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

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/15/15

   November 23rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

Not all of the reference interactions I post here have a moral, but this one does - and it's one of my favorite morals.

On Fridays, my library closes at 5:30pm. At about 5:25 one Friday, an older gentleman comes down the stairs to the reference area, where most of our public computers are. Now, any patron coming in right at closing time is always a bit worrysome - but moreso when they, like this patron, come right up to the desk and say they need to print something.

Printing at the last minute is always fraught with potential calamity. However, thankfully, all this patron needed to do was to print a boarding pass attached to an email - we opened it, printed it, and everything went smoothly so we were still finished before 5:30. Nice.

But while I was thinking "nice" to myself, the patron surprised me by saying,

You don't know who I am, do you?

Being that I'm paranoid in general, this is a miserable thing for someone to say to me. However, even after looking at him more closely, no, I didn't recognize him, so I apologized to him and said I didn't know who he was. He then said,

I'm the guy that donated all these computers [motioning to the workstations]. That's me [pointing to the wall plaque below]. I need help using them, but I know they're important.

Workstation Plaque

We had a bit of a laugh over that, then he thanked me for helping him, and I thanked him for his generous donation, and walked him out.

Hopefully, the moral is clear: when you work at a public library, it's important to provide good customer service for every patron interaction, because every patron is a voter and you never know what other connection to the library they may have - even five minutes before closing time.

And more importantly, thank you to everyone who supports their local library!

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/8/15

   November 14th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Today I Feel: ConfusedThis started out as a simple question, and just kept getting weirder.

On Thursday morning, a patron called asking if she could come in later that day for a one-on-one session. She'd like to work on basic computer skills, she said, because she only uses a computer at the library and senior center, but not very often, so she felt she was forgetting everything she knew in the meantime and wanted a refresher.

Okay, that's fine. But then she said she's also interested in buying a computer, and could I pick one out for her?

Well, I had to stop her there. I haven't bought a computer for myself in like six years, so I'm certainly not an authority by any stretch. I told her I could help her find reviews of computers, and try to explain the basics of computer buying, but I couldn't pick one for her.

She was fine with that, and we made an appointment for later that afternoon.

The appointed time comes, and the patron shows up right on the dot. Despite that, she apologizes for being late, because she said she took the bus and it was a running behind, but I assured her everything was fine.

I set up a laptop with an external keyboard and mouse, because many beginners find those more comfortable to use. But she stopped me and asked me what all that was. I explained the difference between our desktop workstations, with regular keyboards and mice, and a laptop, which has the keyboard and touchpad built in.

Now she was very interested in that, and said,

Well I was up at Barnes and Noble last week and bought a Nook, but I had trouble with it and decided I couldn't afford it so I returned it. I didn't know there was an in-between size of computer [meaning the laptop, in between a desktop and a tablet].

Huh. So then I went on a bit of a tangent about the pros and cons of each of the three styles, and she was already convinced that a laptop is what she wanted to buy. In the course of this little discussion I asked her what she'd be using a computer for, and she said writing letters to friends and printing them.

So we get started by opening Word, and I have her type a little bit to get the feel of the keyboard and touchpad, as well as some Word basics.

When she's ready, we go through the steps to print, and she seems to pick all of that up quickly. I asked her what else she'd like to do on a computer, and she said,

I'd like to buy things from Amazon and Google and Ebay, are those all the same company? And is it safe to do that?

Whoa, that's a departure from computer basics - but maybe not so much these days. So we then talked about the differences between those websites, and the fact that most stores, like Target, Sears, etc., also all have websites that sell products. And that buying online does involve risk, but really, using a credit card at all involves risk, since stores like Target have had their customer data hacked having nothing to do with buying online.

The patron seemed pretty interested in all of this, and wanted to try shopping for something on Amazon. At this point however we were just about out of time for the one-on-one appointment, so our plan was to just run through the steps of searching Amazon and finding product information, but not the buying steps.

Which she was fine with. We go to Amazon.com, and I tell her to type into the search box whatever it is she'd like to buy, and we'd get back a variety of those products to choose from.

What is it she typed in, you ask?


What? She calls up the library asking for someone to pick out a computer for her, and then goes from that to asking about online shopping, and THEN the first thing she wants to buy online is a typewriter?

I did not see that coming.

But I can tell you I'm really curious to find out where things go at our next one-on-one session next week.

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Libraries Circulating Wi-Fi Hotspots: Now That’s Cool

   May 28th, 2015 Brian Herzog

internet access here signI've been quiet lately because I've been just flat-out busy at both work and home, but here's something that has me excited: patrons checking out wi-fi hotspots from their public library.

Last month's article about the NYPL's circulating wi-fi got me interested. I brought it up at a recent meeting, and a colleague (thanks Anna!) sent me some more background info:

The idea is simple enough: have a mobile hotspot for patrons to check out, that can create a local wi-fi signal using a 4G data plan. And surprisingly, not very expensive for non-profits: $15 per hotspot device, and then $10 per month for the 4G service. Cheap!

I'm going to be exploring this for my library over the coming year. This community is pretty good about mostly being able to afford their own internet access, but there are still plenty of patrons in the library every day to use our computers and wi-fi. A service like this would be critical in rural or poorly-covered areas, but will still be a benefit here.

Not to mention, staff could take it with them to the farmer's market to provide wi-fi on the common, and also so we can have a live ILS connection and check out cookbooks and gardening books on the spot.

If you have any experience with these, please leave a comment. And I'll post again once we make some progress.

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A Library By Any Other Name

   March 4th, 2015 Brian Herzog

baby change station signThis is not at all important or relevant, but it amused me.

I heard that a patron had complained about our book donation situation* on Facebook, and when I had a few spare minutes one day, I thought I'd do a quick search to see if I could find it. The problem was that I had no idea who said it, where it was posted, or what keywords to search for.

So, more out of idle optimism than anything else, I did a Google search for chelmsford library donate facebook, and much to my surprise, one of the results was:

nappy library search results

Since I'm looking for a patron complaint, I'm already in a negative mindset, and "nappy" struck me with the negative connotation that word can carry.

So, immediately I was like, holy smokes, someone not only complained about us, but even set up a Facebook hate page because we're a real nappy library. Wow.

But of course, reading the description or clicking through the link (which I did before reading) makes it clear that not everything in the world revolves around the Chelmsford Library in which I work. In fact, this Facebook page was about a diaper exchange program in Chelmsford, England - in which land the phrase "real nappy" has an entirely different meaning.

I don't have kids, but this seems like another example of a great non-traditional collection for libraries. I would not want to deal with dirty diapers, but it's one of those temporary-need items that might make for good community sharing.

And speaking of cloth diapers, a friend of mine once had a very similar idea, except that it would be a cloth diaper pickup and delivery service based out of a truck with a mobile washing station. Pretty good idea (again, except for the dirty diaper part), except that instead of just a non-traditional library collection, it would be a non-traditional bookmobile.


*We temporarily have nowhere to store donated books, so we're asking patrons to hold donations until the Spring. The problem was that this message wasn't communicated very well to the patron.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/22/15

   February 28th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Blackbeard statueA senior citizen patron came in for a one-on-one session, and had a couple things he wanted help with. I took one the library's laptops and went into a study room with the patron - so far so good.

His first question was replying to an ad on Craigslist. This was fairly straightforward, although I don't know that the patron entirely understood the process. But that's fine - we can go through it again next time, so we moved on to his second request.

He said a friend of his in Florida suggested he go to Blackbeard's Resort, but he didn't know anything about it so he wanted to learn more. Okay, I type google.com into the browser's address bar and hit Enter - and nothing happens.

Google doesn't load, which is unusual. So I try Yahoo.com, but that likewise doesn't load. So I figure this laptop has lost the wi-fi connection, so I try to reconnect. Again, that doesn't work.

Now, this whole process is taking me a few minutes. While I'm messing around, the patron has been talking, and I am just absorbing this all without comment:

Yeah, my friend said this was a good place. He likes that sort of thing. I asked my travel agent about it, and he said I shouldn't go. It's apparently cash only, do you think that's why he didn't like it? What do you think? My friend's a bit odd, and this is his kind of place. He said it's for swingers, whatever that is.

At this point, I have to leave the room. Partly because the wi-fi seems down completely, and partly because... swingers? I don't think I could have responded to that with a straight face.

So I go to the Reference Desk, and it turns out our entire internet connection was down - wi-fi, public workstations, and staff computers. Our IT person is working on it, and it doesn't seem like it'll be back up any time soon.

I go back to the study room to let the patron know we're kind of out of luck as far as his one-on-one session goes, but that we can reschedule for another time. He takes it in stride, reschedules, and leaves without further comment. I feel bad about our network going down, but at least it gives me a bit of time to strategize how to respond before our next appointment.

And for what it's worth, Blackbeards Adult Resort does indeed take credit cards - but they have a 20% surcharge on credit cards so they recommend using cash for all of their services. Their slogan is One visit and you will be "Hooked" - bravo for the triple entendre. Also bravo to them for including the library on their "fun community" map - maybe ALA should plan a conference here.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/15/2015

   February 21st, 2015 Brian Herzog

shoveled drivewayThis question just happened this morning, and my coworker asked me about it before she gave the patron an answer.

Perhaps you've heard that New England is getting an unusually large amount of snow this year? This patron called in and said that her driveway had been clear, but some plow truck went by and now a large pile of snow was blocking both her driveway and mailbox. She was out at the time, and by the time she got home it was frozen and she couldn't pull into her driveway.

My coworker said she sounded like an older woman, and apparently her husband normally clears the driveway, but he's away this weekend. So, she left her car on the extra-narrow-because-of-the-snow street, climb over the pile, got into her house, and called us. My coworker took down her phone number and asked me what we could do for her.

I'm always happy when people think to call the library, but some of the things people call us about surprises me.

In this case, I think the best we could do was:

  • Give her the non-emergency phone number for the Police Department, to let them know her car was on the street. Hopefully this would prevent any kind of ticket, and perhaps the Police had additional ways to help her
  • Give her the number for the Highway Department, who is responsible for clearing the streets. They don't have office hours on the weekends, but if she needed to complain about street snow being pushed where it shouldn't be, they are the people to notify

Unfortunately, I don't think there's much else to do. Notifying the Police should help, but I don't think the Town is going to make a special trip to clear her driveway. Being blocked in by the plow is just part of winter, but perhaps her situation was particularly unnecessary.

I've noticed quite a few impromptu "call us to shovel" signs nailed to utility poles around Town, so between those and the kindness of neighbors, hopefully she can get her driveway clear again - until the next storm hits, anyway.

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