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



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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:

CHK TONR

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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Reference Question of the Week – 10/4/15

   October 10th, 2015 Brian Herzog

mr zipHere's an answer to a question that I haven't been able to use yet. It's a question I've gotten numerous times, but only just recently looked up the answer.

For whatever reason, it is not at all uncommon for patrons (or staff who is helping one of these patrons) to ask me,

Why can't I open my resume here? I need to make changes and email it to someone.

and when I look at their file, it is named something like "resume.pages" - bleh. One patron said they got it from the Career Center, so maybe that's why it always seems to be resumes saved this way.

"Pages" is (I think) the latest format for Mac word processing, which does not, naturally, open on our Windows computers with Microsoft Office. My go-to solution in these cases is to use Zamzar or some other online converter, which always works well enough (except for patrons having to wait for the email to get to their converted file).

In the back of my mind I kept meaning to search for some converter plugin that might let Word open these files directly. I finally had a chance this week to look for such a thing, and ended up finding a different solution entirely.

More than one website gave these steps:

  1. Save a copy of the .pages file to the Desktop (or somewhere easily accessible)
  2. Right-click on the .pages file and choose "Rename"
  3. Replace the ".pages" extension with ".zip"
  4. Open the newly renamed .zip file, and it will contain a file you'll be able to open with Microsoft Word or WordPad

That's a neat bit of a trickery that I'm sure will confuse many patrons, but I'm also sure they will be delighted to see their resume open on the screen at the end of it.

I haven't been able to try this trick myself yet, but now I am looking forward to the next time someone has a .pages file. Hopefully today!



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/27/15

   October 3rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

no help dialog boxThis interaction actually happened a couple months ago, but I just now found that I had saved it as a draft.

A patron called in one day saying he needed help opening an ebook. Of course I was thinking Overdrive, but after a bit of a discussion, I learned the real story.

He had bought an ebook directly from some self-publishing website (not Amazon), and was trying to open it on his Samsung Android tablet using the Kindle app. And it wasn't working. He had downloaded it on his PC and was trying to transfer via USB to his tablet, but the computer wouldn't recognize the device.

The patron gave me the URL so at least I could see what he was talking about, and learned it was a .mobi ebook. I had hoped the website would have some instructions on opening their ebook, but no such luck. Since I wasn't getting anywhere over the phone, I told him to stop by the Reference Desk next time he came to the library and we'd figure it out.

Please Note: I say this to people all the time. I truly mean it and want to help them, but at the same time, often I need time to research whatever the problem is because I just have no idea. Generally it gives me a couple days to a week to prepare for them, so I look much smarter when they do finally come in.

There happened to be a lull at the desk right then, so I did a quick search on how to open .mobi files on Android and found a very helpful website. Nice, now I'd be ready if this patron ever does come in.

Which was good, because not fifteen minutes later this patron walks up to the desk.

The first thing we did was redownload the ebook directly to the device, instead of using the PC > USB > device route. Next, we followed the steps outlined on the website I found - and it worked perfectly.

The patron was thoroughly impressed - and of course happy. So that's all well and good, a librarian job well done. But, it's what the patron said next that really made my day:

Thanks. Now I can call the company and tell them how to do it. Ha, I would have thought they'd have known this if they are selling these ebooks.

Indeed.



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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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