I wasn't sure what else I could do. How do you tell if a company has gone out of business in the last week? But she must have been satisfied, because she very quickly moved on to the next topic:

Patron: ...not to change the subject, but can you find a web space on your comptraption that sells things not made in China?
Me: Oh, I think so - are you looking for products made in the U.S.A.? [type, type, type] I found a couple website that...
Patron: Yes I used to work at a store and there was a woman on the second floor who wouldn't touch any of the products because she said they were covered in sweat and that those oriental girls only get five cents a day and I don't like that so I was just looking for a way to not buy from Chinese people. Well, thanks for listening to me, good bye. [click]

If you'll notice, I never did give her any of the websites I found. I'm only making a presumption here, but I can't imagine this patron shopping online, anyway - perhaps she just wanted someone to listen to her.

But I got interested in it, so here are a few of the websites I did find (no endorsement implied):

libraries, library, made in usa, reference question, referenceusa, ssa

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