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



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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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Reference Question of the Week – 3/24/13

   March 30th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Pickleball action shotWhile sitting at the Reference Desk with a coworker one day, the phone rang - she answered it before I did, which is too bad because I would have loved to hear a patron ask this question:

Can you tell me where I can play pickleball in Chelmsford?

I think if there is anything bizarre in the world, eventually someone will ask about it at the library.

Neither of us had heard of pickleball, but apparently it is a thing. A quick web search turned up a surprisingly legitimate-looking and extensive USA Pickleball Association website. They have a "What is Pickleball?" page, but basically it seems to be a combination of tennis, ping pong, and badminton. Here's a very long demo video, with loud and crazy music:

Anyway, back to the question at hand. The USAPA website also had a "Places to Play" page, which allows you to limit by state. The Massachusetts list had a lot of places, some not too far away, but sadly none in Chelmsford yet. There is also a pickleball waiting list on Meetup.com, and pickleball made it into the Boston Globe.

Pickleball growth chartThis definitely seems like a regional sport, based on existing pickleball meetup groups and and the USAPA.org's regional links (bottom of the left navigation bar). It also seems to be growing fast, according to the USAPA's chart of places to play pickleball.

I think the patron was a little disappointed there wasn't a local group of players she could join, but good for her for being one of the early adopters in this area.

I'll be curious to see if this sport catches on here. It reminds me of cornhole, which I discovered in library school at Kent State. One day I had never heard of the game, and then suddenly the next day everyone was playing it.

Although, I also have to admit that new games like this always remind me of Guyball. Sadly, that doesn't seem to have caught on yet.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/17/13

   March 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

PrintFriendly logoOne of the most common questions we get at the Reference Desk is something along the lines of:

I tried to print something, but all I got was this blank page. Can you print it for me?

The reason this happens (I think) is that a lot of web pages - especially news sites and free email accounts - compartmentalize information using frames*, and many web browsers have a difficult time trying to print all these different frames at the same time.

When patrons try to print a page like this just using the browser's File > Print function, it often doesn't work. The page designers know this, so they usually embed a little printer icon somewhere within the content frame the person wants to print - the body of the email, the news story, etc. It generally seems to appear in the top-right corner of the content window, and when you click it, opens the important content in an entirely new window that will print nicely. However, it is often so subtle that people never notice it.

But check this out: I stumbled upon PrintFriendly by accident, and I love the idea. It is specifically designed to make printing these annoying pages easier. You can copy/paste in the URL of the page you want to print, it grabs the content, and then you have full control over which parts of the page actually print - it lets you remove anything you don't want.

What I thought was even more useful is their bookmarklet that you can stick right in your browser - that way when you want to print a page, the PrintFriendly button is always right there, instead of having to mess with copy/pasting the URL. Neat.

Since finding this, I've been testing it every chance I get, and it seems to work about 90% of the time. Usually, exactly what I want to print is the only thing that shows up. But even when extra sidebars and things do show - like in this Lowell Sun newspaper article (source) - PrintFriendly makes it so easy to remove all the junk (just click on whatever you want to delete). This means the good content fills the page (a single page), instead of being a very narrow column four pages long.

It didn't work everywhere though. For instance, Zap2it.com listings seem to print much better the normal way than through PrintFriendly.

A few more neat features: once you render a page to print in PrintFriendly, it gives you the option to print, create a PDF, or email it. Very handy.

Of course, my first thought was to put the bookmarklet in all the browsers on our public workstations. This still might be a good idea, but patrons will need to be trained to use it, which will be a challenge. Everyone is so conditioned to File > Print, and usually people don't know something went wrong until after they've paid for their print job (why doesn't anyone File > Print Preview?!?).

So for the time being, this might just be a handy tool in the librarian toolbox (but I do have it installed on my computer).

I have no idea how long PrintFriendly has been around, so I might be the last person to know. Has anyone been using this? I'm curious to see how well PrintFriendly works on a wider array of websites.

 


*Frames is an HTML way of embedding multiple "windows" into the same webpage. The best clue for knowing whether or not there are frames on a page is to notice if there are scroll bars inside the page. There will always be the main vertical scroll bar all the way on the right edge of the browser window (for pages longer than the screen), but sometimes there are additional vertical scroll bars in the page itself, that just moves some content in a little window. This is a frame, and may or may not print when you print using the browser's File > Print functionality.



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/10/13

   March 16th, 2013 Brian Herzog

This week is actually a crowdsourcing request to find the answer to a question. Last month, a friend of mine at the Robbins Library in Arlington, MA, tweeted:

Tweet from @itsokihaveabook  Has anyone seen a historical chart of when things can't be repaired and must be replaced instead? Pls send link if you find it!

I followed up with her and got a little more detail on what she's after:

What I am looking for is basically a timeline showing when repair of certain things became obsolete; for example, approximately when most people stopped taking their shoes to a cobbler and just bought new shoes, or when radio or toaster repair became a thing of the past and you just had to get a new one instead.

That sounded like a chart I'd like to see, and I'm always happy to help, so I started researching to see what I could find. The search so far has been unsuccessful, and earlier this week she posted an open request on her blog asking for help. If you're interested, please lend a hand - unanswered question bother me.

Apple connectors that change with every generationThe search has turned up some good stuff though. I like making and repairing my own things, so of course this question - and the notion of planned obsolescence in general - interests me. Jenny listed some of the resources we've found so far, including the one I found most eye-opening, "Consumer Society Is Made To Break," because of this:

“Planned obsolescence” may sound like a conspiracy theory but it was once openly discussed as a solution to the Great Depression. In fact, most scholars trace the origin of the term to Bernard London’s 1932 pamphlet, “Ending the Depression Through Planned Obsolescence”, in which London blames the global economic Depression on consumers who disobey “the law of obsolescence” by “using their old cars, their old tires, their old radios and their old clothing much longer than statisticians had expected”. London’s sinister solution was to propose a government agency that would determine the lifespan of each manufactured object whether it is a building, a ship, a comb or a shoe. Those frugal consumers who insisted on using their products past the expiration date would be penalized.

The full text of the pamphlet is included in their post. To me, planned obsolescence did seem like some kind of manufacturer's conspiracy, so I was surprised to read it originated as a solution to the great depression. I suppose that makes sense, but the idea of deliberately building a short - and unextendable - lifespan into products to force people to spend more money on a replacement is just offensive.

Anyway, if anyone manages to find what Jenny is looking for, please let her know (and me too). Thanks!



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