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



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/19/15

   January 25th, 2015 Brian Herzog

I hate coming across as cynical and patron-deprecating on this blog, but I could not resist reposting this comic. I'm sure everyone who has worked at a reference desk has gone through this same thought process - for me, it was almost a GOOMHR moment and sums up much of the reference help I've given this week:

poker face tech support comic

I can even forgive the scroll wheel thing, but typing the URL into a search box and clicking "Search" instead of using the Enter key cracked me up.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/11/15

   January 17th, 2015 Brian Herzog

surgerysignI know this is going to make me sound petty, but this happened on a bad day and it made me just shake my head. A patron came up to the desk and said,

I'm looking for a book that lists all the medical tests on one page. I got it from here before, or maybe the Lowell Library, but I don't remember what it was or what it looked like. But it listed all the medical tests on one page so you could read about them, and if you just type in "medical tests" I'm sure it'll come up. Do you know what book I'm talking about? But it might be at the Lowell Library.

I didn't know the book, and for whatever reason I thought a better strategy would be to search on "medical procedure" so I did that. And sure enough, the very promising The Gale encyclopedia of surgery and medical tests : a guide for patients and caregivers came up (which does indeed also come up when searching for medical tests).

I got the call number and took the patron over to the shelf, and when we saw it was a four-volume set, he immediate said it wasn't the right book.

Which surprised me since he said he couldn't remember what it looked like, and only really remembered the inside of the book - so to disqualify this one without even looking at the inside made me think the chance of satisfying this patron was very low.

We talked a bit more in the stacks, and I learned he was actually looking for information on a specific procedure he was considering. I suggested one of the four volumes might help with that anyway, even if it wasn't the book he remembered. Reluctantly, he was willing to flip through it while I went back to the desk to keep searching.

I tried a couple different searches and found a few books that might possibly have information on medical tests, and I was making a list of call numbers to check before walking back into the stacks. However, before I even got up from the desk, the patron walk by me on his way upstairs to leave. He was carrying one of the Gale volumes, and said without breaking stride,

This has what I'm looking for.

So, that's great. I'm happy he found something helpful - at least I hope it's helpful - but I can't help being a little frustrated when patrons make helping them more difficult that it should be.



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Tax Season Should Be Fun This Year

   January 15th, 2015 Brian Herzog

tax bobbleheadBy now, hopefully you've heard what the IRS will be providing to libraries this year in the way of tax products. If not, here's the email TFOP libraries received last week:

TFOP Filing Season Update

While we had committed to waiting until next year to making changes to the Tax Forms Outlet Program, the situation has changed. As you may be aware, IRS appropriations were significantly cut in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill recently passed by Congress. Unfortunately this puts us in a position where we have very few options. We want to honor our commitment to you by providing some key products, but we cannot deliver nearly what we have in the past.

For this filing season, we will offer the following products:

  • Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ
  • Publication 17, one reference copy for each participant (Taxpayers will be able to access Publication 17 in English and Spanish online from irs.gov/Pub17 and, new this year, it will also be available as a free e-Pub for downloading from IRS.gov and viewing on most e-Readers and other mobile devices.)
  • Publication 4604 (EN/SP), Use the Web for IRS Tax Products & Information
  • Publication 1132, Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions
  • The TFOP Poster Package which includes:
    • Publication 1169, Need Tax Help?
    • Publication 1258, Where Should I Send This?
    • Publication 1309, Tax Forms This Way Publication
    • Publication 1725, If The Form Fits...Use It!

No additional products will be available through the TFOP Program. We will not be sending Form 8635-S, Supplement to Form 8635.

We will fill orders for Forms 1040 and 1040A with the quantities you requested on your order form earlier this year. Because Form 1040EZ was not on this year's order form, we will send you 75% of your Form 1040 A order quantity. For example, if you ordered 3000 Form 1040 A, we will send you 2250 Form 1040EZ. It is not necessary for you to place an order for Form 1040EZ; we will automatically ship Form 1040EZ to you once the form becomes available.

Unfortunately, we are unable to offer Instructions for Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. Your patrons can obtain copies of Instructions through:

  • IRS.gov/Forms - to view and download
  • IRS.gov/orderforms - to order tax products to be delivered by mail
  • 1-800-829-3676 - to order tax products to be delivered by mail

The decision to reduce the number of tax products available to our TFOP partners was not made lightly. We realize this decision is not ideal and we understand it may impact you and your customers. Please offer Publication 4604 (EN/SP) to your patrons to help guide them to tax products and information available on IRS.gov. We apologize for these late program changes.

Thank you for your support,
IRS TFOP Administrator

Which really is terrible news for libraries and patrons - patrons because so many people have relied on easily picking up tax forms at their local library, and libraries because we'll be spending a lot of time apologizing for the IRS to those many irate patrons.

But we can get through this. Libraries near me have been sharing ideas on how to handle these changes. Here's what we'll be doing:

  • Printing a sign to explain the situation to people - basically, to say that these are all the tax forms we have and that's all we're getting
  • Have a handout ready with the URL and phone number above for where people can request forms be mailed to them. My first draft [pdf] looks like this:
    taxforms-bymail
  • Used the order form website myself to get two copies of the instruction booklets so the library will have reference copies
  • Printed copies of the 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ instruction to make circulating copies in three-ring binders for patrons. We're starting with two of each, and will print more as demand increases (because it's a lot of printing). They'll circulate for one week, and we'll allow patrons to place local holds too
  • Continue with our "first copy free" policy of printing tax forms for patrons. In the past this has just been for the oddball form here and there, but this year we expect to be printing a lot more*. Although for us, this free copy only applies to forms, not instructions - hopefully the circulating copies or reference copies for photocopying will meet that need
  • Make available the IRS' reproducible tax form binder, so patrons can photocopy whatever forms they need
  • We may end up pre-printing a lot of the more common schedules and other forms, just to save the patron's (and staff's) time of having to print-on-demand. But again, this is something we're going to wait and see what demand is like and respond accordingly

So, that's our current plan. I'd really like to hear what other libraries are doing, so if you've got a great idea that will help this tax season, please share in the comments.

Good luck.

 


*I had briefly thought about trying to record all our printing, so get a ballpark figure of how much the IRS' budget cut is costing my library. I hate the idea of shifting costs like that (like when the movie theater hands you an empty cup instead of paying someone to fill it for you! They've just shifted that cost onto their customer. Savages.), but decided that it's probably not worth the cost of our staff tracking, because we'd never use that information for anything anyway. But I'd still be curious to know.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/4/15

   January 10th, 2015 Brian Herzog

restart dialog boxA patron came up to the desk and asked for me specifically (I was in the office at the time). She said she needs help with her computer, and hoped that I could fix it for her.

The abbreviated version of the story is that her laptop was having problems, so she took it "to the shop" to have them fix it. They said they did, and she never tried it to make sure - she just put it on a shelf and didn't use the computer.

For a year.

Now, a year later, she wanted to use her computer again, but can't remember the password. And can I help?

At least she knew that she had Windows XP, which is something. She didn't have the computer with her, so she said she'd come back the next day.

Which gave me a day to research how to reset or bypass a Windows XP user password, because I had no idea - and it sounded like something that should not be an easy thing to do. However, I found all kinds of websites with all kinds of complicated methods of discovering or resetting the password, including putting password recovery software on a boot disk. Then I found this kid's video:

That seemed easy and straightforward, so I figured I'd try it first - too easy in fact, but, as much as I wanted to help the patron, I didn't think we could really offer support beyond this. Downloading hacking software to a boot disk seemed a bit drastic.

So she came in the next day, and I was shocked that the kid's technique worked flawlessly. Partly because I didn't expect it to be so easy, and partly because it doesn't seem at all safe that it is that easy. But then, this was on a very old laptop with XP.

At any rate, the patron was happy she had access to her computer again - and of course thought I was a genius. I gave her a little talk about updating the anti-virus and getting a year's worth a security updates before she use it normally online, and also told her that XP is no longer supported and maybe think about getting a new computer. She said she got along for a year without a computer at all, so she'll see how it goes.

With a little luck, she may still enjoy XP for years to come.



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What’s Your Take on Driving-Tests.org?

   December 17th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Here's something I really curious to learn more about: I've seen a lot of talk lately about driving-tests.org.

It's a website that offers free test prep for driver license exams, but what I keep hearing about is their library version. I think that version is the same as the free one, except it has no ads, and can also be branded with your library's logo (and obviously links directly to the exam for your state).

Check out their marketing email, but this banner pretty well sums it up:

driving-tests

It seemed interesting, so I poked around the free Massachusetts tests (mainly to see if I would pass it*). Some of the questions seemed so odd - and so very specific - that I really had no idea if they were actual laws or not.

Now, here's a tangent: one of our historically high-theft items is the MA Registry of Motor Vehicle's Driver's Manual. Anyone used to be able to get these free to study for the test, then they went to $5 and you had to pick them up at an RMV office. But then I couldn't even get them from an office, because they were always out when I went. And of course, if it's hard for us to get, it's also hard for patrons - and when I occasionally did get a copy for the library, it wasn't long before it went missing.

Which is why an online exam prep tool seemed like a good idea. But, not being an expert on MA traffic laws, I thought I'd ask the RMV if they've heard of it and if they considered it useful. I knew contacting the RMV like this was a long shot, but I was shockingly and pleasantly surprised.

Less than 24 hours after sending in my question through the RMV website's general contact form, I received this reply:

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles does not license any online driver education programs, nor do we approve or disapprove of any online training programs. A student could not receive credit towards the mandatory training time by having taken an online program.

A very casual review of this particular web site leads me to believe that the content is not entirely accurate.

Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Wow, that was exactly what I was looking for. And since I had their attention, I did ask another question: how can libraries reliably get a copy of the Driver's Manual each year?

The same person emailed me back saying they didn't have any kind of standing order program, but to just email him our address and he would mail me a copy**. I did, and he did! I'm going to start doing this every year, too, because the Driver's Manual is a perennial request.

Now back to the main story: after our print copy of the Driver's Manual arrived, I decided to take the test again, this time trying to look up each question in the booklet to see if I could find the answer. I could, for all but two of them - and in every case where I did find the answer, it was correct.

I only did this for the MA Permit Practice Test 1, but that was better than I expected. It seems like a number of libraries have already signed on to their library version (here's Alameda (CA) Free Library, and I am really curious to hear about the experience of their patrons - does this website help prepare them for their driver's test? Do patrons benefit from the library version more than the regular free version?

If you have any experience with this tool, please leave a comment - thanks!

 


*I did not, the first time. But I re-took the same test the next day and did much better!

**Note to other MA librarians: I asked if it was okay for me to share his info with other libraries, and he said no problem. So contact me if you'd like his email address.



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Reference Question of the Week – 12/7/14

   December 13th, 2014 Brian Herzog

yogaheadphonesThis one took me by surprise.

A patron called in and ask if she could request some books. No problem. And usually when a patron tells me right off that they'll be requesting multiple books, I'll grab a pencil and paper to write titles down and look for after we hang up. If they're requesting just a few items, I'll type them in and request them as we go, but when there are a bunch of titles there's no need to make the patron wait while I do them all one at a time.

So this patron gives me her list of items, which are all yoga books with titles like Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. After about six titles, she gives me the punchline:

Okay, that's all. And I'd like all those as audiobooks.

A yoga practice manual on audiobook? I'm not familiar with this book, but it sounds like it would be mostly photos of poses, which doesn't seem like it would work at all in audio.

So I conveyed my uninformed skepticism to the patron, and she was in complete disagreement. She was as uninformed as I about the actual existence of these audiobooks, but she was far more confident that they should exist.

Which they might, and I said I'd look for them on audio and request them if I could find them. I checked our catalog, the rest of the state, WorldCat, and Amazon, but unfortunately didn't find any of them with an audio version.

At least, so far - this is one of those questions where I'll end up keeping that piece of scrap paper for years and periodically checking and rechecking various sources to try to locate the item. We'll see, but I'm not going to hold my breath.



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