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



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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 – 6/9/13

   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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A Couple Handy Online Image Editing Tools

   May 29th, 2013 Brian Herzog

It's been awhile since I've talked about image editing tools. My favorite website for quick and easy editing (cropping, resizing, etc) is still Pixenate, but I recently read about Clipping Magic - and it is amazingly awesome.

Here's how it works: upload your image, draw a green line through the part of the photo you want to keep, draw a red line through the background you want to remove, and you're done:

clipping magic demo

The live preview on the right lets you adjust your lines to get as close as possible to what you want - and since you can change your line size and zoom in on the image, you can really fine-tune it.

I've been using Photoshop for years to do exactly this, and this is way quicker. Photoshop is still better of course, but like Pixenate and other web-based tools, I have access to this no matter where I am in the library (Photoshop is only installed on the computer on my desk in the office, which I rarely actually use).

Unfortunately, it looks like Clipping Magic is only free while it's in development. Hopefully it'll stay that way, but try it out while you can.



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Readers Advisory Initiative at the Chelmsford Library

   May 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

QR code labelThis is a neat thing, but is such a large project that I'm still not exactly sure how to explain it all.

At the end of last year, my library created a new position for a dedicated readers advisory person. Since this was a brand new position, we've had to reconfigure the way we do things. Another benefit, though, is that it got everyone in the library thinking about how we can improve readers advisory across the board.

Our Childrens Room really upped their game in this area. They'd long maintained in-house readalike lists, both for specific books and for subjects. Eventually these lists migrated from papers in binders to online lists created using our catalog's "bookbag" feature.

Which is all well and good, but what they really wanted to do was improve access to these lists, and make it easier for patrons to find them on their own.

The best way to promote these lists, they felt, was to print out labels with the list URLs (and QR codes) on them, and stick them in each book that was on the list. I know other libraries use QR code labels in their collections (notably the Dover [MA] Town Library), but I don't know how many are mass-sticking the actual books. And they're trying to stick them in the books as close to the end of the story as possible, so that patrons find them immediately after finishing a good story:

QR code label in book

Along the way, we ran into a few snags that had to be dealt with, and I think our solutions worked pretty well.

Our catalog's bookbag URLs are pretty messy and unfriendly (ie, https://chelmsford.mvlc.org/eg/opac/results?bookbag=53439;page=0;locg=18;depth=0), so we wanted to use a URL shortening service to clean them up. The Childrens staff first started with Goo.gl, and reviewed a few others, but hit a major roadblock: with those services, once a short URL is created, you can't change the destination.

This was a problem for us because not too long ago, we had a catalog upgrade that changed the URLs of every single one of our bookbags. This meant that if we had stuck QR code labels in thousands of books, they would all have to be redone with new labels for the new bookbag URLs.

I looked around for an alternative, and found an open source solution yourls.org (Your Own URL Shortener). That was awesome, and with instructions from Lifehacker, I had it up and running on our web server in like fifteen minutes.

However, it kind of defeats the purpose of a URL shortener when you're starting with a URL as long as chelmsfordlibrary.org, so we decided to get a whole new domain name for this project. We kicked around a lot of ideas, but the best one we came up with - short(ish), and memorable - was readmore.in.

Now, the .in is the country code for India, but readmore was available at the domain name service we used, so we went with it. But best of all, it makes for great readers advisory URLs: readmore.in/adventure, readmore.in/magictreehouse, etc. Even though those aren't super short, they're easy to remember, and that's the important thing.

With yourls running on the readmore.in domain, now we can always point readmore.in/poetry or whatever to the right place, even if the underlying bookbag link changes.

And to make the QR code creation process easier, I also installed a open source QR code creator (phpqrcode) on our web server. There are lots of free services out there, but hosting our own lets us pre-set all the output settings, so all staff need to do is paste in the URL, click "create," and then right-click on the QR code to paste it into the label template. It's already the right size, encoding, and everything else.

I admit there was a lot of technical playing to make this happen - but, now that everything is set up, staff is whizzing through the creation and labeling process. Of course, this is an on-going project, but we're hoping it is something from which patrons will really benefit.



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Text Message App for Public Libraries

   May 1st, 2013 Brian Herzog

I received a marketing email recently about TxtReads, a new text message service app for libraries. My immediate reaction was quite mixed.

Technically, it looks like a great thing - it allows patrons to interact with their library account via simple, plain-English text messages. So if they want to look up a book, place a hold, etc., it's very easy for them to do - and without having to log into the catalog.

So, all good, right? Well, I spotted some negative points, too.

When I visited their website, their primary marketing message kind of shocked me:

TxtReads will change your next trip to your local bookstore. Simply use your mobile phone and send two text messages: One to see if the book you found is available at the library, and the second to place a hold.

Certainly this sort of functionality is possible with existing library apps and mobile sites (I've even built it into my library's mobile website), but promoting it so prominently like this kind of rubbed me the wrong way. Showrooming is such a problem for brick-and-mortar retail stores that some are charging people to even come into their store, and refunding it only if they buy something.

Libraries and bookstores are not competitors, and in fact have the opportunity to enjoy close relationships. But this activity - and blatantly encouraging it - could kill real-life bookstores, which in turn will hurt the book world and, as a result, libraries too.

Secondly, this text feature is so good that it makes me mad that our catalog doesn't already have this functionality built into it. I would much rather have integrated features than a mish-mash of third-party addons - I know that's hardly the reality, but still something to strive for. So, before signing up for this app, my first stop would be to check in with out ILS developers to see if they can make it happen internally.

I suppose that right there is its own type of showrooming - oh well.

At any rate, neat features in a clean-looking app. Just, I don't know, I don't like their marketing approach.



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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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