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

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/8/15

   November 14th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Today I Feel: ConfusedThis started out as a simple question, and just kept getting weirder.

On Thursday morning, a patron called asking if she could come in later that day for a one-on-one session. She'd like to work on basic computer skills, she said, because she only uses a computer at the library and senior center, but not very often, so she felt she was forgetting everything she knew in the meantime and wanted a refresher.

Okay, that's fine. But then she said she's also interested in buying a computer, and could I pick one out for her?

Well, I had to stop her there. I haven't bought a computer for myself in like six years, so I'm certainly not an authority by any stretch. I told her I could help her find reviews of computers, and try to explain the basics of computer buying, but I couldn't pick one for her.

She was fine with that, and we made an appointment for later that afternoon.

The appointed time comes, and the patron shows up right on the dot. Despite that, she apologizes for being late, because she said she took the bus and it was a running behind, but I assured her everything was fine.

I set up a laptop with an external keyboard and mouse, because many beginners find those more comfortable to use. But she stopped me and asked me what all that was. I explained the difference between our desktop workstations, with regular keyboards and mice, and a laptop, which has the keyboard and touchpad built in.

Now she was very interested in that, and said,

Well I was up at Barnes and Noble last week and bought a Nook, but I had trouble with it and decided I couldn't afford it so I returned it. I didn't know there was an in-between size of computer [meaning the laptop, in between a desktop and a tablet].

Huh. So then I went on a bit of a tangent about the pros and cons of each of the three styles, and she was already convinced that a laptop is what she wanted to buy. In the course of this little discussion I asked her what she'd be using a computer for, and she said writing letters to friends and printing them.

So we get started by opening Word, and I have her type a little bit to get the feel of the keyboard and touchpad, as well as some Word basics.

When she's ready, we go through the steps to print, and she seems to pick all of that up quickly. I asked her what else she'd like to do on a computer, and she said,

I'd like to buy things from Amazon and Google and Ebay, are those all the same company? And is it safe to do that?

Whoa, that's a departure from computer basics - but maybe not so much these days. So we then talked about the differences between those websites, and the fact that most stores, like Target, Sears, etc., also all have websites that sell products. And that buying online does involve risk, but really, using a credit card at all involves risk, since stores like Target have had their customer data hacked having nothing to do with buying online.

The patron seemed pretty interested in all of this, and wanted to try shopping for something on Amazon. At this point however we were just about out of time for the one-on-one appointment, so our plan was to just run through the steps of searching Amazon and finding product information, but not the buying steps.

Which she was fine with. We go to Amazon.com, and I tell her to type into the search box whatever it is she'd like to buy, and we'd get back a variety of those products to choose from.

What is it she typed in, you ask?


What? She calls up the library asking for someone to pick out a computer for her, and then goes from that to asking about online shopping, and THEN the first thing she wants to buy online is a typewriter?

I did not see that coming.

But I can tell you I'm really curious to find out where things go at our next one-on-one session next week.

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Not Your Grandmother’s Acclaimed Urban Fiction

   October 14th, 2015 Brian Herzog

So this happened at my library, and everyone got a good laugh out of it. One day in Tech Services, this array of books was delivered:


During the course of processing them to be put out for patrons, one of the Tech Services staff noticed that these books were on the, well, pornographic side.

Fifty Shades of Grey aside, my library generally doesn't buy erotica, so this got staff's attention. The question of "who bought these?" ran up the selector's chain, until they were handed to our fiction selector. She looked at them, and the content, and could not figure why she would have ordered them, or where she would have even seen them.

So she went back through various review sources, and eventually found a two-page spread in the 2015 November issue of Ingram Advance:


I did not know that "Urban Fiction" was a euphemism for erotica. The astonishing thing is that you can read the little descriptions below the books, and not once do they mention sex, strap-ons, or dripping anythings. And yet, flip just a couple pages into any of these titles, and you're already well into NSFW territory.

Of course, titles like The Panty Ripper seem to be a dead giveaway, but I really was surprised that Acclaimed Urban Fiction would be so entirely unlike my idea of what acclaimed urban fiction would be.

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/20/15

   September 26th, 2015 Brian Herzog

This didn't need to occur in a library, and I am very happy this question went to one of my coworkers and not me:

Do you know your elevator smells like fish?

No possible good can come of being involved with any aspect of that situation. Except for this:

How do you stop a fish from smelling?  Cut its nose off!

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/9/15

   August 15th, 2015 Brian Herzog

off switchModern Reference work includes tech support too.

One afternoon, a patron came in and asked to use a study room. I signed him up for one, and after he got about five steps away from the desk, I got distracted with other things and completely forgot about him.

About twenty minutes later, I was walking in the direction of the study rooms, and notice he was sitting in his room, in the dark, using his laptop (which of course meant his face was spotlighted by the screen). I thought it was odd, but really it's not entirely unusual for someone to have the lights off when they're in a room, so I just chalked it up to "patrons are funny" and kept walking.

But then, as I walked past the windows of his study room, I heard him shout out, "sir! Sir!! SIR!!!"

I opened the door and said something like, "can I help you?" His response was to sit back in his chair, wave his arms around, and say,

I've got no lights!

This is an easy fix - our study rooms have motion sensors that turn the lights on when someone enters a room, but in this case the rolling white board had been pushed in front of it. As soon as I started pushing the white board over, the lights popped on. The patron thanked me and I left.

But my disbelief in this whole situation stems from that fact that it was twenty minutes - twenty minutes - from the time the patron came in to the time I happened to walk by. I wonder how long he would have kept sitting in the dark, instead of coming back to the desk to ask for help. Or, look around the room for the light switch that must be there somewhere.

Patrons are indeed funny.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/2/15

   August 8th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Hours spelled out in phone numbersPatron interactions like this are one of my favorite parts of my job.

On Wednesday this week, late in the afternoon, the phone rang. It was just a patron calling to ask what time we closed that night, so I told him, and hung up. No problem.

Then, not two minutes later the phone rang again. When I answered it, the patron asked,

Hello, do you recognize my voice?

Of course it was the same patron who just called minutes before. I said I did, and he continued,

Well, I've already forgotten what time the library closes tonight. Can you tell me again. [I tell him 9:00 pm.] Okay thanks. I'll try to remember this time, but don't be surprised if I call back. You know, you should put your closing time in your phone number, because I have that memorized but I can't remember your hours.

It must have stuck with him this time, because he never did call back. However, what a neat idea - our phone number could be 978-930-2100 because we're open 9:30 - 9:00 (and 24 hour time for 9:00 pm is 2100). Of course, we'd need a different phone number for Fridays/Saturdays, and Sundays, so I guess that idea breaks down quickly.

Still though, it's fun when patrons are creative.

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History In Job Titles

   July 22nd, 2015 Brian Herzog

I was looking at some old Town of Chelmsford annual reports recently, to research the opening of one of the High School buildings in town. Just by chance, I came across a page that stood out to me (for obvious reasons):

1917 job titles

Chelmsford was a much more agricultural community in 1917, so it makes sense that moths could be a big deal, and that the town would have someone inspecting slaughterhouses. But they still made me laugh, and double-check if these positions are still on the Town payroll (they didn't seem to be). History is fun.

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