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

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/7/15

   June 13th, 2015 Brian Herzog

questio nmark signSo, Monday was a odd day. All three of these (slightly odd) reference interactions happened in the space of a few hours:

1. A patron, who had been sitting at a table near the Reference Desk for a couple hours, walked up and asked,

Could I have a minute of your time?

Which I immediately thought was suspicious - it felt like he was going to try to sell me something. Then he starts this three minute ramble that his dog just died, and he just buried him, it was a Pomeranian, he was sad, he'll miss him, and it was cremated and he buried the urn.

All the while I was listening and starting to feel sad for the guy, but on the other hand was still skeptical and expecting him to ask me for money or something. Or at least get to the end and ask me a reference question.

When he finally did pause, I said something like, "I'm very sorry, that is terrible" - and then he just said "thanks for listening" and went back to his table!

Now I felt terrible - he was upset and just needed to talk to somebody, and here I was expecting a scam. I don't think he noticed though, because later when he left he smiled and said goodbye.

2. A little while after that, one of the volunteers who leads an English Conversation Circle came to the desk and said she wanted to ask me about proof of residency. She said many of her attendees have only recently come to this country and are living with their kids (who are adults). They don't have driver's licenses or any ID with their local address, and she wanted to know what they could use for proof of residency.

My initial thought was that it all depends on who they are trying to prove it to - the library, for example, will accept pretty much any mail (but preferably a bill) with their name and address on it. But she specifically said they weren't applying for library cards - she just wanted to talk about the concept of "proof of residency" in the next conversation.

I know Massachusetts issues non-driver's license ID cards, through the RMV, so I checked their website. Their requirements to get that ID don't seem to include any kind of proof of residency, and people with certain kinds of Visas are allowed to get one too.

I've never really thought about it before, and although it does seem kind of odd that you'd just walk in and tell them where you live, I guess you have to start somewhere. This might just be me being security-paranoid again.

3. And then, almost at the very end of my shift, a patron who had been in one of our study rooms for a couple hours comes up to the desk. He's got his bag, some books, a small box, and a lot of loose papers.

He asks to use the stapler and tape, which is no problem.

Then he asks if he can hang a flyer on our bulletin board, which he hands to me. It's for a fundraising road race for a non-profit, so I tell him that is also no problem.

Then, THEN, he asks me if I can hang it up right then, and if he can video record me while I hang it, because he's producing a promotional video for their Facebook page.

Well, that feels a little weird, but not so weird that I say no. So we go upstairs to the community bulletin boards right by the front entrance. It's kind of a big sign, so I need to make some room for it as he's getting his phone ready. I ask him for any last minute directorial suggestions, to which he said, "um, just pin it to the board is fine."

So I do, and we pull it off in one take. What professionalism!

I may have hesitated more for another group, but this fundraiser benefits a charity in the name of a local kid who was injured in the Boston Marathon Bombing in 2013, so it certainly is a good cause. I haven't seen the video posted yet, so keep checking.

These may not have been real reference questions, but the Reference Desk certainly is not a boring place.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/31/15

   June 6th, 2015 Brian Herzog

This is, hands down, one of the saddest reference interactions I've ever had.

One evening a couple weeks ago, a young girl came up to the desk with a stack of pages she had just picked up off the color printer. She said the photo was coming out too dark, and she handed me one to show me what it was:

Lost pet notice

See, that's sad. She wasn't exactly crying, but you could tell that the too-dark picture was just the latest in her series of unfortunate events.

It was easy enough to go back to her computer, save the file onto a flash drive, and then print it to the staff printer at the Reference Desk. For whatever reason, those copies came out just fine, and she was happy.

While we were waiting for the copies to print, I asked her a bit about her cat. She was hopefully he'd be found, so I wished her luck and then she left.

I debated leaving her contact information on the sheet - after all, you'd need it to contact her. However, I was just not comfortable putting a little girl's personal information online, so if you happen to be in the Chelmsford area and spot this cat, please contact me and I'll forward it to her. But since this was a couple weeks ago, hopefully he is found by now.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/24/15

   May 30th, 2015 Brian Herzog

family feudWednesdays is my night shift, and mid-way through the evening one of our regular patrons called. He's actually one of my favorite patrons because he is extremely nice, his questions are usually interesting, and he's very passionate about whatever he's asking. This time it was Family Feud:

Patron: Brian, you've got to help me. You know how you can get TV shows on the computer, right? Can you find last night's Family Feud? I was watching it but then lost the signal, and by the time I got it back the show had just ended. But I need to see it because the lady who went first at the end got 194 points! Can you believe that?

This is actually just the abridged version of his question.

He's not very tech savvy, so I told him that it's always up to the network to put shows online, and I didn't know if Family Feud did this or not. I checked their website, but didn't see any full episodes. I checked the station's website too, but again, no luck.

The patron was getting discouraged and lamenting that he'd never see this moment, when I got the idea to try YouTube. I figured that if this was as sensational as it sounds (I've never seen someone get that many points at once before), someone may have uploaded the clip.

So I did a YouTube search for "Family Feud" limited to "Today" (since the episode just aired the night before) - but again struck out. I felt like someone must have uploaded it though, so I told the patron I'd keep looking and call him when I found it.

I tried a few different keyword combinations with the YouTube search, but still couldn't find anything. So then I switched to Google, searching for "Family Feud 194" figuring the score would be mentioned in the metadata. And low and behold, the third result was a link... to a YouTube video of that clip, uploaded less than 24 hours ago!

Why that didn't come up when I was searching YouTube directly, I don't know. Maybe it was too recent? I watched the clip quickly to make sure it looked like the right thing, and then called the patron.

He was so happy he came right down to the library. I showed him how to find it on a public computer, gave him some earphones, and he very happily watched the clip of this moment. You can enjoy it too:

The patron and I talked a bit more before he left, and it felt good to make someone that happy. Plus, The Family Feud has always been one of my favorite game shows, although I haven't watched it in years, so this was fun for me too.

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Libraries Circulating Wi-Fi Hotspots: Now That’s Cool

   May 28th, 2015 Brian Herzog

internet access here signI've been quiet lately because I've been just flat-out busy at both work and home, but here's something that has me excited: patrons checking out wi-fi hotspots from their public library.

Last month's article about the NYPL's circulating wi-fi got me interested. I brought it up at a recent meeting, and a colleague (thanks Anna!) sent me some more background info:

The idea is simple enough: have a mobile hotspot for patrons to check out, that can create a local wi-fi signal using a 4G data plan. And surprisingly, not very expensive for non-profits: $15 per hotspot device, and then $10 per month for the 4G service. Cheap!

I'm going to be exploring this for my library over the coming year. This community is pretty good about mostly being able to afford their own internet access, but there are still plenty of patrons in the library every day to use our computers and wi-fi. A service like this would be critical in rural or poorly-covered areas, but will still be a benefit here.

Not to mention, staff could take it with them to the farmer's market to provide wi-fi on the common, and also so we can have a live ILS connection and check out cookbooks and gardening books on the spot.

If you have any experience with these, please leave a comment. And I'll post again once we make some progress.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/17/15

   May 23rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

accept and decline buttons on iPhone screenI thought this was actually an interesting question, but the real punch line comes at the end.

Yesterday at the library, one of our volunteers came out and asked me if she could ask me an iPhone question.

Me: Of course. [despite knowing very little about iPhones*]

Her: Okay, good. Sometimes when I get a call, I get the Accept and Decline buttons - but sometimes, I don't. Why does that happen?

Me: Huh, I've never heard of that before - let me see what I can find and I'll let you know [because the volunteer was going to be at the library for a few hours, I knew I could get back to her on it]

Her: That's fine. I tried it with someone else in the back - she called the first time and the buttons weren't there, and when she called a second time they were.

A search for "iphone not showing accept decline buttons" was all it took - I checked two of the results, and they had the same answer: if the phone is unlocked, you get the buttons; if the phone is locked, you get a "slide to answer" option.

She didn't mention getting a slider, or having her phone locked or unlocked, so I wasn't sure if this information would actually help. She happened to be sitting with the person who had done the test calls when I went back and told her what I found. Happily, she said she did get the slider the first time, which she slid, typed her code, and answered. Then the second test call, with her phone now unlocked, showed her the two buttons.

Since everything they saw seemed to line up with what I found, we decided this must be the case. Which was an interesting discovery, and she was going to watch and see if it kept happening this way in relation to being locked or unlocked.

Before I left, they thanked me, and she said,

Thanks Brian. I could have asked my kids, but they always show you so fast, and just do it once and never explain anything and get mad if you don't get it right away.

So there's another good reason for the future job security of librarians - someone more patient at explaining things than a 14 year old kid.


*I've said it before, and I'll say it again: the Reference Librarian's motto is, "you don't have to know everything, you just have to know how to find out everything."

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/10/15

   May 16th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Winston Churchill V for Victory signThis isn't a reference question I received (at least, not recently), but this Reddit thread was too good not to share here:

My mother, despite being in her mid 60's, is awesome with computers. She's a public librarian, and is often at the wrong end of users' questions. I came home for a quick Mother's Day visit and she told me this gem:

User: I can't copy this highlighted section! This mouse must be broken!

Mom: Just press the control and C keys at the same time. Yes, that'll copy it. Now hit the control and V keys at the same time.

User: V?? Why not P?

Mom: V stands for Velcro, so when you paste it, it'll stick.

User: Ooh ok! That makes sense!

TL;DR- My mom is amazing.

I never really questioned if the V stood for anything - I just thought it was chosen because it was next to C (and using P for Print makes more sense). However, one of the comments had a different explanation as to why V=paste:


That is a great answer - but still, it has the feeling of creating a sensible-sounding explanation for something after-the-fact, based on context. Like saying that [sic] is really an abbreviation for "spelling isn't correct." I mean, if the V key wasn't next to the C, would they still have used it?

Either way though, associating Ctrl+V with Velcro is a great way to have that stick in a patron's mind.

And someone please help me with this: is there a word for making up a definition for something after-the-fact? Like the [sic] thing? I feel like there should be, but I can't find it. Sort of like neologism I guess, so maybe "Deflogism."

Thanks Chris.

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