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



Archives for Reference Question:


Reference Question of the Week – 5/12/13

   May 18th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Juicing with Kids book coverMy library tracks desk statistics only one week each quarter, putting tick marks on a tally sheet whenever people ask desk staff a question.

We also use these sheets to create a "no list" - a record of any time we have to tell a patron "no" for any reason (to help improve our yes-based policy). Usually, the reasons are "no, we don't have that book/subject," but also things like "no scanner" or "no jumper cables" show up.

Last time we did this, one staff person wrote down, "no juicing books." To me, "juicing" has always meant taking steroids, but in this case I guessed they meant making your own fruit and vegetable juices at home. So, I wanted to fill this hole in our collection by ordering a few juicing books.

My first stop for topics like this - popular topics I want to purchase quickly - is to search Amazon. I always use the Advanced Search so I can limit to new printed books, in this case published after 1/1/13 - there are quite a few.

But I was surprised, as I started to click into titles that looked good, just how many were CreateSpace books. It's not unusual to see them on Amazon of course, but they generally don't make up 80-90% of new books on a topic. But in this case, that was easily the percentage.

I found a few non-self-published books to purchase, but also ordered the CreateSpace title Juicing Recipes From Fitlife.TV Star Drew Canole For Vitality and Health. Our Selection policy specifically mentioned we don't buy self-published books, but in this case it was by far the most highly-reviewed book on the topic, so I figured our patrons would like it too.

With the rise of ebooks, I suspect lots of libraries will have to amend their "no self-pubs" policies, as self-published books - and quality self-published ebooks - become more prevalent. We'll still need to apply some selection criteria, but at the same time, I suppose the risk is lower - hopefully these ebooks will be cheaper, and we won't have to worry about them falling apart quickly.

Regardless, I think I will always consider "juicing" an undesirable activity, so I can't help but do a double-take on a title like Juicing with Kids. Not entirely unlike my perennial favorite bit of irony, Homeschooling for Dummies.



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/28/13

   May 4th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Movie set signI have no idea how many patrons librarians help over the course of a day or year, but it's true that every single one of them has a unique story.

A few months ago a patron asked for help uploading photos of himself to a website. It turned out it was an actor's auditioning website, and the photos were head shots and full body shots for casting agents to pick from for extras in movies. Uploading the photos wasn't too difficult, but it took some doing to get them right-side-up and sorted correctly. I helped the patron for maybe ten minutes, he thanked me and left, and I didn't think any more about it.

This past Wednesday the patron came back in to thank me. He was excited, saying he got the part in the movie, filmed three scenes, and it was a magical experience. I don't know if he came straight from the set or what, but he was clearly still on cloud nine.

The film is American Hustle - there's not much information on IMBD, other than it has a bunch of big names in it and it's due to be a Christmas blockbuster. Apparently it was filming in Philadelphia but had to find a new location, so they came up to Boston and Worcester - hence the need for more local extras.

The patron said he shot scenes with Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper. The film is loaded with stars, but I can't wait to see it just to try to spot this patron.



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/21/13

   April 27th, 2013 Brian Herzog

emailreceiptA patron came up to the desk, saying she had an email question.

After a bit of a convoluted story, it boiled down to this: she was applying for a job, and emailed her information to their HR person. But she never got called for an interview, because the HR person said she had never received the patron's information. The patron wanted to know if there was a way to prove that the HR person did get it, because she knows she sent it.

The patron seemed to be fairly knowledgeable about computers and email, but I explained anyway that it is certainly possible for something not to get delivered, or get blocked for whatever reason, or go into a spam folder, etc.

Having a message in her own Sent folder would indicate when it was sent. That can probably be manipulated so I don't know if it'd be admissible in court, but in this case it might be good enough if the HR person was willing to listen.

But what the patron really wanted was confirmation that the HR person received the email. I didn't know how to find out after-the-fact (other than subpoenaing their server logs), so I told her about delivery receipts and read receipts. These are the little confirmation messages that come back to let you know someone got and opened your message.

Since it was the closest thing to what she wanted, we went into her email account so I could show her how to use them. However I explained that these aren't foolproof either - not all email clients will honor them. In fact, the email client I use offers a setting to ignore them.

receiptoptionhorde

She had both a Gmail and a Yahoo account, and it turns out - much to my surprise - neither one lets you request receipts.

I did some quick checking online, and it seems like Yahoo doesn't offer receipts at all, and Gmail only with their business accounts (not the free version).

Well, like I said, I was surprised. I tried searching for ways to make it happen anyway, and it looks like there are only two options: use an email client like Thunderbird or Outlook (which, for a patron using a library's public computer, isn't actually an option), or use one of the many email receipt services out there. Another website I found had some trickier solutions, but were too complicated for our purposes. There's also Boomerang for Gmail, but since that needs to be installed in the browser, it likewise wasn't appropriate.

Until this day I didn't even know these existed, so I have no idea how well they work. The patron was interested in the free web-based services, but only future-tense. Unfortunately, it looked like she was out of luck with her original question. I think she knew that before she even asked, but hoped librarians had some magic we could work - I hate disappointing patrons.



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/14/13

   April 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog

This week I have almost nothing to say. First, everyone here has been focused on the bombings in Boston and the ensuing manhunt, which thankfully ended with an arrest Friday night. Secondly, this week was also school vacation week in Massachusetts, which always makes for a slow time at the Reference Desk.

No Tax SignAs a result, the most notable question of the week was actually the lack of a particular question. Friday, April 19th, was the first day since January that not one person asked me for tax forms. Now that is a milestone worth celebrating.

Hopefully next week things will return to normal, and I'll get back on track with library stuff - and put away our tax form display for another year.



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/7/13

   April 13th, 2013 Brian Herzog

9999This might surprise non-librarians, but reference staff doesn't just sit around all day answering regular questions. Sometimes, you get something like this:

A 20-something patron walked up to me at the Reference Desk one evening and said,

You know that bulletin board in your teen area that always has different stuff on it? I don't know if you take suggestions from people, but here's a puzzle kids might like to try to figure out. I say "try" because I show this to lots of people and no one has solved it - even math teachers.

With that, he takes a piece of scrap paper, writes four 9s on it (as in, just 9999), and explains the puzzle.

The goal is to use these four nines, and any mathematical symbols, and have the result equal 100. You can use any combination of symbols - +, -, /, x, ( ), etc. - but the result must work out to be exactly 100.

Just then his ride came to get him, so he flipped the paper over, wrote the answer on the back, and said he hoped the kids would have fun with it.

So there I was - it was a slow night, I've got an "unsolvable" puzzle in front of me, and the answer is also at my finger tips. Such a temptation to cheat, but I gave it my best shot, trying all kinds of different ideas over the course of the night. No matter what I tried though, I just couldn't get it, so eventually I had to look at the answer.

I'm sure this puzzle (and the solution) is on the internet somewhere, but if you're interested, give it a try. If you give up, or want to check your answer, this link will launch the solution in a new window (this is exactly what the patron wrote on the back of the scrap paper).



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/31/13

   April 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Hello.  Have you tried turning it off and on again?This wasn't a very difficult question, and although it didn't have a great ending, I thought it was interesting anyway - and happy we could help because the patron had no where else to go.

A patron walked up to the Reference Desk and asked to use the phone. We generally only let people use desk phones to call for rides or other quick things, mainly to make sure phones are available for staff to answer incoming patron calls.

Since it was fairly early in the day, I asked him if he was calling for a ride, and he said,

No, I need to call email tech support. I called them last night to help with my email, but he said I needed to be in front of the computer. I don't have one at home, so I always use the library computers. I don't have a cell phone either, but I think this computer here in the corner is close enough to the Reference Desk that I could stretch the phone cord across the aisle while I talk to him. It should be a quick call.

Okay, by the time he was finished speaking, all kinds of red flags were waving for all they're worth.

I sympathize with people trying to use technology without actually owning their own technology - libraries are great, but obviously some things are much easier to do at home. However, also obviously, I couldn't allow this patron to:

  • block an aisle way by stretching a cord across it
  • engage in a phone conversation at the public workstation, since we routinely ask people doing this very thing to take their cell phone call in a different area of the library so as not to bother the other computer users near them
  • tie up one of the Reference Desk phones for this long a time - no tech support call in history has been "quick"

Hoping to avoid this situation entirely, I asked the patron what he was trying to do, and if I could help. His answer kind of surprised me:

I've always used Hotmail, but now I'm switching to Gmail. The Gmail people said they were able to import everything from my Hotmail account, except what was in my Drafts folder. But when I went in to move those myself, I accidentally deleted some, so I called Hotmail to see if they could be restored.

First, I had no idea that Gmail offered a migration service, but they do. Neat. Secondly, I think he's right in that he'd need Hotmail tech support to recover deleted messages. I did check his account with him, just to see if there was something he overlooked, but from what we could tell the draft messages in question were gone.

And so, this left us with the original question of how he could use a phone and a computer at the same time. Eventually it dawned on me that he could borrow one of the laptops we loan to the public, and the Reference Desk's cordless phone,* and sit in an area of the library where his talking wouldn't bother anyone. It seemed like a good solution, and he was happy.

45 minutes later(!) he came back, a little dejectedly, and said Hotmail couldn't recover his messages after all. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason, but by this point had accepted it. The messages weren't critical, but he certainly would have preferred to have them. I apologized and we commiserated a bit about technological dependence, then he thanked me for the library being able to accommodate his situation, and left.

So in case anyone was wondering, the digital divide is still alive and well. It also made me wonder: do any libraries loan cell phones to patrons? I'm not an expert on cell phone technology, but I think there are the the kind where patrons could just pay to put minutes on them, so it wouldn't cost the library anything. It would have been helpful in a case like this, or if a patron was going on a trip or something and wanted the security of being in touch. It seems like a good idea, but I'm sure I'm overlooking some vital flaw.

 


*Our Reference Desk has two phones at the desk (and two computers), as well as a cordless phone in the Reference Office behind the Desk. We carry this with us when we know we'll be away from the desk, because it sure beats trying to sprint back to the desk when the phone rings while you're in the stacks.



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