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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/17/13

   March 23rd, 2013

PrintFriendly logoOne of the most common questions we get at the Reference Desk is something along the lines of:

I tried to print something, but all I got was this blank page. Can you print it for me?

The reason this happens (I think) is that a lot of web pages - especially news sites and free email accounts - compartmentalize information using frames*, and many web browsers have a difficult time trying to print all these different frames at the same time.

When patrons try to print a page like this just using the browser's File > Print function, it often doesn't work. The page designers know this, so they usually embed a little printer icon somewhere within the content frame the person wants to print - the body of the email, the news story, etc. It generally seems to appear in the top-right corner of the content window, and when you click it, opens the important content in an entirely new window that will print nicely. However, it is often so subtle that people never notice it.

But check this out: I stumbled upon PrintFriendly by accident, and I love the idea. It is specifically designed to make printing these annoying pages easier. You can copy/paste in the URL of the page you want to print, it grabs the content, and then you have full control over which parts of the page actually print - it lets you remove anything you don't want.

What I thought was even more useful is their bookmarklet that you can stick right in your browser - that way when you want to print a page, the PrintFriendly button is always right there, instead of having to mess with copy/pasting the URL. Neat.

Since finding this, I've been testing it every chance I get, and it seems to work about 90% of the time. Usually, exactly what I want to print is the only thing that shows up. But even when extra sidebars and things do show - like in this Lowell Sun newspaper article (source) - PrintFriendly makes it so easy to remove all the junk (just click on whatever you want to delete). This means the good content fills the page (a single page), instead of being a very narrow column four pages long.

It didn't work everywhere though. For instance, Zap2it.com listings seem to print much better the normal way than through PrintFriendly.

A few more neat features: once you render a page to print in PrintFriendly, it gives you the option to print, create a PDF, or email it. Very handy.

Of course, my first thought was to put the bookmarklet in all the browsers on our public workstations. This still might be a good idea, but patrons will need to be trained to use it, which will be a challenge. Everyone is so conditioned to File > Print, and usually people don't know something went wrong until after they've paid for their print job (why doesn't anyone File > Print Preview?!?).

So for the time being, this might just be a handy tool in the librarian toolbox (but I do have it installed on my computer).

I have no idea how long PrintFriendly has been around, so I might be the last person to know. Has anyone been using this? I'm curious to see how well PrintFriendly works on a wider array of websites.


*Frames is an HTML way of embedding multiple "windows" into the same webpage. The best clue for knowing whether or not there are frames on a page is to notice if there are scroll bars inside the page. There will always be the main vertical scroll bar all the way on the right edge of the browser window (for pages longer than the screen), but sometimes there are additional vertical scroll bars in the page itself, that just moves some content in a little window. This is a frame, and may or may not print when you print using the browser's File > Print functionality.

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11 Responses to “Reference Question of the Week – 3/17/13”

  1. Jenny Says:

    This happens *constantly* at our library – I don’t know why no one uses Print Preview (maybe they don’t know it exists?). We still have IE and Firefox on our public PCs, which people tend to choose over Chrome, and there’s no plugin for those browsers. Still, it’s a great tool to know about. Thanks!

  2. Brian Herzog Says:

    @Jenny: I think there are plugins for all browsers – when you get to the browser tool page, it auto-detects which browser you’re using and only shows you the install instructions for it. Oh, yes, on the top right of that page are links to other browsers and devices.

  3. Alexis Says:

    Oh wow, what a great tool! Thanks for sharing.

  4. Anne Says:

    Thank you! Just today I was trying to help a patron print out a recipe from livestrong.com and they always add so much junk onto their posts. But we were able to cull it down. Except that then PrintFriendly deleted the ingredients list! SIGH.

    But I am still keeping this in mind and I’m going to recommend installing it on the computers in my children’s department.

  5. Jennifer Says:

    I always tell people “there is mysterious code in the webpages that you cannot see and sometimes it tells the internet to print strange things. so you have to always check print preview.”

  6. Keeley Says:

    I can see this being really useful, I always check print preview when helping students print a web page, but this has the added benefit of letting you remove extra stuff you don’t need. I will definitely share it with my coworkers. Thanks!

  7. sharon Says:

    In Firefox and, I think, in IE, you can customize the toolbar to remove the Print button and add the Print Preview button prominently in the first position. That’s what I did at a big public library where people had to pay for printing.

  8. Christina Getrost Says:

    Thanks for testing this and letting us know how it works. I just heard of it recently too, and hadn’t had a chance yet to talk to our IT guys about possibly installing it on our pcs. I was hoping it would turn out to be as useful as it seems.

  9. Swiss Army Librarian » Print From Anywhere to the Library :: Brian Herzog Says:

    [...] Swiss Army Librarian or, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Fear and Loathing at a Public Library Reference Desk « Reference Question of the Week – 3/17/13 [...]

  10. Arianna Says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I used to use the Aardvark plugin (https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/aardvark/), but that no longer seems to be supported, so I definitely appreciate this new suggestion. It’s so great to be able to avoid printing ads and to allow the content to fill a page instead of stay limited to predetermined columns – I look forward to trying this out!

  11. Emma Says:

    If our IT people let us install this I would use it with patrons every day. Thanks so much for sharing!