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

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/15/15

   November 23rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

Not all of the reference interactions I post here have a moral, but this one does - and it's one of my favorite morals.

On Fridays, my library closes at 5:30pm. At about 5:25 one Friday, an older gentleman comes down the stairs to the reference area, where most of our public computers are. Now, any patron coming in right at closing time is always a bit worrysome - but moreso when they, like this patron, come right up to the desk and say they need to print something.

Printing at the last minute is always fraught with potential calamity. However, thankfully, all this patron needed to do was to print a boarding pass attached to an email - we opened it, printed it, and everything went smoothly so we were still finished before 5:30. Nice.

But while I was thinking "nice" to myself, the patron surprised me by saying,

You don't know who I am, do you?

Being that I'm paranoid in general, this is a miserable thing for someone to say to me. However, even after looking at him more closely, no, I didn't recognize him, so I apologized to him and said I didn't know who he was. He then said,

I'm the guy that donated all these computers [motioning to the workstations]. That's me [pointing to the wall plaque below]. I need help using them, but I know they're important.

Workstation Plaque

We had a bit of a laugh over that, then he thanked me for helping him, and I thanked him for his generous donation, and walked him out.

Hopefully, the moral is clear: when you work at a public library, it's important to provide good customer service for every patron interaction, because every patron is a voter and you never know what other connection to the library they may have - even five minutes before closing time.

And more importantly, thank you to everyone who supports their local library!

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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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Reference Question of the Week – 11/1/15

   November 8th, 2015 Brian Herzog

woodyWhen I came in on Tuesday this week, I found a note with a patron's name and number, and the message, "donate wood." I thought that seemed interesting, so I asked my coworker (based on the handwriting) what that was all about.

She explained that this patron had called the night before, saying that he had a bunch of nice boards in his workshop that he wasn't going to use, and asked if we knew of anywhere that would accept them as a donation.

This is actually a fairly straight-forward question, as people ask us things like this (for items other than wood) every so often. But for some reason, this question just felt different.

Anyway, my coworker said that she had suggested the local vocational schools to him, but he wasn't interested in those - but without explanation. So it's possible that this question felt odd because it wasn't so much about place to donate to as much as finding someone willing to come clean out this patron's basement. We didn't know that, and I did have a few other ideas for possible donation ideas, so I called the patron back.

He turned out to be a very nice older gentleman, who did woodworking as a hobby and prided himself on using only quality material. The wood he had was various sizes of oak, poplar, and even some mahogany. At first we talked about the quantity and condition of it, so I could gauge whether it would make more sense for a group like the Chelmsford Open Space Stewards, who do lots of outdoor work, or something like Lowell Makes, our local community makerspace. Or, if he didn't mind, the library could hang on to it and use it as necessary.

It turned out that although it was nice wood, he didn't actually have a huge amount to donate - maybe eight boards (as opposed to the piles and piles I initially pictured for some reason). And when I took down his address, I realized he lived a half a block from somewhere I was going to be that evening for a meeting anyway. So, I told him I could be by that night to pick it up.

When I got there he had it ready to go in his garage, and loading into my car only took a few minutes. I must have been asking the right kind of questions, because he started telling me about some of his previous projects, and even offered to show me his workshop. Clearly he was proud of his hobby, and I can't blame him for that. However, since I was on my way to another meeting, I just thanked him for the donation and headed off.

In the past, I (and other library staff and volunteers) have done home pickups for items being donated to the library, but it's not something we ever do otherwise. In this case, if it's not stuff the library can use after all, I can always call around later to find someone who can. But it was definitely worth the trip, and the patron really appreciated it too.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/25/15

   October 31st, 2015 Brian Herzog

series of unfortunate eventsThis isn't a reference question, but this whole scenario is a service provided by the Reference Desk (usually without incident) that this time ended up being a it's-funny-because-it's-true series of problems.

So, test proctoring. We do it so often that I created a little info webpage to answer general questions and make us look legit. We probably average one exam or so a week over the course of a year, which feels like a lot to me for a public library.

And of course, with this many exams, we deal with a variety of students and schools. It's mildly interesting to me how almost every school has their own process - 80% of which are totally fine and normal, 10% are oddly casual, and 10% are absurdly difficult.

In this case, the process was unnecessarily difficult. Usually, our process is to have the student tell us when they're coming in for the exam, and the school will send us the test (or login information for online tests) a week or so in advance.

Unfortunate Thing #1 with this situation is that the school's policy is to send us the exam 30-45 MINUTES in advance. That's cutting it close at the best of times, and, to me, seems entirely unnecessary. But it's their test, so okay.

However, Unfortunate Thing #2, the test was scheduled for 5:30pm. My shift ended at 5:00, which would have been no problem since the test should arrive 30-45 minutes early. But 5:00 comes, and my coworker reminds me the test hasn't arrived yet. In my library, any Reference staff person can proctor tests, but I am the primary coordinator so all tests are sent to my email or mailed to my attention.

Oh, and the student had come in about 4:45 wanting to start early, and kept hanging around the Reference Desk looking at us like we clearly were too incompetent to manage something like handing her pieces of paper. I would call this Unfortunate Thing #3, but it's a patron prerogative to come to the library whenever they want, and it's possible I was just projecting this look onto her - because she was actually very nice.

By 5:15 the exam still hadn't arrived in my email, so I call the contact I have for the school. Her phone rings and then goes to voice mail - that is not a good sign (Unfortunate Thing #4). I hang up and try calling the general number for the department - which also goes to voice mail. I look online and try to track down another number, and find a different number for the same academic department. Thankfully, someone answers that phone, and says the person who coordinates these tests has left for the day. Arrgh. But, she transfers me to someone else who she thinks can help.

That person apologizes that the test was never set, and said she'll have someone send it right over. Then, she confirms my FAX number.

Oh. Don't get me wrong, I fully support fax technology and love the fact that it is a service my library offers to the public. Because sometimes, it is the best tool for the job.

However, it is not the best tool in this case. Unfortunate Thing #5.

Regardless, I thank her, and then walk into our office and wait by the fax machine for the exam. After a few minutes, the fax machine comes to life and starts spitting out pages.

Spitting out might be overly-generous imagery - laboriously churning out pages is probably more accurate. After about five pages, at about a minute per page, I think, "okay, this must be about all of them," so I pick them up straighten them, and look at the cover sheet. It says,

Number of pages (including cover sheet): 26

Twenty-six! Holy smokes. Unfortunate Thing #6. And they faxed this to us! Emailing a PDF for me to print would have been So Much Less time. But, fax happens, and there's nothing for me to do but sit and wait it out. Meanwhile, through the office door's window, I can see the student waiting by the Reference Desk - still looking like we clearly were too incompetent to manage something like handing her pieces of paper (says I).

And then, Unfortunate Thing #7, one page later, the fax stops printing. That's suspicious, because I know it hasn't been 26 pages yet. I look at the fax's display:


Oh jeez. I don't even know if we have a backup toner cartridge for the fax machine, so I ask our office assistant if she knows where they are. She's only been here a few months, and said she has never changed one before, but goes to where we keep all our toner - and thank goodness comes back with something that looks right.

I've never replaced the fax toner either, but between the two of us, we take the old one out, put the new one in, and, again, thankfully, the fax machine picks up printing right where it left off.

It's about 5:45 by this point, so I take the first batch of pages out to the patron. At least that way she can get started, and I'll bring the rest in when they finally finish printing.

I hand them to the patron, and her response is priceless:

Me: Here's the first ten pages - the rest are still printing, but you don't need to wait until they're done to get started.
Patron: How many pages are there?
Me: 26.
Patron: 26!

I wish I could explain the look on her face. It's really just 22 pages of test, because four of the pages were the cover sheet and exam instructions, but that didn't really help much.

So she goes off to get started, and I go back to the fax machine to wait.

Finally, just before 6pm, I take the rest of the test out to the desk and my coworkers gives it to the student in the study room.

And then, finally, I can go home - an hour late. Oh well.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/18/15

   October 24th, 2015 Brian Herzog

chelmsford ginger ale signHere's an email reference interaction that took place over the course of a few days this week - it had its ups and downs, but ultimately ended up being surprisingly positive.

Everything started with me getting this email from a patron (slightly edited for privacy):

I am a student at [university nearby] and I am doing my community project on Chelmsford. I was just wondering if you could give me some good information on the history of Chelmsford for my paper. I would appreciate it greatly if you could email me back or call me. Thank you so much!!

My first reaction was that this sounds like a neat project, but such a vague question that I wasn't sure how to answer it. Chelmsford was founded in 1655, and of course people lived here before that too, so it's got a long history.

So, I emailed her back with links to some history resources on the library's website and another history website we maintain. I also said that since it was so broad, to please let me know if she had more specific questions.

The next day I get this:

Thank you so much for all the help. I was just wondering if you could just answer some questions for me so I could include you in my paper?

The questions are
1. What is the most important historic event that happened in chelmsford?
2. What historic importance does chelmsford has to Massachusetts?
3. What is the most well know historic event or aspect of chelmsford?

Again thank you so much for your time I really appreciate it!!

Okay, red flag: this is what I'm always afraid of with homework help. Not, "can you help me with my homework," but instead, "can you answer my exact homework questions for me?" That sucks.

But also, these questions didn't exactly bring laser focus to what she was asking - not to mention that these questions are entirely subjective, since Chelmsford doesn't have a, "and then the UFO crashed here releasing poisonous gas killing all the cats in town" type event.

So after thinking about it a bit, and talking to coworkers (and facing a week full of non-stop meetings), I decided to ask the rest of the Reference staff to compile a list interesting things from Chelmsford's history. Then I could send that back to this patron, and it'll be up to her to both decide which are the most significant, and then to do further research (although honestly, the skeptic in me was fully expecting her next email to be, "oh, can you send me more information on event X?").

Anyway, this turned out to be the the really fun part of this question, and actually is the reason I'm sharing it here. For being a small, quiet town, Chelmsford has had an interesting history (and this is just what we came up with in a few hours of brainstorming):

  • The first European settlers in the area is significant, as is the date of incorporation as a Town in the Massachusetts Colony
  • The town of Chelmsford used to include the areas of Lowell and Westford, but in the mid 1800s these areas became their own distinct municipalities. However, this area is well-known for being significant during the industrial revolution in the Northeast in the early to mid-19th century - many of the structures that housed the people working in the mills were within Chelmsford's limits
  • Many people come in to research the Chelmsford Ginger Ale Company and bottling plant, which has changed hands a few times and is now owned by Coca-Cola. People also research the Chelmsford Foundry, which made products from many of the natural resources found in the area such as iron ore and limestone
  • The granite that formed the columns around Faneuil Hall, as well as other major government and ceremonial structures, was sourced and carved in Chelmsford by Fletcher Granite, a company established in 1880 by Herbert E. Fletcher
  • The Chelmsford Glass works, an "important New England manufacturer of assorted plate glass and assorted glass products" was established on the East bank of the Merrimack river (then Chelmsford) in 1802
  • Christopher Roby created the Chelmsford sword for soldiers during the Civil War, when he transitioned his work force, which previously manufactured scythes and skates, to the manufacture of the weapons during the war between 1861 and 1865, producing 32,200 cavalry sabers
  • In the 1960s the opening of I-495 and the interchange with Route 3 had a huge impact on Chelmsford, doubling the population and changing the character of the town from a small rural location to a much, much larger suburban center
  • In 1911, a train carrying Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, on its way to a performance in Lowell, derailed in Chelmsford. The train was carrying lost of animals, many of which escaped from the wrecked cars and had to be rounded up from the vicinity by cowboys. Since the train could not continue, the entire company, animals and all, walked through the streets of Chelmsford to Lowell to continue with the show
  • There have also been significant weather events in Chelmsford - the of blizzard 1978, floods, and lightning strikes
  • Chelmsford resident Joseph Spalding, who died in 1820 and is buried in Forefather's Cemetery, fired the first shot at the Battle of Bunker Hill (indicated by the engraving on his tombstone)
  • The original portion of the Library is the model for Springfield Town Hall on The Simpsons, because one of the show's artists, Lance Wilder, is from Chelmsford

Maybe I am jaded, but I was absolutely not expecting this to be the patron's reply:

Thank you so much for this! All your answers are wonderful and will be extremely helpful for my paper. I appreciate you taking time out of your day for helping me. Thank your colleagues for me too!!

Huh. So that's great - we got to work on a fun question, and it looks like the patron took the information and ran with the research. Yay for a library win-win.

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Reference Question of the Week – 10/11/15

   October 18th, 2015 Brian Herzog

spock with raised eyebrowDuring the middle of a quiet day, a patron - with a remarkably booming voice - walked up to the desk to ask how he can log into one of the computers without a library card. When I gave him my standard reply to this question,

Oh, we don't take signups or require logons, so you're welcome to just start using any computer that's available.

he gave me an intensely skeptical look and said,

So, you haven't enacted that law yet?

I think I just smiled to let him know I'd answered his question and he could go use a computer. It took him a few seconds, but eventually he walked over to the public workstations - but keeps looking at me over his shoulder with a look that seemed to shift from skepticism to outright pity, as if it's my own fault that I am going to be struck down at any minute for not requiring a computer signin. It was weird.

The other odd thing about this patron is that I talked to him three more times before he left that day, and every single time he mentioned something about the law. Like, was it legal for him to check out a book, was there a law that said what time we had to close, etc.

He was very nice, but I wonder if this law fixation was an indication that he was recently released from prison. And, I haven't seen him since that day. Huh.

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