Need An Answer? Ask A Librarian: Part I

Last summer I wrote about my early years working at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and how libraries have changed in the 40 years I have worked here. One of the biggest changes that has occurred is in how we provide information services or reference. Access to technology has played an indelible role in that.

Carnegie Library has emphasized reference and information services from its first days. According to Ralph Munn’s History of Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh:

The Reference Department was organized in 1895 by Elisa May Willard…by the end of 1905 it contained 66,000 books and 12,000 pamphlets. It was designed as a depository for U.S. government documents. Significant collections of scientific and technical books and journals were begun in 1898. An early report lists (1) members of clubs, (2) men seeking scientific and technical information, and (3) students, in that order, as the principal groups of users.

In the 1930s two telephone booths were added to the General Reference Department so that librarians could take calls from patrons who had questions at work and from home. In the 1950s, newspapers and journals began to be published in microfilm, eliminating the need to keep brittle newsprint or binding them.

Microfilm: it was -- and is - a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library  (all rights reserved).

Microfilm: it was — and is – a thing. Reproduction of a photograph from the Pittsburgh Photographic Library (all rights reserved).

Special subject divisions were spun off the General Reference Department on the second floor over the years. The Technology Department moved to new space on the third floor at Main in 1909. In the 1930s, Art, Music, and Pennsylvania became separate divisions with only Music and Art also including circulating books with reference materials. Main remained pretty much in this configuration until the 1980s. Central Lending was renamed Popular Library in the 1970s.

For me, after several years on the Bookmobile and a short stint at the Brookline Branch, I was transferred to Main in 1976 as a Library Assistant. I was assigned to the staff of the “Popular Library” where all of Main’s popular circulating books were housed. But half of my time was scheduled to work with the newly established “Telephone Ready Reference Unit.” Because of budget cuts at that time and the loss of about 1/3 of the librarian positions in all Main departments, the thought was to funnel all telephone calls coming to Main for reference assistance to three Library Assistants at the phone line 412-622-3114. Our work area was about 10 ft. x 10 ft. and adjacent to the complete card catalog in the General Reference Department. If we could not answer a question in 3-5 minutes we were instructed to transfer the call to a professional librarian in the subject departments – General Reference, Science & Technology, Music and Art, Pennsylvania, or to the Popular Library.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vicki and Mary in TRRU.

Reproduced from the 1977 CLP Annual Report. Vickie and Mary in TRRU.

Our role was to identify books, authors, titles and CLP ownership of them. We’d look up basic facts in a core reference book collection of about 150 titles. They included basic encyclopedias, the World Almanac, dictionaries (we had several foreign language dictionaries at hand), business directories, and telephone books from all of the major cities across the USA. (We used these just to look up addresses. We were only allowed to look up phone numbers on the occasion of a telephone operator’s strike). We answered many questions about grammar and quotations, government offices, personnel and statistics, movie stars and films, people, popular and world cultures and sports. During the day, we had most calls from companies, news reporters, and secretaries and after school and in the evenings it was students with homework needs. Readers of all ages called at all times if they were looking for books they were interested in.

It was fun work and challenging. To be good at this job you really had to have a broad general knowledge and an interest in popular culture and current events. And you had to love to read – read fiction and non-fiction and love to read about books and reviews. If you already knew the answer, you had a head start in using the print tools in looking up the answer to verify a source quickly and efficiently. Mary, Vickie and I, the intrepid first three LAs, fulfilled this job to a T. And for CLP, by relying on TRRU to answer the easy questions, the subject librarians had time to develop new computer skills like searching commercial, fee-based indexes like the New York Times Database, DIALOG, ORBIT and others. They learned the principles of Boolean searching (the use of the and / or statements). The databases required an in-depth reference interview to refine the query, and while expensive to use database searching was often a big time saver.

When Bob Croneberger became Director in 1986, his feeling was that there was so much information being generated in the world, library customers would be best served by subject specialists rather than generalists.  So we restructured Main and divided the Popular Library and General Reference into the Humanities and Social Sciences Departments.  I had been going to Pitt’s Library School at night to get my Master’s Degree so that I could become a librarian.  I did in 1980, and worked for 6 years at Main as the Young Adult Librarian.  Then, I was honored to be selected the first Head of the Social Sciences Department as we transitioned from General Reference.  And part of that job was supervising Ready Reference!   By the mid 1980’s the Library had its first online public access catalog.  Now, not only could we look up a book to tell if CLP owned it, we could tell if it were at Main, at a branch library, and if it might be out circulating.  This was a boon to the customer because if they needed a book quickly, they could call in advance before driving to a location armed with hope alone.

Around this time we introduced CD-ROM databases. In addition to paying to have access remote research databases online, we purchased reference databases that were updated monthly as new CD-ROM was sent. Initially these databases were just indexes to journal articles, but gradually over the next 10 years full text articles were included for each search. Students could now come, spend some minutes entering search terms and get complete article print-outs as a result, instead in spending hours poring over the Readers’ Guide, Essays & General Literature Index, and the Applied Science and Technology index to identify articles that met their research needs, then sending requests for journal titles to the closed stacks or Microfilm, reading the articles and taking notes on 3” X 5” index cards or photocopying articles to read at home. Boom – what had taken 3-4 hours at the library to do, now took one hour or less. The convenience was amazing.

Over the next ten years library resources continued to change.  In 1995, in time for the 100th anniversary of CLP,  Social Sciences and the Music & Art departments were at long last renovated.  At this time we introduced public access workstations to access the catalog and the internet for the public and the staff.  The life of the reference librarian was transformed overnight. Web based searching was available and individuals, companies, organizations, government, universities and libraries, and publishers of all types began to put free content up on their hastily produced websites.  By 2000, things were changing again.

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center

All rights reserved to Pew Research Center


Main Library department’s reference statistics counts peaked at 1,145,567.  More individuals had access to personal computers at work and at home.  During that question bubble we answered many questions that instructed folks on how to find information on the World Wide Web by themselves. Richard and Melissa taught classes on searching the Web.  And soon users were finding their own answers to the easy questions.

That’s a lot to ponder, and there is more to come. In “Ask A Librarian – Part II” I will describe the reference revolution from 2000 to today.



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How Does Your Garden Grow?

After this long, frigid winter, I think most of us are pretty excited about the warmer weather.  I’ve been happy to see early springtime flowers starting to bloom, and daffodil greenery poking up through the ground. I’m feeling eager for our frost free date so I can start my garden for the year. My kids and I have spent the winter planting seeds in jars and watching them grow (did you know that you can grow just about any type of seed in some crumpled up paper towels and a jar? We’ve tried pinto beans, lentils, and apple seeds so far with great success!). I’m looking forward to actually digging in the dirt and watching my crops grow.

In anticipation of my garden, I’ve been thinking a bit about garden design. I have a plot at the Homewood Community Garden, and if you’re lacking the space for a garden of your own, there are lots of great community gardens throughout Pittsburgh- check out this site to find locations and see what’s available. My plot has enough room for me to grow a fair amount of vegetables and flowers, and I enjoy plotting out just where I’m going to plant everything.

After I plan out what to plant this year, the fun part starts!  Buying seeds and starting seedlings is one of my favorite things. I plan on getting lots of my seeds from CLP’s Seed Library, and saving seeds to return at the end of the season. In the meantime, as I wait for the weather to enter full-on spring mode, I plan on checking out lots of books about planting and growing.


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Missing Books, (by accident)

Working at a library can have some major benefits…especially if you are a book person. One of the many benefits that I’ve found is the exposure to books that I normally wouldn’t hear about in my day-to-day. The plus is also that, being surrounded by books and DVDs and CDs, sometimes these things literally just cross your path by pure happenstance.


The book! From the Author’s website.


One such book for me is The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom. This is a mystery, but it doesn’t really fit into the accepted categories for mysteries. It’s by no means hard-boiled, and it’s not exactly cozy. (In full disclosure, I love cozy mysteries and I’ve even written about them on this blog!) Sansom’s book lives somewhere in between. I like that.

ian sansom

The Author! From the Publisher’s website. (Harper)


As the title indicates, the crime is a heist, not a murder, and the unwilling sleuth is a librarian named Israel Armstrong who is charged by his brand new employers, to find some 15,000 missing library books. (Also in full disclosure, I wanted to read this book after reading the description!) So, we have no murder, no cats, and the sleuth is a man…not exactly cozy fodder. Did I mention that it’s set in Northern Ireland and our librarian sleuth arrives from London for the job? That probably sealed the deal for me wanting to look into this book.


The Author, a dog, and a VW minibus. (culled from a Google image search)


I’m glad I did. It’s funny. VERY funny. Very uncomfortably, awkwardly funny (think the first season of the original BBC series The Office).  It’s also well written. It also reads very quickly. I am, what I believe to be, one of the slowest readers on the planet. That said, I tore through this quickly. Again, I think it’s due to Sansom being quite a good writer.

Add to all of this the fact that Sansom has created a cast of interesting, quirky, memorable characters that are a bit more than you’d expect, and you have a winner. Much like other books that fall into the “better than it needs to be” category, Sansom’s writing and characterizations give the reader much more to work with than one might expect. His ability to balance the elements of his fiction are not lost here. It’s a real pleasure to read a piece of so-called genre fiction that is so well crafted. There are plenty of cases where the skill of the writer is not evident in fiction like this, and it’s a fantastic treat to find a case where it is present.

I devoured the first in this series and I am looking forward to getting into the second. Here’s to finding a new writer by total accident, and here’s to finding a new series by the same wonderful accident.

Eric (who is eagerly awaiting the next book in this series, and the next amazing author and book he’s never  even heard of yet)


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International Mystery

A couple of years ago I took a class while I was in undergrad about detective fiction. And that is what the class was called… “Detective Fiction”….not mystery, not crime novels, and not thrillers. The basis was to explore different ways that novels are written from the point of view of the detective…or private eye….or police officer. It came to my attention that there are a multitude of ways to not only write detective fiction but different ways to define detective fiction. One of the most interesting books I read was Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. A particular reason for why this intrigued me so much was because it was a Swedish book. And it was popular in America. It was my first step into international mystery books.

The Bat Cover


Recently, my interest in international mystery books has been piqued again. The library I work in received a new shipment of books by Jo Nesbo and I began to do research. He is also a Nordic writer who has become popular in the US for his mystery writing. Therefore, I picked up one of his books and loved it. The Bat is the first book in his Harry Hole series, and I think it is wonderfully written.

The book easily grabs the reader’s attention and Nesbo has a style of writing that is fun and easy to follow. The book takes place in Australia (which means the book is written about a Norwegian detective in Australia) but doesn’t focus on all the differences and does not make the story hard to understand. It goes by rather quickly for a murder mystery.

The Troubled Man cover

Of course I couldn’t base my judgement on international mysteries on just two authors. I had to make it three, so I read The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell, which happens to be the last book in the Wallander series. I’m going to be honest, I had to Google him to remember the book I read. Now that doesn’t actually mean the book was bad, for me it means that it was long.

The book is written about a detective who meets a submarine captain and the ensuing mystery that takes place. It has spies and intrigue…but also talks a lot about the technical aspects of submarines (which I can’t begin to comprehend completely) and a lot about his personal life, which made the book very long. However, if you start from the beginning and like the character the last book might be much better than I think.

Enjoy solving some mysteries! And maybe traveling to a new place through reading.



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Arrow Hits The Bullseye For TV Supers

Arrow-cover  I just spent the last weekend watching Season One of Arrow.  Regular readers of Eleventh Stack know that I consume a lot of superhero material in any number of mediums.  Arrow might just be the finest television adaptation of a comic book hero I have yet to encounter.  If you’re unfamiliar with the whole DC Comics  Green Arrow  mythos, here’s a quick summary.  Oliver Queen lived a life of leisure as a rich, vacuous playboy until he was shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.  While there he learned many hard lessons, but chief among them was the value of life, and the inherent wastefulness of his previous bon vivant existence.  Oh, and he also became a badass archer.  You can apply this basic summary to both the comic book Ollie Queen and Stephen Amell’s amazingly kinetic television version.

While Arrow takes great pains to develop a strong supporting cast, Mr. Amell shines in the titular role.  His character returns from five years of exile on that lonely island to exact vengeance on Starling City’s rich elite who continue to drain the wealth and vitality from its middle and lower classes.  While Amell’s Arrow (also referred to as “The Hood” by Starling City’s police and media) does take on street criminals, his principal mission involves righting the wrongs wrought by a specific and mysterious group of super-elite rich folks from a list furnished to him by his now dead father.  There’s more than a bit of class war in Arrow, but the show’s creative team turns that concept on its head a bit because Ollie himself dwells and walks among the city’s ultra rich.  Like the Robin Hood of legend, he robs from these rich scoundrels and gives the money back to their victims.

Among the many fine actors in Arrow, David Ramsey and Katie Cassidy stand out.  Ramsey portrays John Diggle, Afghanistan war veteran and Queen’s bodyguard.  He eventually becomes his confidant and conscience.  Ms. Cassidy portrays Dinah Laurel Lance, Queen’s erstwhile lover, and a continuing source of romantic angst for our hero.  She’s also a crusading attorney for the poor and disenfranchised.  She and her father, homicide detective Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne), have deep and sometimes troubling ties to Queen that reverberate throughout this twenty-three episode run.  Arrow uses these complex character relationships to take the focus off of the sort of zaniness and super powers you might see in a normal show in the genre, and place it firmly into the wheelhouse of gritty action and suspense.  The tone of Amell’s Arrow feels more like Christian Bale’s Batman than the old Adam West version.

That does not mean we don’t get to meet other denizens of the DC Comics universe.  While not always overtly named, the show offers up compelling versions of various DC heroes and villains to tangle with our hero.  The action and fight choreography in Arrow delivers big budget thrills on a TV show budget, and the Vancouver cityscape becomes a character all its own, taking on the role of the fictional Starling City.  Heavily influenced by Thai classic Ong-Bak and the parkour movement, Arrow’s fighting style takes advantage of this urban terrain, and includes plenty of acrobatic takedowns to go with the hero’s truly dazzling archery skills.

If you like action and a bit of melodramatic romance, Arrow  nicely checks both of those boxes.  I’m also not going to lie to you here–Arrow‘s cast is beautiful.  I mean, really beautiful.  Easy on the eyes indeed.  So if you think watching beautiful people doing dramatic stuff in a fictional, superhero setting will work for you as well as it does for me, jump in!  The hard part will come with waiting for Season 2 to arrive at the library!




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Because Poetry

Happy National Poetry Month!

Spotted at Jennifer Grassman's blog - click through for a 2014 poetry writing challenge.

Spotted at Jennifer Grassman’s blog – click through for a 2014 poetry writing challenge.

Occasionally I wonder if we should call poetry something else, like lexicography gymnastics or maybe the grand sensual buffet. Something sexier, peppier, less likely to make people break out in hives. People who love poetry see the word quite differently of course. It even sounds different: all those uninhibited vowels floating around (broad o, bridge of eh, musical tweet of ee), anchored solely by p and t, with the r kind of gliding by, like the tail of a kite. Just enough consonants to hang on to, sturdy fence posts in a windstorm.

Hm. Maybe we should stick with “poetry” a little longer: like a bracing spring gale, it has hopeful possibilities.

Every year or so I make a case for exploring poetry. This year, though, I’m taking the next step and writing my way through the exercises in The Poet’s Companion. It’s messy, joyful, splendid work, and if you’re ready too, there are a whole lot of other books to guide and inspire you. If you’re not quite there yet (never say never),  the Academy of American Poets has other suggestions for celebrating National Poetry Month, including celebrating “Poem in Your Pocket Day” (April 18) and playing Exquisite Corpse, which not only sounds edgy and dangerous, but is also guaranteed to rescue any meeting stretching into its third hour, provided you can find some co-conspirators.

Here are some other ways you can explore poetry in April, and all year ’round:

  • 3 Poems By… is a great opportunity to be social with other poetry-curious folks, and try a poet on for size with small chunks of her/his work. This month’s discussion spotlights Edna St. Vincent Millay, the “First Fig” fraulein; e-mail newandfeatured at carnegielibrary dot org to get the scoop, and the poems.
  • Curious about how poetry intersects with the mundane world? Don’t forget Sam Hazo’s presentation, Poetry and Public Speech, on April 7th, 2014, 6-8 p.m.
  • Consult the Pittsburgh Literary Calendar to find a reading that’s convenient for you. You’ll be surprised and pleased at how much diversity and range there is on the local poetry scene.
  • Pressed for time, but have your phone with you? Download some poetry from our Overdrive digital collection. Busy Apple users can also download the Poem Flow app and share the communal reading experience of a new poem every day.
  • Countless options for streaming and recorded poetry online abound, both on the free web and via the Library’s subscription to Naxos Spoken Word Library (valid card number required for login). Bonus: NPR’s Music and Metaphor has just kicked off its 2014 Poetry Month programming.
  • Shake up your perceptions of what poetry is by flirting with cowboy poetry! You know you want to. We’ll never tell.
  • Like videos? You can watch everyday people reading their favorite poems at the Favorite Poem Project.
  • More of the research and facts type? Check out this report on the state of poetry in America.

And, of course, we’d be thrilled if you’d consider stopping by the library to meet the poets in person, as it were. Introduce yourself to Yona Harvey, Nikky Finney, David Whyte, Rumi, Sonia Sanchez, anybody whose cover art looks interesting, or whose titles grab you. Go for an anthology, so you can meet a whole lot of poets at one time. Keep throwing things against your heart to see what sticks. Borrow then as audiobooks, Playaways, or DVDs, and don’t forget that musicians can be poets too.

Just don’t let National Poetry month go by without giving it a teensy bit of a whirl. Because poetry is for kidsadults, and teens, working people and retirees. Because poetry covers every single point on the erotic spectrum, and is produced by as many different kinds of people as there are in the world (and, sometimes, their cats). Because…well, why not?

Because poetry.

–Leigh Anne

who promises she won’t corner you in the elevator and ask your opinion on drafts


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Now Streaming @ Your Library

Binge watching.

Apple trying get its own “pipeline” in Comcast’s cable infrastructure.

Netflix accounting for up to half of broadband traffic during peak hours.

These are just a couple of concrete signs that we’re in the midst of a big shift in the way we watch TV, which is big news when you consider that TV watching accounts for about one sixth of the typical American’s day. Evidently streaming is where it’s at.

This isn’t a new story — WNYC’s excellent syndicated radio show On The Media (which you can catch locally on WESA) did a great roundup of the various new ways in which people are watching tv almost two years ago,  and the conclusion even then was that streaming models were disrupting the industry in a big way. And anecdotally, I have noticed that a number of my more media-savvy friends have cut their cable TV packages and replaced them with a carefully curated selection of streaming services: a little Hulu here, a dash of Amazon Prime, and a heaping helping of Netflix. Even the most avid TV watchers (or perhaps especially those alpha couch potatoes) are finding a lot to like about a la carte programming served up over broadband.

And while the Library was in fact an early supporter of binge viewing — how can you not watch episode after episode when there’s an impending due date and 100 holds on your DVD? — the world of streaming video so far has not worked with our business model, namely that of free access to content.

Until now, that is.

Eleventh Stack readers, allow me to introduce you to digital streaming at the Library, the latest addition to our eCLP lineup.

Now you can access free feature films, TV shows, and music with your valid library card from any Allegheny County Library. Here’s how it works:

  • Visit the the Library’s landing page for all things digital, eCLP. Click on the link for streaming media.
  • Register an account using your library card number and PIN. Please contact our Customer Services department if you have need to update your account or reset your PIN.
  • If you plan to watch or listen on an Android or iOS mobile device, download the appropriate app; there are direct links on the streaming video site. A Kindle Fire app is said to be under development, as is compatibility with Roku, ChromeCast, and gaming consoles.
  • Search, browse, and “check out” videos and albums. Each cardholder can access up to eight items a month; you generally have three days to watch a movie (with some exceptions) and seven days to listen to an album.

There’s great stuff in there, especially things that appeal to those “long tail” interests that often get buried in commercial services. I’m planning to blow my April allotment on the following:

  • Seasons 1 and 2 of the UK Office television series. The American series was the only TV show I regularly watched for about a decade, from around the time of the 14th season of the Simpsons until Parks and Rec started up a few years ago. I hear the English one is even more cringe-worthy than our version, and I can’t wait.
  • Monster Black Holes, a National Geographic Special. Because, Black Holes.
  • A Perfect World, a 1993 Kevin Costner film that I remember liking when it came out but I have absolutely no recollection of why.
  • Robert Altman’s head-scratching live-action Popeye from 1980. I consider Segar’s Popeye comics and (most of) Altman’s films to be iconic Americana, and then there’s this combination of the two, and it is…something.
  • Bill Cunningham’s New York. Cunningham, who rides around on his bike and takes pictures of people wearing interesting clothes on the streets of Manhattan for the New York Times, seems to be one of the last holdouts of the old, weird, art-damaged New York City of legend. Watch this documentary about him!
  • A couple of albums — electro/punk/dance band Liars new album Mess, because their releases are consistently interesting and usually scary, and, from the Remembering the 90’s Collection, Missy Elliot’s Supa Dupa Fly, because I think I left my copy in one of those big CD binders in a friend’s car at some point around the beginning of the millennium.

Of course, what will actually probably happen is, in a moment of weakness, my daughter will convince me to get 8 seasons worth of Calliou, Madeline, or Sid the Science Kid. And who cares if it does happen? I’ll get another eight tries at streaming media greatness next month. And besides, I can always keep my Freegal allotment for myself.

So add the library to your list of streaming media sources!

Also, if you’re interested in online resources, read more about our plan to go 100% digital by 2016 by getting rid of all of our print books, DVDs, CDs, and other physical materials here.

-Dan, who guarantees that 99% of this post is not an April Fools’ Day joke.



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