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



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Tax Season Should Be Fun This Year

   January 15th, 2015 Brian Herzog

tax bobbleheadBy now, hopefully you've heard what the IRS will be providing to libraries this year in the way of tax products. If not, here's the email TFOP libraries received last week:

TFOP Filing Season Update

While we had committed to waiting until next year to making changes to the Tax Forms Outlet Program, the situation has changed. As you may be aware, IRS appropriations were significantly cut in the 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill recently passed by Congress. Unfortunately this puts us in a position where we have very few options. We want to honor our commitment to you by providing some key products, but we cannot deliver nearly what we have in the past.

For this filing season, we will offer the following products:

  • Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ
  • Publication 17, one reference copy for each participant (Taxpayers will be able to access Publication 17 in English and Spanish online from irs.gov/Pub17 and, new this year, it will also be available as a free e-Pub for downloading from IRS.gov and viewing on most e-Readers and other mobile devices.)
  • Publication 4604 (EN/SP), Use the Web for IRS Tax Products & Information
  • Publication 1132, Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions
  • The TFOP Poster Package which includes:
    • Publication 1169, Need Tax Help?
    • Publication 1258, Where Should I Send This?
    • Publication 1309, Tax Forms This Way Publication
    • Publication 1725, If The Form Fits...Use It!

No additional products will be available through the TFOP Program. We will not be sending Form 8635-S, Supplement to Form 8635.

We will fill orders for Forms 1040 and 1040A with the quantities you requested on your order form earlier this year. Because Form 1040EZ was not on this year's order form, we will send you 75% of your Form 1040 A order quantity. For example, if you ordered 3000 Form 1040 A, we will send you 2250 Form 1040EZ. It is not necessary for you to place an order for Form 1040EZ; we will automatically ship Form 1040EZ to you once the form becomes available.

Unfortunately, we are unable to offer Instructions for Forms 1040, 1040A and 1040EZ. Your patrons can obtain copies of Instructions through:

  • IRS.gov/Forms - to view and download
  • IRS.gov/orderforms - to order tax products to be delivered by mail
  • 1-800-829-3676 - to order tax products to be delivered by mail

The decision to reduce the number of tax products available to our TFOP partners was not made lightly. We realize this decision is not ideal and we understand it may impact you and your customers. Please offer Publication 4604 (EN/SP) to your patrons to help guide them to tax products and information available on IRS.gov. We apologize for these late program changes.

Thank you for your support,
IRS TFOP Administrator

Which really is terrible news for libraries and patrons - patrons because so many people have relied on easily picking up tax forms at their local library, and libraries because we'll be spending a lot of time apologizing for the IRS to those many irate patrons.

But we can get through this. Libraries near me have been sharing ideas on how to handle these changes. Here's what we'll be doing:

  • Printing a sign to explain the situation to people - basically, to say that these are all the tax forms we have and that's all we're getting
  • Have a handout ready with the URL and phone number above for where people can request forms be mailed to them. My first draft [pdf] looks like this:
    taxforms-bymail
  • Used the order form website myself to get two copies of the instruction booklets so the library will have reference copies
  • Printed copies of the 1040, 1040A, and 1040EZ instruction to make circulating copies in three-ring binders for patrons. We're starting with two of each, and will print more as demand increases (because it's a lot of printing). They'll circulate for one week, and we'll allow patrons to place local holds too
  • Continue with our "first copy free" policy of printing tax forms for patrons. In the past this has just been for the oddball form here and there, but this year we expect to be printing a lot more*. Although for us, this free copy only applies to forms, not instructions - hopefully the circulating copies or reference copies for photocopying will meet that need
  • Make available the IRS' reproducible tax form binder, so patrons can photocopy whatever forms they need
  • We may end up pre-printing a lot of the more common schedules and other forms, just to save the patron's (and staff's) time of having to print-on-demand. But again, this is something we're going to wait and see what demand is like and respond accordingly

So, that's our current plan. I'd really like to hear what other libraries are doing, so if you've got a great idea that will help this tax season, please share in the comments.

Good luck.

 


*I had briefly thought about trying to record all our printing, so get a ballpark figure of how much the IRS' budget cut is costing my library. I hate the idea of shifting costs like that (like when the movie theater hands you an empty cup instead of paying someone to fill it for you! They've just shifted that cost onto their customer. Savages.), but decided that it's probably not worth the cost of our staff tracking, because we'd never use that information for anything anyway. But I'd still be curious to know.



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Pondering a Potential Paper Cutter Policy

   December 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog

papercutterSo this came up recently in my library: should we allow patrons to use the staff paper cutter?

We have a few of them in the library, including one in the Reference Office. Staff use it all the time, and occasionally a patron asks to use it. Initially I felt this was one of those, "oh, that seems too dangerous," but for years now have been allowing people to use it. However, these are my conditions:

  • They can't come into the Reference Office (since staff personal items are in there), so,
  • I carry it to a table for them
  • I ask if they know how to use it, and ask them to be careful
  • I tell them to let me know when they're finished so I can carry it back into the office
  • And I remind them again to be careful

Like I said, I've been doing this for years, and have never had an incident (other than satisfied patrons). However, some staff are uncomfortable with the whole paper cutter situation, so the question was raised: should we be letting patrons use it?

I think the main concern was safety and liability. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't see how this opens us up to any more liability than scissors (which we provide free access to at the desk along with pens, pencils, tape, stapler, staple remover, etc). Almost all the furniture in the library is wooden, which makes for a lot of hard sharp corners someone could fall and hit their head on. Not to mention the large heavy books we keep on shelves seven feet in the air, well above many peoples' heads.

So it seems to me there's plenty of "liability" potential just by allowing people into the building. So for me, as long as the paper cutter is in good working order, and staff offers to help and/or train patrons to use it, we're in the clear.

As a result of this coming up, I did put a big red sign on the paper cutter as a sort of "not our fault" disclaimer, although I doubt it would have much impact in a lawsuit. Here's what our paper cutter looks like:

librarypapercutter

And a closeup of the red sign:

paper-cutter-be-careful

Do you have a paper cutter in your library that you allow patrons to use? How about a shredder, or anything else slightly unusual and potentially dangerous? I'm really curious to hear what other people think, so please share your experience in the comments - thanks.



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Take-Home Tech Support, or, Why Second Thoughts Are Important

   October 29th, 2014 Brian Herzog

tabletphoneLast week, a patron came in and asked for help using the scanner. No problem.

But while I was helping her, she explained that she has an all-in-one copier/printer/scanner that used to work great but is now giving her trouble, hence the trip to the library. She tried describing to me what the problem was, and it seemed like it should be diagnosable and solvable, but I was just not getting it.

One great thing about the emergence of mobile devices, and increasing prevalence of laptops, is that people can bring them into the library for tech support. But with desktops, and in this case copier/printer/scanners, even something that would be simple to correct continues to plague them because it's too difficult to communicate either the problem or the solution remotely.

So, the idea struck me - why not start a program offering in-home tech support? I think it would be unrealistic to send library staff out to patrons' homes, but how about this: we have a special "tech support tablet" that patrons can check out, and then when they get home, use Skype or some other video chat service. That way, I could actually see what the problem was, read the error messages on their screen, see what lights were flashing, tell them which menus to click, etc.

Really, it'd be offering the same service we currently provide to patrons who can bring their devices to the library, so why not offer it remotely too?

Well, any number of reasons, if you think about it. First, this would still be difficult, and not like being there in person. Second, and maybe more frighteningly, who knows what else might show up on the screen besides tech problems. This was basically the reason this idea went no further.

I mean, I still like this idea, and think it could help people. But it would be tricky, and has a lot of downside potential, so for the time being this is just going to be filed under "maybe someday."



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Another Case of Dewey Being Overly-Sophisticated

   August 28th, 2014 Brian Herzog

both way arrowsI've pointed out things like this before, and they always amuse me.

Last week, my director was looking for summer cooking books for a display and program she was doing. Of course, books about grilling were included in her search, and she was surprised - as was I when she pointed it out - that we had identical-seeming grilling books in two entirely different Dewey numbers: 641.5784 and 641.76.

When our cataloger and I looked those up in DDC23 to see which was right, we found that they both were:

641.5784:

Dewey 641.578 4 - Cooking at an outdoor grill

641.76:

Dewey 641.76 - Barbecuing, broiling, grilling

So, .76 is grilling in general, and .5784 is specifically grilling outdoors. Indeed very neat and precise, but perhaps to an unnecessary degree for our purposes.

We decided to consolidate everything into 641.76, to make it easier for patrons browsing the shelves. I'm sure there are lots more little Deweified topics like this, and I will enjoy consolidating each and every one of them as we discover them.

And finally, I thought a post about grilling was nice and Labor Day-related: I'm traveling to Ohio for a long Labor Day weekend, so there's won't be a reference question of the week this week. I hope everyone enjoys the holiday.



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Saying No In My Library, And How We Can Say It Less Often

   July 24th, 2014 Brian Herzog

I know I've mentioned before that my library has a strong "Get To Yes" policy for customer service - we want to do whatever we can to meet the patrons' needs.

To identify areas where we're coming up short, occasionally in the past we've kept "No Logs" at the service desks - log sheets for staff to track patron questions where we had no alternative but to answer "no." For this fiscal year, we're really trying to improve customer service even more, so we've made the Reference Desk's "No Log" a permanent thing.

Below is a snapshot of our "No" questions from July 1st until now - mostly museum passes this library doesn't offer, extended study room use, or printer/copier questions. But there's other good stuff in there that I think we can improve on, and that's what this is all about:

nologJuly2014

Nothing earth-shattering - which is good, really - but small steps are sometimes the best approach for improvements. I'm really curious to see how these things trend over time, too.

Also, slightly related to this is OCLC's Top reasons for no - the reason libraries report for interlibrary loan requests being denied. I can't remember where I saw this link posted, but I like this sort of thing.



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Options for Offering a Public Scanner

   July 18th, 2013 Brian Herzog

scanning stationMy library finally rolled out a service patrons have been asking for ever since I started: a public scanner.

Requests for a scanner always seemed to wax and wane, and we never got serious about it because of all the logistics involved: where do we put it, should the computer be scanning-only or have full internet access, should we get a simple flatbed scanner or a dedicated scanning product made for libraries, will the staff be able to assist patrons, etc. etc. etc. Recently, the requests have been coming in so consistently that we just bought a low-cost flatbed scanner, hooked it to a computer, and put it out on the floor.

We did do some research beforehand, asking around to see what other libraries did. And coincidentally, on the very day we put the scanner out for the public, another library sent around an email asking the same questions - and very kindly, she also compiled and shared the responses (thanks Becky!):

Most libraries have 1 flatbed scanner that is connected to a public computer. 4 libraries had more than 1 scanner, and 1 library had set up a switch so that 4 computers could share 1 scanner. A few libraries had the scanner in a staff location that was easy for both staff and patron to access.One library kept a scanner at the Reference Desk, and gave it to patrons to hook up to any available computer.

A few libraries used different products: a copier that can also scan, an all-in-one printer that can scan, and book scanners including the BookScan Station from MDS, and the Scannx BookScan Center from Scannx.

Scanner models mentioned were the Epson GT-1500 (which has a document feeder), CanoScan 4500F, Epson WF-4530, Epson V37, and Fujitsu ScanSnap.

Only one library mentioned charging for scanning, many libraries said they did not charge as there was no real consumable cost.

All libraries said the service was very well received with these comments: being able to scan color documents was well received, users could scan to USB, Google Docs, or email, some libraries install the scanner at a computer that is 15 minute only or a walk-up computer, patron assistance is often necessary for first-time users of the equipment.

We really, really, liked the dedicated scanning stations because they are so easy to use, but the cost was prohibitive (in the $5,000 neighborhood). The scanner we purchased was the Epson GT-1500, which is just connected to a desktop computer. Some details:

  • Scanner cost: about $250
  • Features: document feeder tray, easy-scan buttons on the front of the scanner (which we didn't end up using, unfortunately: the scan-to-email button quickly became a problem, and the others ended up not being entirely intuitive, so we just used desktop shortcuts instead)
  • Picture scanning: we use the included Epson scanning software for this, and it works surprisingly well with just the default settings
  • Document scanning: we use the included ABBYY Reader software, which gives the option to scan to either Microsoft Word (to edit a document like a resume) or right to PDF to save/email a document without changes
  • Bonus Feature: not only is this a new scanner service for patrons, but it also means we can now meet the needs of patrons needing to make color photocopies - just scan their original as a PDF, and then print directly to the color printer! An extra step, but it works

Like the image scanning, the OCR capabilities are surprisingly good. In all the testing we did, there was not one mistake (all test scans were from printed pages, not handwriting). Anything it can't OCR is automatically scanned as an image, and the formatting in both the resulting PDF or Word document were impressive. Word did not carry through colored text, but that is easy enough to re-do.

Something else that impressed me was with the document feeder: I deliberately fed in sheets in opposite directions (as in, sheet one right-side up, sheet two upside-down, etc), to see what it would do - and the software was smart enough to orient them all right-side up and OCR the text with no mistakes.

We put out a couple instructional signs with the scanner to match the desktop shortcuts (Scan a Picture [pdf] and Scan a Document [pdf]), and we'll see how it goes. Staff picked it up quickly, and we can always adjust/improve the patron signs after we see where the stumbling blocks are.

We're also starting off with the policy of "scanning gets preference" at this computer, although it does have the same capabilities as all our other public workstations. We put a little sign saying,

Patrons needing to use the scanner have priority!
If you are not scanning you may be asked to move to a different computer.

And so far it hasn't been a problem. This is a stand-up computer, which we're hoping will facilitate the just-need-to-scan-something-quick patrons.



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