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

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/13/14

   July 20th, 2014 Brian Herzog

DVD with padlock installedHere's something that was entirely new to me - I didn't have a very good answer at the time, and, really, I still don't.

A patron called with this complaint:

I checked out two DVDs from other libraries, and am having trouble with them. I only have a laptop at home for watching movies - no television with a regular DVD player - and these two DVDs won't play in it. Other library DVDs I've gotten in the past have worked okay, but I noticed these two are purple. Why won't they play?

Uh... I had no idea. I thought purple DVDs could mean either just purple-colored plastic as some marketing gimmick, or, a colored data side could mean a DVD-R. I asked her to verify that these were real library DVDs, with the library's stickers and everything else on them (as opposed to a copy someone just burned and kept the original for themselves [which happens]), and sure enough, they did.

So they were real DVDs that some library purchased, yet they wouldn't play in her laptop.

I did some quick web searching, and found that other people do indeed have trouble playing purple DVDs. Mostly it's people with PlayStations (for which some guy has a tape-based solution).

Since I struck out there, I thought I'd look up these DVDs in the catalog to see if I could learn anything - and surprisingly, I did. One record had this note:

"This disc is compatible with all DVD players authorized in the U.S. and Canada"--Container.

So much for that. However, the record for the other DVD included this note:

"This disc is expected to play back in DVD video "play only" devices, and may not play back in other DVD devices, including recorders and PC drives"--Container.

Ehh... so it's another misguided DRM "feature." Now my best guess is that these DVDs are encoded to only work on play-only DVD players, whereas this patron's laptop's DVD drive was a read/write drive. I love that media studios treat everyone like potential criminals.

Anyway, I'd never noticed these purple DVDs, but I put one on request for myself to test it in various laptops I have. But some cataloger somewhere must have known these are limited-use DVDs, since not all of our patrons will be able to use them. My vote is to never buy these again.

Has anyone else encountered these? Am I right in thinking this is a "security" "feature?" Does anyone know of a way for my patron - who only has her laptop and no other DVD player - to watch these movies at home? Thanks.

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Reference Question of the Week – 7/6/14

   July 12th, 2014 Brian Herzog

hrpufnstufQuestions like this are the reason I keep coming to work. The phone rings...

Me: Reference Desk, can I help you?
Patron: Can you ask Wicked Peter what his real name is?
Me: Who?
Patron: H.R. Pufnstuf
Me: What?
Patron: What is H.R. Pufnstuf's real name? What does the H.R. stand for?

Holy smokes. I search Google for just "h.r. pufnstuf" and the first first result was a Wikipedia entry (ah-ha, Wicked Peter = Wikipedia, so that's one mystery solved).

That article, along with a few other websites I checked, said the H.R. stands for "Royal Highness" (backwards - or "His Royalness"), according to the shows creator, or "hand rolled" (a pot reference), according to its fans.

I never watched this show, so I don't know about the pot reference. But since this was about the same time as Puff the Magic Dragon, I guess people making that sort of connection isn't surprising.

Anyway, I told the patron that it stood for His Royalness, but other people thought it stood for other things. That must have been enough, and the patron said thanks and hung up.

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Reference Question of the Week – 6/30/14

   July 5th, 2014 Brian Herzog

hard choicesI like to have somewhat topical posts around holidays, and I just had this exchange with a patron on Thursday that seemed vaguely Patriotic (at least, Government-related).

A patron called and asked if we could hold Hillary Clinton's new book Hard Choices for her. I looked it up in the catalog, and asked for her library card number so I could place the hold.

After I did, she asked me what time we were open until that night, so she could come pick it up.

Me: Oh no, I'm sorry but there's a waiting list.
Patron: Okay, so I can pick it up on Monday?
Me: No - all system copies are checked out, and there are 100 people ahead of you on the wait list for it.
Patron: A hundred? Sheesh, she'll be President by that time.

I thought that was funny, but also funny is that 100 holds isn't very many. Still, it's frustrating to see us wiped out of a resource.


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Reference Question of the Week – 8/25/13

   August 31st, 2013 Brian Herzog

Because this is Labor Day weekend and I want to be outside instead of in front of a computer, this week's reference question is going to be a little different so I can hurry things along.

In fact, it's not a question at all - it's answers to questions I truly hope someone asks me about at the Reference Desk. Part of being a librarian is having the information ready to go for when someone comes looking, but the problem is that people don't always ask about the really cool stuff. To wit:

  • A couple years ago a huge earthquake hit New Zealand, and among the damaged buildings was the cathedral in the city of Christchurch. While they wait for a new cathedral to be built, the constructed a temporary one out of cardboard:
    cardboard cathedral

    Read more here and see construction photos in the Christchurch City Library's flicker set.

  • Speaking of cathedrals, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, has a stained glass window called the "Space Window." Its imagery depicts planets and stars, but best of all, at the center of one image is an actual moon rock:
    space window
  • And finally, out in the plains and deserts of the American west, there are huge concrete arrows on the ground. Why? To guide early airmail pilots:
    air mail arrow

    At one point the arrows stretched from New York City to San Francisco - now that is cool. Read more at Snopes.

If anyone ever gets asked about one of these things, please let me know. Or if you have some trivia you're just waiting to be asked about, share it in the comments. Happy Labor Day.

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Reference Question of the Week – 8/18/13

   August 24th, 2013 Brian Herzog

PAT 154071Back in library school, I remember distinctly being told that patent searches are one of the most difficult types of reference questions, because usually you're trying to find out if something isn't there. However, this patent search was difficult for a different reason.

I think I've mentioned before that one of my hobbies is metal detecting, which I share with my brothers. One of them emailed me this photo of something he had found, saying it was a chunk of metal about the size and shape of an ear with "PAT 154071" stamped in it, and asking if I could help figure out what it came from.

He had already done some online research and had a couple potential patent dates, but wasn't really sure. I love knowing right off the bat the best resource to check, so when I got this message I just typed in http://www.uspto.gov and clicked on "search for patents." The US Patent and Trademark Office has a full-text search, which is great, but since I was looking for a specific patent number, I just went to the Number Search, typed in 154071, and... that's when the problems started.

The first screen to come up said that this patent, dated August 11, 1874, wasn't available in full text, so it would have to be viewed as a scanned image. Which is fine, except viewing the image just prompted me to update my Quicktime plugin.

I tried going through the steps to update it, but I could not get the update to download from the Quicktime website. I tried this on a few different computers at my house and in the library, but all of them (all Windows computers) had the same issue. Next I tried searching for "can't download quicktime" and found someone with the same problem and an alternate link on the Apple website. This time the update did download and seemed to install, but I still couldn't view the image on the PTO website - and still got prompted to update Quicktime.

Frustrated, I went to my last resort: I used one of the library's Apple computers. I got a weird plugin update message too, but the image did display:


Actually, the PTO website said there were two images associated with this patent, but the other one was clearly for a different invention (and different patent number).

So, pretty cool, especially because of all the problems I had getting it. I couldn't tell from the drawing where the piece my brother found came from, but it was still worth the effort.

Since the patent drawing listed names, I thought I'd expand my search online and see what else I could find. I tried various combinations of the names of the inventors and "combined folding chairs and benches," but didn't have any luck.

So, I just tried searching for "patent 154,071," and boy did I get a surprise. The first result was for Google Patents, conveniently displaying the image that I had tried for two days (and had to use a Mac!) to view. I didn't know patent searches were a Google offering, but I suppose all public domain information is probably assimilated by now.

I am disappointed that the Google search was more productive than using the Patent Office's own website, and that they'd use a tool that relies on a problematic plugin.

But since I was at Google, I tried a few few things and found this entry in the Official Gazette of the United States Patent Office, page 214:

pat 154071 gazette


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Reference Question of the Week – 8/4/13

   August 10th, 2013 Brian Herzog

shooting starThis was a simple question with an interesting answer, but also a case of continuing after the patron had left just for my own entertainment.

A patron overheard me telling a coworker about the upcoming Perseid meteor shower this weekend, and asked me for more information. We looked up a few websites, all of which described the best way to enjoy the show (this from Sky and Telescope):

" ... find a spot with an open sky view and no late-night lights nearby. Bundle up warmly, lie back on a ground pad or reclining lawn chair, and watch the stars. ...

"Be patient, and give your eyes plenty of time to adapt to the darkness. The direction to watch is not necessarily toward Perseus but wherever your sky is darkest, probably straight up."

Even with there being no moon, the patron was still wasn't sure if our area would be dark enough. Chelmsford is somewhat rural, but not too far from a few large urban areas, and I really didn't know how much their lights would affect us.

I was hoping someone had done some kind of light pollution map mashup, creating a tool that let us zoom right into this area to see how much light pollution would affect us. So, I did a hopeful search for "light pollution map" and the first result was exactly what I was looking for.

The Dark Sky Finder is a Google Map superimposed with light pollution data, and we were both surprised to see how illuminated our area is. However, it gave the patron some ideas on where to go, so he was happy.

I, on the other hand, love maps so I was having a great time. I played with the Dark Sky Finder for a bit, then went back to the initial search results because it also brought up a few static maps too. But, something occurred to me while I was looking at this NOAA light pollution map:

light pollution map

Obviously, light pollution is concentrated around large urban areas. It reminded me of recent election results maps, with Democrats centering around urban areas, and Republicans covering rural areas:

2012 election map

Matching up the red areas on the light pollution map to the blue areas on the election results maps produces only one obvious conclusion: Democrats cause light pollution.

Okay, now back to work.

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