Monday, February 26, 2007


Remember that thing I couldn't tell you about the other week? Well, now I can...

Ever since I made the switch from Internet Explorer to Firefox, I've been enamored with the plugins that allow you to do a search via the engine of your choice through a simple text box and drop-down menu interface. Wikipedia, Amazon, IMDB, tags for Flickr and, and even OCLC/Worldcat are now just as easy to query as Google, but what I've really wanted has been a plugin for searching HOLLIS, the online catalog for Harvard University Libraries.

Well finally I got my wish, as this week the good folks on the MetaPAC Committee officially unveiled Harvard LibX, a Firefox extension developed by Virginia Tech University Libraries -- that's right, the folks who brought us ILLiad! LibX not only offers a HOLLIS search toolbar, but other embedded search functionality as well, such as the ability to right-click on selected text anywhere in the web and search it against Harvard library resources.

Is there anything that those Hokies can't do, I wonder?

Monday, February 19, 2007

What it's all about

This video created by Michael Wesch, a professor of anthropology at Kansas State University, has been making the digital rounds via just about every conceivable method of sharing (email, Google Groups, Facebook, etc.), but it's so damned good that it can't possibly hurt to share it one more time:

Can't stand losin'

So I get a call over the weekend* from my regular staff member, who is freaking out because her workstation crashed and she can't bring it back to life. While normally such hardware problems simply boil down to plugging in an unplugged doohickey or a cold restart and a kick to the CPU, this time it's the dreaded Blue Screen of Death™, which means IT is more than likely going to have to swap out the machine. The fact that this leaves our desk with half its operating capabilities means that having two people at the desk all weekend is just plain silly; moreover, my staffer not having access to "her" machine is a morale issue in and of itself.

Unfortunately however our IT department doesn't do weekends, and it's a long weekend to boot, which means that we're going to be a computer down until Tuesday morning at the earliest. Since I was scheduled to come in today anyway, I decide to make an early shift of it and see if I can't coax the bloody thing into booting past the BSOD - I restart in Safe Mode, try to restore to the Last Known Good Settings, and even try to make a boot disk only to be rebuffed at every attempt. Almost ready to resign myself to sending my work-study student home and flying the desk solo for the day, it then occurs to me that I could simply swap out a CPU from downstairs, as the Circ Desk uses identical hardware to ours and has a ton of idle machines on a holiday like today.

IT will doubtless not like this solution, but then again they aren't exactly making house calls today, are they? And it seems silly to declare ourselves dead in the water and put ourselves at a staffing disadvantage when all I have to do is unplug the wonky CPU and replace it with a fresh one. So this is exactly what I do, and now I don't have to worry about extraneous desk help or an irate evening and weekend staffer. Besides, it's always better to ask forgiveness than permission when these things happen anyway...

I get a kick out of exactly this kind of problem-solving. It makes me feel like Captain Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, who found his way around the dreaded Kobayashi Maru no-win scenario by reprogramming the simulation to allow for victory. When asked by his son why he would do such a thing as cheat on what Starfleet regarded as the ultimate test of character, Kirk responded simply: "I don't like losing."

Me neither.

* Yeah, somehow I'm always on call. Go figure...

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Live by the Meeting Maker, die by the Meeting Maker

As continue to settle into my job as supervisor, I've noticed that I go to a lot more meetings than I used to, as what was billed as primarily a desk job takes on increasingly managerial (and dare I say professional) aspects. While some of this is a function of a recent change in leadership, I would hazard that a lot of this is simply the result of my being interested in the big picture and stepping up to take on additional duties and responsibilities whenever possible.

The price for such a go-getter attitude is a perpetual scheduling crunch that only seems to get worse as my available free time on the clock moves closer and closer to zero. This has been a blessing in disguise, however, as it's forced me to do something that I probably never would have done under my own steam in a million years: i.e., get organized.

Right now I'm using Google Calendar instead of the customary Meeting Maker supported here in the workplace to keep track of my time, as well as Remember The Milk! for staying on top of my tasks. What I like about this combination is that it's possible to do a mash-up the two services, so that your RTM tasks can be imported directly into Google Calendar. Remember The Milk! can also be updated by IM or text messaging from your cellphone, so it's relatively easy to jot down a task on the fly without having to completely stop whatever else you were doing.

I've also been experimenting with Zirrus as a to-do list manager, as I'm fond of the very simple "whiteboard" interface featuring colored tags that grow in font size depending on priority. In the end I might keep Zirrus as a personal to-do list and RTM as my taskmaster for work, since I don't seem to want to spend as much time fiddling around with the latter when I'm not on the clock. After all, isn't the point of productivity tools to save time?

Darn it

I was all set to gush about a cool new development here at the Big Library, but realized just a few seconds before hitting the "publish" button that we're not supposed to say anything about it publicly for another week and a half.

Darn darn darn darn...

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What's so funny about alphabetical order?

"How does it work here?"

"Huh?" I look up from my computer, still at least three cups of coffee away from full functionality, to find a patron with that oh-so-familiar vaguely confused look on his face.

"I have a book on hold here. What's your system?"

This is of course where it gets tricky. 'On Hold' means a couple of different things in our Reading Room:

1. That the item has not been picked up yet since the patron ordered it

2. That the item has been placed on our 10-Day Hold Shelf by the patron

I can't tell you how confused both patrons and staff alike can get trying to determine which of the two above situations is in fact the case. Most of the time patrons are unaware of the fact that there are two separate 'hold' operations going on, and assume that an item once ordered will go out to 10-Day Hold rather than being held behind the desk until it is picked up for the first time. Insofar as many of our patrons use the Reading Room (which deals mostly in non-circulating items) much more infrequently than they do the Circulation Desk, I try to make sure that my staff is as patient and forgiving as possible in the process of figuring out what our patrons are actually looking for.

But sometimes it's hard, even for the supervisor.

"Umm," I dig deep for every last available ounce of my pre-noon social graces and empathy, as this is where the interview process can go south in a hurry. In these situations we have stock questions we ask of patrons without thinking that can very easily be interpreted as being accusatory in nature.

For example, my least favorite is 'When did you get the email?' From a staff worker's point of view, this is a perfectly rational question to ask, as it helps us determine where the item is located in our somewhat complex filing system. To a patron however this question can sound a lot like the staff member is challenging him or her for proof that there actually is an item on hold; even if not, about a third of a time it is a question that requires additional clarification and/or explanation from the staff member, somewhat defeating the time and labor-saving purpose of asking it in the first place (especially since the staff member can quickly determine the item's precise hold date by scanning the patron's ID and looking at the transaction record). Personally, I find this kind of Socratic method to be unnecessarily passive-aggressive at a public service desk, so I always try to find a more intuitive way of eliciting my patrons' needs.

But as I said above, however, some mornings you just have to settle for the "20 Questions" method.

"Did you order the item from the Depository?"


"Have you used the item yet?"

"Yes. Then I returned it to your desk. You hold those items, right?"

"Did you ask us to place it on hold for you?"

"I think so." This is another potentially confusing point of Reading Room procedure. Often a patron will pick up an item at our desk, use it in the room, then return to us assuming that we will automatically continue to hold that item... which we don't, under normal circumstances (the exception to this rule is in the case of non-circulating Interlibrary Loan materials and special collections, which remain behind the desk until their specified due dates as stipulated by the lender -- with these materials the exact opposite procedure applies!). This is why I try to train staff members to ask a nice leading question when a patron returns the item, such as 'Are you finished with this?'.

"Okay, well then it should be on the 10 Day Hold Shelf."

"Yeah, but how does that work?"

"It's alphabetical, by last initial." You'd think this part of the process would be pretty straightforward, but you'd be wrong. A long time ago the Reading Room used to assign its Hold Shelf space to specific patrons, going so far as to charge these items to separate 'pseudopatron' accounts in the Circulation system that were created specifically for each designated portion of the shelf. Mercifully we junked this system soon after I took over as supervisor, as not only was it a time-consuming process but one which ate up an inordinate amount of shelf space. Now we simply file everything together, using the patron's initials instead of last names or ID numbers in order to protect their privacy and shelving the material spine-down to make the books 'invisible' to browsers while they're checked out to the room.

Piece of cake, right? Well, aside from the not-as-rare-as-you'd-think instances when patrons think the item is being filed by the author's initials, there seems to be a little difficulty with the idea of arranging materials by last initial (using the first initial to file within that letter range and any possible middle initial as a way to further disambiguate in the case of popular 2-letter combinations, such as 'JS'). Either that or alphabetical order is becoming less and less second nature to a generation of human beings who search for things primarily by keyword.

"Oh, I see!" I'm not sure how the patron was looking for his book before he ventured up to the Reading Room desk, but now he seems to know where to find the missing item, and lo and behold after a couple of seconds he's retrieved it from the shelf at long last. Whew! So at least I didn't have to troubleshoot beyond that point, because from there on in things get unpleasant. If any item isn't on the Hold Shelf where it should be, sometimes it's merely been transposed when the patron's initials were accidentally reversed by a desk staff member or the patron him or herself when filling out the Hold Slip. This is why I would almost always rather that we fill out these forms, although I can understand when there's a rush (say at closing time) that pushing the onus back onto the patron might make sense, especially if he or she has a large pile of books to be held.

Of course if the item hasn't been misplaced in such a manner, it is almost certainly the case that the 10-Day hold period on the item has elapsed and the material has returned to whence it came -- either the Stacks or the Depository. Given that items on this kind of hold aren't attached to a patron's record in any way, shape, or form and thus can't be tracked and renewed electronically as normal loans, it's perfectly understandable that patrons will lose track of when these items are due to come off the shelf. This is why we try to be as accommodating as possible in removing materials from 10-Day Hold, holding the expired returns in the room until the end of the day before sending them to Stacks for reshelving. But even then it's inevitable that we'll get at least a couple of patrons per week who are caught off-guard by the date and are forced to track down or re-order the materials they had placed on hold, sometimes after exerting no small amount of painstaking effort in order to gather them up in the first place.

But this one was an easy save. And on Thursday mornings (especially when you're short both on caffeine and additional desk staff), we like easy...

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

So how was YOUR day?

From the NYT Books section, a fascinating and harrowing account of Iraq's chief librarian and the trials and tribulations he endures to keep both his collections and his staff safe:

"Saad Eskander, the director of Iraq’s National Library and Archive in Baghdad, finally had some time to catch up on his diary after a couple of very busy weeks. As he wrote in his latest entry, he was having trouble repairing the Internet system; the Restoration Laboratory “was hit by 5 bullets”; and “another librarian, who works at the Periodical Department, received a death threat. He has to leave his house and look for another one, as soon as he can; otherwise, he will be murdered.”"

(You can read Mr. Eskander's Library Diary here, courtesy of the British Library.)

I am never, ever* complaining about my job again...

* Never, ever = approximately 15% of the time

Our new motto

"The customer is always* right."

* Always = approximately 85% of the time

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Jersey goes Google

Princeton University's library will become the 12th library to join Google Book Search, according to an article this morning that I found on Lifehacker's Daily News Roundup (credited to Yahoo News, ironically enough!). Score one for the Garden State!

This is of course wonderful news, as it demonstrates that after an initial period of uncertainty about getting involved in large-scale third party cooperative digitization projects, the big university libraries are beginning to see the benefits of letting the private sector help them with some of the heavy lifting. And from a practical standpoint, the more libraries that get involved with Google Book Search, the better chance they'll have to smooth out some of the rough edges in the existing service.

While it's great to have even just one copy of a rare or out-of-print text available, a lot of these books have experienced some significant wear and tear, so it would be nice to be able to consult multiple copies of the same edition scanned from other libraries. Not only would also vastly improve quality control to have additional copies available online, but from a digital Preservation angle the built-in redundancy would help Google and the library profession guard against any accidental data losses that may crop up in the medium and long-term.

And although as a librarian I naturally frown upon the practice of writing in a library text, in the digital aggregate these marginalia could one day prove as valuable as those found in the Medieval manuscript tradition. Imagine if these handwritten comments were also indexed by Google Book Search, such that when you looked at a particular item in a library's collection you could compare it against annotations made in every other known copy of that book as well. It seems a trivial thing until you reach a certain critical threshold of participation, at which point the study of library book marginalia could easily become a legitimate field of inquiry!

(Hmmm. I think I may have a thesis topic for a future Ph.D. here...)

Monday, February 05, 2007


The transition from semester to semester in an academic library is always an unpredictable thing, especially if you depend on work-study students to fill out your desk schedule as much as we do in Access Services. Sometimes you switch from Fall to Spring with nary a hitch, maybe bumping a shift here or moving some hours there, and other times everything goes to Hell, as if the schedule had been written on an Etch-a-Sketch and someone decided to shake it up for no good reason.

This is one of those latter transitions, I'm sorry to report -- it seems every single one of my work-studies wants to swap out their hours as they settle into their new class schedules, so it'll be a legitimate miracle if I can somehow get them all situated and not have huge Mack Truck-sized gaps in coverage here at the Reading Room Desk. Ah, well! And I thought the end of the semester had been a bumpy ride!

However what this situation does do is give me the impetus and opportunity to hire a new crop of students to help fill out the schedule. Ever since we've had a change of supervisor I seem to acquire a new responsibility with each passing week. Mind you, this is a good thing, as not too long ago I'd begun to worry about stagnation on the job (whereas now the situation is anything but, although I'm still keeping my eye out for a chance to land that first entry-level professional gig). What this means though is that I have to schedule myself off the desk much more than I have up until this point, so I can give myself at least even odds of getting all this extra work done without clocking in overtime.

But that will take more coverage, which means more students. Which of course means more hiring and training, which naturally takes time -- the one thing that is in painfully short supply (and isn't that the reason why I'm doing all of this in the first place?). Oh, well. No one ever said life in the Big Library was going to be a cakewalk...