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

Yo – What’s the 211?

   March 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

211.orgI learned of a new tool in a meeting today - it's called 211, and is similar to the national 411 information phone line. The difference is that 211 is geared only towards community organizations. So, if you wanted to know about homeless shelters in your area, you could call 211 and they would tell you.

The meeting in which this came up was a planning meeting for my library consortium's Community Information database. We've had declining usage of the CommInfo database consortium-wide, and have been trying to come up with ways to make it both more visible and more useful. Also, it is a module of SirsiDynix's Horizon v7 product, but it is not going to be supported in v8. So, we feel we need to do something in order to keep this resource.

In the course of doing research for alternate software we could use to power the database, someone stumbled across 211. It seems to focus on human services, whereas our database includes all community organizations - little leagues and stamp clubs as well as Alcoholic Anonymous and food pantries.

Also, it seems entirely phone-based. This initially stuck me as odd, since everything seems to be "web or bust" nowadays. But after I thought about it, it occurred to me that many people looking for these services are probably better served by the reliable and universal telephone system, rather than requiring internet access and savvy.

In addition to 211, we also discovered a group called the Merrimack Valley Hub, whose sole purpose is to be an online community database for the Merrimack Valley (which works out nicely for my library, since we are part of the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium). I was told that this group had approached MVLC five or so years ago when they were starting up, asking for our records and wanting us to use them instead of our own system. I think there has been no cooperation or communication in the years since, so rediscovering their thriving website surprised some people.

But with the apparent demise of our own system (which SirsiDynix does promise will continue to function to some degree even if we take no action), our choice is to either migrate to a new software solution we would maintain ourselves, or else discontinue our resource and rely on someone else. The Tyngsborough Public Library, a member of the consortium, has been working on developing their own Community Database, as a possible tool the entire consortium could share.

But adding new tools where resources already exist seems to be a major problem with libraries. We currently subscribed to a number of databases, many of which overlap. I think we pride ourselves on offering so much to patrons, but all we're really doing is extending and confusing their search by giving them an entire workshed full of tools when all they really need is a hammer. It is frustrating continually having to reinvent the wheel, especially when you know so many other people are also doing the exact same thing.

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