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



Archives for Reference Question:


Reference Question of the Week – 7/7/13

   July 13th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Typewriter correction tapeIt's things like this that make me love working in public libraries.

A patron was using our public typewriter*, and came to the desk to say that the backspace key was no longer working. It's an electric typewriter, and has an automatic erase/correction tape built into the backspace key - what was happening was that when she hit backspace, the typewriter was no longer erasing the character she had just typed.

I am no typewriter repairman, but to me this sounded like the correction tape had reached its end, and needed to be replaced. My first thought was a bit of terror - there couldn't possibly be anyone that still sells correction tape for this model typewriter.

However, I remembered cleaning out some cabinets in the Reference Office a few years ago, where I found the typewriter manual, as well as some other typewriter-looking odds and ends. I threw them all in a box and left them in the cabinet.

Good thing I did (but of course I would - that's what librarians do). I checked that box**, and sure enough, we had a box of correction tape reels in there. I have no idea how long they last, but I've been here for almost eight years and don't think it's been changed in that time. It's possible the remaining three reels will last another century or more.

Anyway, I replaced the correction tape in the typewriter for the patron (which took a little bit of figuring out), and she said thank you and kept right on typing.

Usually, this is my only goal - to make sure patrons can use library resources. In this instance though, it was kind of a let-down - sure, to her of course we'd be able to do this so she could continue her work. But to me, holy smokes, not only did I just get asked to repair a typewriter, but I actually found the parts to do it, and did it successfully. Yay, libraries! Tom Hanks would be so proud.

 


*Yes, we still have a typewriter for people to use. It's a Canon ES20, and it gets used maybe once a month. Usually people need to fill in pre-printed forms, but a few parents also use it to show kids how a typewriter works. I love that libraries offer such a spectrum of resources for people - we have a typewriter and fax machine, as well as print-from-home and a electric car charger. In fact, while I was working on the typewriter, I could hear a coworker at the Reference Desk helping someone download an ebook to her Kindle Fire.

**Also in this box was another ink ribbon for the type writer, the manual, the manual to our Canon 400 microfilm machine, spare bulb for the microfilm machine, and manual for the Canon Fileprint 250 printer connected to the microfilm machine. Now that is what I call an Awesome Box.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/30/13

   July 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

EDU test prep booksWe have lots of tutors that use the study rooms in the library. One of them emailed me for help looking for a test prep book for a particular exam:

Hello,
I am trying to search for a practice book for the PRANCE exam- no luck.

If possible, please reserve one for me.
Thank you

I searched the catalog, and sure enough there were no books for this test. I had never heard of this particular exam before, so I turn to the internet to find out more about it. However, my search for PRANCE exam turned up unexpected results.

You see, I was so focused on exam books that I was totally taken by surprise when the first search result was a YouTube video of two girls taking a prancing exam in a ballet school.

[Note: normally I'd embed the video here, but I don't want people to think I'm making fun of the girls. Of course, most graceful movements looks odd out of context - even Pranercising - but what I found humorous here was my own tunnel vision.]

Anyway, after watching an enjoying the video, I got back to work. None of the results looked like a test the tutor would be looking for, so I figured PRANCE must be a typo. The Google search results page helpfully listed some Did You Mean suggestions for both PRINCE exam and PANCE exam, so I checked them both out.

PRINCE looks like a project management technique used in the UK - probably not the right thing. But PANCE is a physician assistant certification test, which sounds much more appropriate.

I emailed the patron my results, but later that same day she came up to the desk. I explained the confusion, and she confirmed it was PANCE her student needed help with. We didn't have any PANCE prep books in the catalog, but that is one of the exams covered by the LearningExpress Library database, to which we subscribed. I showed her how to access the database and drill down to that exam, and she was very happy.

It wasn't until after she left that I realized my tunnel vision had struck again, also with - when coupled with my juvenile sense of humor - humor results. If you don't see why it's funny, try asking people if they'd like help preparing for their PANCE exam. Just, not in the library - you'll probably get thrown out for violating the Appropriate Library Behavior policy.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/23/13

   June 29th, 2013 Brian Herzog

darthvaderaskWhile alone at the desk one evening this week, things got very busy - patrons lining up, the printer jamming, and every time I went into the stacks I could hear the phone ringing. I knew I missed quite a few phone calls, so I was glad to answer it in a brief break between in-person patrons - until I heard the question:

Can you find me Luke Skywalker's family tree? And Han Solo too? Because they're related.

Talk about feeling exasperated. This immediately felt like one of those "photograph of Jesus" kind of questions, and because things were so busy I almost told him I'd need to just take his phone number and I'd look for it when I had time.

However, I had an internet search tab open, so I just typed "luke skywalker genealogy" in and holy smokes one of the first image results was exactly it:

Skywalker family tree

click to view larger

About a half hour later the patron came in to get it printed out. I formatted it to print on legal size paper, and he was happy because now he could hang it up on his wall like a poster.

While he was here, we also looked at a family tree with pictures too:

Skywalker family tree with pictures

click to view larger

But he didn't like it because he preferred a picture of Darth Vader to young Anakin. Sorry, Hayden Christensen.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/16/13

   June 22nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Nuns with gunsI work in Chelmsford, MA, and the Town is in the process of establishing two "cultural districts" in two of our local historical village centers. It's similar to a historical district, but instead focuses on what makes Chelmsford culturally-distinct: art, architecture, programs & events, etc.

The group asked me to help create a map of both districts, labeling all the different locations of interest. I've played a little with custom Google Maps before, and this seemed like the perfect application to try out all the different features.

Creating the maps (check out the current working drafts) was pretty straight-forward. One of the committee members found a great site for custom map icons (which also explained how to make them work), and the text for each point of interest came from a variety of sources.

It was researching each location for a descriptive blurb for the map that produced this week's reference question. I was asked to add St. John The Evangelist Parish church to the North Chelmsford map, so I went to their website looking for something interesting to say about them. What I found was hands-down the most interesting thing I've read in a long time:

The earliest Catholic families living in Chelmsford, Dunstable, Lowell, Tyngsboro and Westford wanted a church of their own. St. Patrick's, Lowell was a five to ten mile walk. The families purchased the Meeting House of the Second Congregational Church of Chelmsford at the corner of Middlesex and Baldwin Streets, Lowell, in 1859. [...]

Men, who toiled in factory, foundry or farm, hurried to the holy work each evening. They struggled to move the building with the aid of horses and log rollers, a few yards at a time, for a distance of two miles along Middlesex Street. "Know Nothing" citizenry, a violent anti-Catholic group, made threats to burn the building and gained court injunctions to stop the building’s movement. The two mile journey was made with at least four men, armed with shotguns, and guarding the Church each night.

Holy smokes, now that is dedication. Researching local history rocks.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/9/13

   June 15th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Wednesday is my night to work at the library, and a couple hours before we closed I got an email from a coworker that just said,

I just took a picture that I think will be perfect for your blog. Ask me about it before you leave.

I had no idea what this might be, but at the end of the night, this was the picture from her phone:

patron kneeling at the Reference desk

She found this amusing because it looked to her that this patron was so desperate for help that she was willing to kneel before the desk (and pray?).

That is a funny thought, but when I explained to the rest of the evening staff what was really going on, they were even more amused.

So: around 2:30 that afternoon, a woman called in asking to reserve a study room for 7-9pm that evening, because she was proctoring a test for a student. No problem. Not 30 seconds after I hung up the phone, it rang again, this time a different woman asked to reserve a study room for her daughter, who was taking a test with a proctor.

I was quick on the uptake and asked if her daughter's name was the same one the proctor just gave me, and it was. Which, really, is just a funny little aside, and didn't really portend the communication difficulties to come.

The evening passd unremarkably. Seven o'clock rolls around and the proctor and student show up for their room.

About seven-thirty, the proctor comes out to the desk to ask if there is a way for her to print from her iPad. This perked me up a bit, because wireless printing is still new to us, and I am always happy when I can show it off. I gave her our little how-to handout, which she was satisfied with and went back to the room before I could help her with it.

About ten minutes later she was back, asking for help - and she was at the desk for the next half-hour. Here's what was going on:

  • It turns out, she was proctoring a test for a foreign exchange student from Australia. The test the girl was taking had been emailed to the proctor, as a password-protected PDF (two of them, actually)
  • She couldn't email the test to our wireless printer because it was a school iPad, and apparently could only send outgoing mail when it was connected to the school's network (this may or may not be true, but her email was definitely not working, and I wasn't going to change any of her school's settings playing around)
  • After we got the wireless printing app installed, we still couldn't print because the PDFs were password protected, and the app just kept saying it couldn't access the file (but gave no provision to enter a password)
  • She couldn't log into her school email from any other computer, because she couldn't remember her webmail password, and had left her school laptop at school

Sometime during our conversation, she also relayed that the test this girl was taking was some kind of Australian standardized test, which all Australian students must take - and must take at the same time. Which, of course, is Australia time, hence why they were in the library so late. Of course, the clock had already started, and we still hadn't even managed to print it yet.

The proctor was frazzled, the student was frustrated, and I, being functionally illiterate when it comes to Apple products, was running out of ideas.

But I know that if you start tapping things on an iPad other things happen, so this became my new strategy. When we just opened the PDF, it launched it Adobe Reader, which had limited export options*. However, at some point one of us noticed that her email had the option to move the PDF to iBooks, so we tried that.

Playing with it in iBooks, we found an option to email it with her personal (non-school) account, which miraculously did work. She emailed it to my library email, I opened the file at the desk, she entered the password, and thank goodness it printed okay. Repeat for part two of the test, and the girl was quickly to work - by about 8:20 pm.

All of this really was an ordeal to get through, compounded by the fact that the longer we screwed around, the less time the student had to take her test. My coworkers all appreciated this, and one remarked that she now understood why the woman was kneeling at the desk.

But no, that's not the reason. The proctor's shirt happened to have a very loose and floopy neckline, and if she leaned over towards the desk in the slightest, she'd be putting on quite a show. So, the entire time I was working with her, she kept using one hand to hold her shirt closed. And I don't know if you've tried it, but it is very difficult to try to operate an iPad while one hand is preventing a wardrobe malfunction.

Eventually, she just gave up and knelt in front of the desk, because at least that meant she didn't have to lean over. That was the point at which my coworker walked by.

So, amusing yes, but the story isn't quite over. At 8:55 pm I went to the study room to let them know the library was closing. Since I knew the student got a late start, I was going to offer to stay a bit past 9:00, if she needed just another ten or fifteen minutes to finish up.

The proctor said she appreciated that, but the test had another three hours(!) to go. Holy smokes. This town pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at 9pm, so I really have no idea where they were going to go to finish this test. I felt bad for them, but they were just happy to have the printed tests and said they'd figure something out.

And speaking of figuring something out, here's something I can't figure out: so, foreign exchange students usually go to the host country by themselves, right? So, when this student's mother called to reserve a room, she must have been calling from Australia. Huh.

 


*One option I never ruled out was opening the test on the iPad and just photocopying the screen. Luckily, we never had to implement this.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/2/13

   June 8th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Stephen King with Red Sox World Series trophyI'm not exactly sure why this question stuck out in my mind this week, but it did.

One of our regular patrons is a man with special needs who LOVES horror stories, superheros, movies, television, and reading. He's either in the library or calls every day, and generally all of his questions revolve around the above topics. So, it was slightly unusual one day when he called and asked,

Can you find me Stephen King's email address? I thought of a horror story about the Red Sox I want to tell him so he can write a story about it.

A perfectly reasonable request, and I actually became a little curious about what kind of horror could involve a baseball team.

Generally for these kind of celebrity-contact questions, I always turn to our copy of The Celebrity Black Book, but since I was on the phone I just did a web search.

StephenKing.com was rightly the first search result, and I clicked into the Contact Us form to see if it had an option for submitting story ideas. Not too surprisingly, the form made it clear that it did not go to Stephen King. Then I noticed an FAQ link in the site's navigation bar, so I tried that.

One FAQ was "What is your email address?" which, again, was unsurprising in that it said Stephen King has no public email address (but did refer people to the message boards, which he does apparently follow).

A little lower on the page was the question, "Do you accept story ideas," which was answered,

No, I don't. I really have enough story ideas of my own. Every now and then somebody will advance a concept the way that my foreign rights agent, Ralph Vicinanza suggested wouldn't it be fun to do a modern-day serial story. The result of that was The Green Mile which was published in installments-these little paperback books--but he never suggested what sort of story I might have written in installments and I wouldn't have accepted it if he had done that. I believe in thinking up my own ideas. I really have enough. I really think if I have two or three ideas ahead I'm in totally great shape.

I paraphrased this for my patron, which he seemed to readily accept (and that was surprising) and hung up. Later in the day I did check The Celebrity Black Book, and it does include Stephen King's agent. I briefly weighed the idea of providing this to my patron the next time I saw him, because that's what librarians do, right? Birddog the information through whatever resources possible until we can provide the patron with an answer.

In the end though, I decided against giving the patron the agent's contact info - although the patron asked contact information, the actual answer to his question is that Stephen King does not accept story ideas. Getting in touch with the agent wouldn't have done any good, and so I would have essentially been providing the wrong answer, or misinformation, to the patron. This is kind of an oddly fine line, but it gave me something to think about this week.

This particular patron has written a few stories of his own in the past, so I encouraged him to do it again. And if he does, I'll help him post it to the message board.

But the fact that Stephen King doesn't accept story ideas got me thinking. I remember from high school that Weird Al Yankovic also does not accept song ideas, with the reason given being "legal reasons" (which I've always thought meant he didn't want to get into a royalties fight with someone who thought Al was making a lot of money off an idea a they submitted). But it makes sense that prolifically-creative people have no shortage of their own ideas, and prefer to grow them into a work following their own process. I've never looked into this, but it got me wondering if any famous creator does openly accept fan submissions, and then grow them into a finished work. Has anyone heard of this happening?



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