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



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Pondering a Potential Paper Cutter Policy

   December 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog

papercutterSo this came up recently in my library: should we allow patrons to use the staff paper cutter?

We have a few of them in the library, including one in the Reference Office. Staff use it all the time, and occasionally a patron asks to use it. Initially I felt this was one of those, "oh, that seems too dangerous," but for years now have been allowing people to use it. However, these are my conditions:

  • They can't come into the Reference Office (since staff personal items are in there), so,
  • I carry it to a table for them
  • I ask if they know how to use it, and ask them to be careful
  • I tell them to let me know when they're finished so I can carry it back into the office
  • And I remind them again to be careful

Like I said, I've been doing this for years, and have never had an incident (other than satisfied patrons). However, some staff are uncomfortable with the whole paper cutter situation, so the question was raised: should we be letting patrons use it?

I think the main concern was safety and liability. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't see how this opens us up to any more liability than scissors (which we provide free access to at the desk along with pens, pencils, tape, stapler, staple remover, etc). Almost all the furniture in the library is wooden, which makes for a lot of hard sharp corners someone could fall and hit their head on. Not to mention the large heavy books we keep on shelves seven feet in the air, well above many peoples' heads.

So it seems to me there's plenty of "liability" potential just by allowing people into the building. So for me, as long as the paper cutter is in good working order, and staff offers to help and/or train patrons to use it, we're in the clear.

As a result of this coming up, I did put a big red sign on the paper cutter as a sort of "not our fault" disclaimer, although I doubt it would have much impact in a lawsuit. Here's what our paper cutter looks like:

librarypapercutter

And a closeup of the red sign:

paper-cutter-be-careful

Do you have a paper cutter in your library that you allow patrons to use? How about a shredder, or anything else slightly unusual and potentially dangerous? I'm really curious to hear what other people think, so please share your experience in the comments - thanks.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/14

   December 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

stereoThis is a hard question to relay. What you're reading below isn't necessarily what the patron asked, it's just my understanding of what the patron asked - and I'm really not sure I ever understood correctly just what he was trying to do.

A patron came to the desk and said he had a pair of stereo earbuds, which were only playing sound on one side, and the guy at Radio Shack said he'd need to buy an adapter to make both sides play when he plugged into a mono jack (which he said our computers must have because he was only getting sound on one side). But instead of buying an adapter, the patron thought he could just go get another set of stereo earbuds and then plug one into the headphone jack on the front of our computers and the other into the jack on the back of our computers, and put whichever two of the four buds that worked into different ears and listen that way.

Most of this only marginally made sense to me. For one thing, the library headphones we offer for people to use all play sound out of both sides. I had no idea if our computer audio jacks were mono or stereo though, so we proceeded to do a little experimenting:

  • First I plugged library headphones into the front, and both sides played
  • Then I plugged them into the back, and again both sides played
  • Next I left them plugged into the back as he plugged his earbuds into the front - and he had sound on only one side and the headphones had no sound
  • Finally we plugged the earbuds in the back, and again he only had sound on one side

Since using the front jack shut off the back jack entirely, that shot down his idea of two simultaneous separate earbuds - which kind of deflated the whole situation. So after he sat down to work, I went back to the desk to try to figure out if our workstations had mono or stereo jacks. However, I poked all around inside the Control Panel and on the Dell website for our model PCs, and could not determine this one way or the other.

But what the internet did teach me is that you can tell from the plug if your headphones/earbuds are mono or stereo:

audioplug-stereo


audioplug-mono

Huh - that seems so obvious, but I never knew this. I checked the library headphones, and sure enough all of them had stereo plugs, not mono plugs.

So knowing that, I decided to take a different tack - find a recording that was in stereo and see if the headphones play it correctly. A quick YouTube search found this:

Besides this being my new favorite YouTube video (the guy is so nice and polite!), it also told me that our computers definitely play in stereo. But, sadly, by this time the patron had left.

So now my working theory on what was happening is that the patron actually had mono earbuds, which apparently will only play one side when plugged into a stereo jack. Maybe this is what he was asking all along and I was just confused. He's one of our regulars though, so I'll watch for him and hopefully catch him before he buys some kind of adapter. It won't help with mono earbuds, but at least it'll save him some money. And I can also thank him for prompting me to learn all this stuff.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/16/14

   November 22nd, 2014 Brian Herzog

in case of emergency signThis question definitely took me by surprised and I don't think I did a great job of answering it.

A patron, who I would guess was in her sixties, walks up to the desk and says,

Do you have a book to tell you what to do in case of an emergency? I've been taking care of my mother but no one tells you what to do if something were to happen.

For whatever reason, my first thought was that "if something were to happen" was a euphemism for "my mother dying" - but then I thought, no, that can't be right.

We do have books on first aid and emergency preparedness, but just to be on the safe side I asked the patron what kind of information she was looking for. She said,

Like who are you supposed to call or what are you supposed to do? I mean other than a funeral home.

Oh, so we were talking about that.

I don't know for sure, but I suspect we didn't have any books that would tell her who to call when her elderly mother dies. Obviously the police would be a good choice, although I don't think I said that. I think ultimately it's the coroner that needs to be informed of a death, but I don't know if anyone can just call them directly. I'm also not sure why she ruled out a funeral home, and I'm sure if arrangements are made ahead of time, they'd know exactly what to do at every step of the way.

I was still thinking along the lines of some kind of resource to give her, but anything like this would probably be more of a pamphlet than a book. I don't think we have any "preparing for end of life" pamphlets like that, but it occurred to me that the senior center might. I mentioned the senior center and she kind of lit up, saying,

Oh, that's a perfect idea. I was going there next anyway to drop off knitting. My mother has a lot of projects started and yarn that I don't think she'll ever use again, so I was taking it there for other people to work on.

Okay. I gave her the name of the senior center's Director and explained how to find the office, and hopefully they'll have what she needs.

After the patron left I felt bad that I didn't have a better answer. I could have called the senior center, or maybe better yet the town nurse, to get an idea of the protocol for when someone dies. But hopefully the senior center staff will be able to give her the information she needs and help her through this time.



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Random Notes on a Tech Program for Seniors

   November 19th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Watch for Seniors signI don't often give presentation-based programs for patrons at my library, but last week I assisted one of my coworkers with a "Using Library Ebooks" program at our local Senior Center. A few things stood out to me during this program that I didn't anticipate, so I thought it might be worthwhile to share them here.

(But again, I don't do this very often, so it might be old news to people that do.)

First of all, we were invited to do this tech program at the Senior Center - they're always happy to have speakers visit them, and seniors seem to be the demographic that we help the most with ebooks and mobile devices. It seemed like a win-win.

The plan was to do a short presentation with slides, then live demonstrations downloading to devices, and finally hands-on helping the seniors with their devices they brought with them. Unfortunately, the Senior Center's wi-fi was down, which pretty much killed any live demo or helping we planned because no one could get online.

My coworker stretched out her slides as long as she could, and then we just talked with the seniors and answered the questions. Although things didn't go as planned, I felt it went really well. The thing about just sitting around talking is that the people felt comfortable enough to ask us just about anything.

So, based on this experience, here's what I learned for next time:

  • Don't count on wi-fi - this is true for any presentation really, and having backup slides is just good practice. But in our case, having slides that had screenshots of the different websites we were talking about was invaluable, because we could still show what the sites looked like, where important links were, etc.
  • Make a Large Print Presentation - many seniors read Large Print books for a reason, so it makes sense that they'd be more comfortable with Large Print slides too. Even though it's projected up on a wall, it's still easy to accidentally make the type small to cram a lot of information on a slide. In a few cases I noticed the seniors leaning in towards the screen to read the slides, so this is definitely something I'll keep in mind for future presentations to seniors.

    A little harder to manage are screenshots, because you can only get so big with those. But one option is to pull a zoomed shot of the part of the page you want to highlight, so people can read it - but to also show the full page and where that zoomed shot fits in. I could see just a series of enlarged fragments being confusing.

  • Do these talks before Christmas - conventional wisdom over the last few years has been to offer ebook workshops right after the holidays, in order to help all those people who just received devices as gifts. This program was in early November, and something interesting came up: it was perfect timing, because it caught all of these seniors before they went South to Florida for the winter.

    That hadn't really occurred to me before, and if we waited until January for this program we would have missed them. Obviously not everyone goes to Florida for the winter, but in our case it really is a strategy to accommodate.

    Another nice benefit of mobile seniors is that they aren't limited to just what this library offers. Chances are the library in where ever they're going also offers ebooks, and it's worth their time to stop in there to ask about it. Some of the seniors in our program own property in Florida and some only rented, so they may or may not be able to get library cards down there depending on library policy. But we can help them with the Collier County Public Library's Overdrive catalog as easily as we can our own, and they seemed to appreciate it.

  • Be ready to talk about anything - this isn't really something you can prepare for, but it's good to allow time for wide-ranging conversations. In our case, when my coworker mentioned using Adobe Digital Editions, one senior gentleman said he must not be able to use ebooks after all because his computer at home has been telling him to update is Adobe and he can't.

    That led to a bit of an explanation on the differences between Adobe the company, Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader, and Adobe Digital Editions. It took some time, but in the end the seniors seem to understand why all of those are different things and not really related, and a problem with Flash doesn't mean he can't read ebooks. Of course I'd talk about this with anyone who asked, but having the freedom to spend some time on this seemed to benefit everyone.

  • If at all possible, work on their devices - I think every one of our attendees brought their own device, and they also each had unique questions about their experience (and problems) so far. I felt bad that we couldn't get online and address each one of them, because people in general aren't usually interested in the overall Way Things Should Be, they're interested in the very specific Ways It Is For Them.
  • Bring handouts - my coworker brought copies of her slides as handouts, but what we forgot were the ebook step-by-step booklets we have at the library. I also forgot to bring business cards with my contact information so people could easily contact us for one-on-one tech help appointments. Everyone was very interested in those, and said they'd be stopping by the library for more personal assistance. Which is great, but I feel bad that we didn't think ahead to make it easier for them to do so.

Overall I think it was a very successful program. The six or so attendees really seemed to benefit, and my coworker and I enjoyed the casual instruction. If anyone else has helpful tips to make programs better, please let me know in the comments.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/7/14

   November 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

JwingdingsThis was kind of a funny question, right up until I realized I had created a monster.

A patron, who is somewhat new to email, walked up to the desk and said,

Patron: I think some of my friends' email accounts have all been hacked by the same person, and he's sending me messages.

Me: Oh really, why?

Patron: Because at the end of a lot of messages - not all of them, but some of them - it is signed with just the initial J. Someone named J must have hacked their accounts and is sending messages to me, but they don't know they've been hacked because sometimes the messages really come from my friends.

I love a good conspiracy, but in this case I explained what emoticons are and how people sometimes use them in email to display smiling or frowning faces. Some people just used keyboard characters, some use a special font, and some use images.

In this case the patron's friends must be using Outlook, which uses Wingdings font to display emoji. If other email programs don't use that technique, it will just show that character in the default font, which is usually a J for a smiley face.

We then went back over to his computer which still had his Yahoo mail up, and I showed him how he could add emojis to his message. He was thrilled, and I think now all of his friends are going to get sick of it very quickly.

Even though the patron was happy, I still much prefer the idea of a mysterious person named J hacking all his friends' accounts just to send him messages.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/2/14

   November 8th, 2014 Brian Herzog

wall street journal signI like reference interactions where the initial question really just ends up being an ice-breaker for a series of bonus tangents. Well, sometimes I like those.

In this case, a patron came up to the desk carrying a back issue of the Wall Street Journal and asked,

Can I check this out? I want to take it home to compare it to the online version, because I think they're not giving me everything online that they are in the newspaper. I cancelled my newspaper subscription and just do the online now, but an online subscription is the same price as the newspaper and I don't think they include all the articles that are in the real paper.

I don't know the specifics of the WSJ's pricing structure, but I suspect that this patron is correct. I noticed this years ago with our online subscription the Lowell Sun database - articles people swore they saw in the print paper were not coming up in the database (and it wasn't hard for me to verify).

At the time, I called Newsbank to ask them about it, and they said that yes, that is correct. They only have the rights to put Lowell Sun-generated content into their database - so, any syndicated content like AP articles, comics, puzzles, etc, will not appear online. This was a few years ago and in a different context, but the Newsbank person said we'd never see an online version of anything that has everything the print edition has.

I relayed this to the patron, and he appeared to feel vindicated.

He also was extremely interested in the previously-unknown-to-him fact that we had online access to the Lowell Sun - and the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. I showed him how to log in from home with his library card, so that was a happy little tangent. Then he had another tangent for me:

Well, that's okay anyway about the Wall Street Journal articles. Sometimes what I can do is look at the headlines on the Wall Street Journal website, and if an article I want to read is one you have to pay for, then I just search for that headline in Google and usually it links to the full article for free. I don't know why, and it's not all the time, but usually.

So then we had a little talk about paywalls and Google access, for which I had no good answer. But while listening to him, I suspect that some of the articles he links to from Google weren't actually on the WSJ website, just news articles from other sources that had very similar headlines.

What I did not tell him about was the Element Inspector trick - a method for editing a website's code to remove the "sign in to read the full article" blocking mechanism. However, after the patron left I did try out both that trick and his search-for-the-headline-on-Google technique, and I couldn't get either of them to work for WSJ.com articles. Which isn't too surprising - if anyone is going to put a lot of effort into making sure casual circumvention can't be used to access their content, it'll be online newspapers.

Anyway, so instead of taking the back issue of the newspaper home, he just sat down at one of our computers and spent some time comparing the print headlines to the articles available on WSJ.com. I didn't talk to him again though, so I don't know what he discovered.

But another delightful bonus from this question is the idea of letting patrons take home old issues of newspapers. We don't catalog them at all, so all our newspapers are in-library only. I've never been asked this before, but it's certainly a good one for our No Log, to see if we get to yes on it. We already use the honor system for our collection of Cliff Notes, so it might work for old newspapers too.



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