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



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/3/16

   January 9th, 2016 Brian Herzog

alphabetical mish-mashMaybe it's not the best way to start off a new year by having someone question the very fabric of your everyday life.

This week, the first full week after the New Year's holiday, someone did just that - and for a few seconds, what he said made enough sense that I doubted that what I thought I knew was true, and underwent an instantaneous reevaluation of my career as a librarian. But luckily, it passed.

In my library, the non-fiction stacks start right next to the Reference Desk - so on the first shelf closest to us are the 000-152s. This, of course, includes the computer books, which is good because this is a section we get asked about a lot.

Such was the case this Wednesday night. A patron walked up and asked where the programming books were, and without a second thought I walked with him the few steps to the first shelf.

As I was giving my normal spiel about, "here are the programming books, and next come applications and then web stuff," the patron interrupted me by saying,

These books are out of order.

Oh. Well, that's actually not uncommon in the computer books - partly because it's a frequently-used collection, and partly, I think, because we have so many books with the exact same Dewey number that people don't always get them in the right order by Cutter.

I started to apologize to the patron and say something to this effect, when he stepped up to the shelf, took a book off, moved it over a couple books and replaced it on the shelf, then took a step back and said,

It's a common mistake, that's a silent "D."

I looked more closely at the book he moved and saw,

Drupal, Drupal, Django, Joomla...

He said it so matter-of-factly that it was at this point that I wondered if I missed a day in library school and have subsequently been shelving books incorrectly my entire career. What other words have common silent letters? Should books about Czars be in the "Zs?" And wherever should we be shelving phone books?

However, rather than get into it with him, I went back to the desk and left him to browse the books. I saw him leave a few minutes later with three or four, so that was great.

And after he left I went back over to look at the books, and sure enough, these were still like that. I'd recovered my own confidence by this point, and reshelved the books so that they were correct again. Take that, patron of anarchy!



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Reference Question of the Week – 12/13/15

   December 19th, 2015 Brian Herzog

One slow evening, a patron walked up to the desk and asked if anyone had turned in a pair of glasses.

In my library, we have two lost-and-founds - one on each floor. I try to keep the downstairs one, at the Reference Desk, limited to valuable and personally-identifiable things only, and bring things like glasses, coats, dolls, etc., up to the main lost-and-found by the Circ Desk by the front door.

However, since this doesn't always work, I checked the Reference Desk lost-and-found to see if there were any glasses, and there were:
lost and found glasses

Far more than I would have expected. I asked the patron what his looked like, and he said,

They were gray, with big frames.

I didn't see any in the pile that I would describe that way, so I spread them all out on the desk for him to look through, just in case. Sometimes with lost-and-found requests, I get the feeling people think I'm lying to them, and that their item actually is right in front of me but I'm choosing not to give it to them. I don't really understand that, but it happens all the time.

So the patron starts looking through them, and then things get odd. There is one pair with gray frames, but definitely not "big frames." He picks up this pair and says,

Patron: Mine kind of looked like this, but were bigger. Do you think these are mine?
Me: [Having no idea what his glasses look like, and being surprised he'd ask that] Oh, I don't know - do they look like your glasses?
Patron: Kind of. [Continues to turn them over and over looking at them]
Me: [Stares at patron staring at glasses, wondering if he can't tell if they're his or not because his eyesight is so bad without glasses that everything just looks fuzzy.]
Patron: [Eventually puts glasses on.] These work pretty good. I can see. But they're bifocals, and mine weren't bifocals.
Me: Oh, then maybe those aren't yours after all. I'm sorry yours don't seem to be here.
Patron: [Still wearing the glasses, looking around the room.]
Me: [Watching patron look around the room.]
Patron: [Tilts head up and down, to alternately look through and look over bifocals.]
Me: [Still watching patron, but now starting to compose this blog post in my head.]
Patron: Maybe these aren't mine. But I can see well with them, so it seems like my prescription. I don't know who else would have my prescription.
Me: I think...
Patron: Maybe I need bifocals after all. Maybe I had them and didn't realize it. At least, these will let me drive home tonight and be able to see.
Me: Okay.
Patron: Do you think these are my glasses?
Me: I don't know, but if you think they're yours, you're welcome to them.
Patron: Thanks for finding my glasses.

With that, the patron turns and walks away. He sits back down at his computer for awhile, and then maybe a half an hour later packs up and leaves.

This whole exchange was strange, but primarily due to the idea of someone "stealing" someone else's item out of the lost-and-found. But really, I have no idea if that happened here - I don't know whose glasses those were, and they very well may have been that patron's.

Lost-and-found in the library has always kind of bothered me. On the one hand, I really like the idea of making sure a lost item get back to the right person. In many cases, this is easily possible - cell phones, lost flash drives (that, 99% of the time, have a resume with the person's name, phone, and email on it), purses, wallets, photocopies of important documents, etc - anything with ID or a person's name is usually returnable, and we make the effort to notify the person and hold the item until they pick it up.

Other things though - glasses, keys, coin purses, cell phone chargers, favorite pens, jewelry, hats, coats - that don't have any kind of identification, are just lost items. In general, we hold those at the desk until the end of the day (or until the end of the next day), and then take them up to the main lost-and-found by the Circ Desk. This one is just a basket in a public area, which anyone can look through to find their stuff.

This has the sense of "well anyone could just take anything," but at the same time, I really don't like the idea of library staff being responsible for lost items. Valuable or personally-identifiable things don't get put in the public lost-and-found basket, but everything else should.

Otherwise, we might have gotten into the situation of me, since I suspected these glasses may not have actually belonged to that patron, forcing him to prove to me that they were his, otherwise I wouldn't have let him take them. That is impossible and not a position library staff should be in.

Plus, I was kind of interested in the fact that this patron really seemed to think that eye care happens serendipitously - when the universe decided he needed bifocals, it gave him a pair. If nothing else, him driving home safely is a good thing.



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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?

"typewriter"

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:

Good2Go-books

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:

Good2Go-spread

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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