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

Archives for Technology:

Reference Question of the Week – 1/4/15

   January 10th, 2015 Brian Herzog

restart dialog boxA patron came up to the desk and asked for me specifically (I was in the office at the time). She said she needs help with her computer, and hoped that I could fix it for her.

The abbreviated version of the story is that her laptop was having problems, so she took it "to the shop" to have them fix it. They said they did, and she never tried it to make sure - she just put it on a shelf and didn't use the computer.

For a year.

Now, a year later, she wanted to use her computer again, but can't remember the password. And can I help?

At least she knew that she had Windows XP, which is something. She didn't have the computer with her, so she said she'd come back the next day.

Which gave me a day to research how to reset or bypass a Windows XP user password, because I had no idea - and it sounded like something that should not be an easy thing to do. However, I found all kinds of websites with all kinds of complicated methods of discovering or resetting the password, including putting password recovery software on a boot disk. Then I found this kid's video:

That seemed easy and straightforward, so I figured I'd try it first - too easy in fact, but, as much as I wanted to help the patron, I didn't think we could really offer support beyond this. Downloading hacking software to a boot disk seemed a bit drastic.

So she came in the next day, and I was shocked that the kid's technique worked flawlessly. Partly because I didn't expect it to be so easy, and partly because it doesn't seem at all safe that it is that easy. But then, this was on a very old laptop with XP.

At any rate, the patron was happy she had access to her computer again - and of course thought I was a genius. I gave her a little talk about updating the anti-virus and getting a year's worth a security updates before she use it normally online, and also told her that XP is no longer supported and maybe think about getting a new computer. She said she got along for a year without a computer at all, so she'll see how it goes.

With a little luck, she may still enjoy XP for years to come.

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What’s Your Take on Driving-Tests.org?

   December 17th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Here's something I really curious to learn more about: I've seen a lot of talk lately about driving-tests.org.

It's a website that offers free test prep for driver license exams, but what I keep hearing about is their library version. I think that version is the same as the free one, except it has no ads, and can also be branded with your library's logo (and obviously links directly to the exam for your state).

Check out their marketing email, but this banner pretty well sums it up:


It seemed interesting, so I poked around the free Massachusetts tests (mainly to see if I would pass it*). Some of the questions seemed so odd - and so very specific - that I really had no idea if they were actual laws or not.

Now, here's a tangent: one of our historically high-theft items is the MA Registry of Motor Vehicle's Driver's Manual. Anyone used to be able to get these free to study for the test, then they went to $5 and you had to pick them up at an RMV office. But then I couldn't even get them from an office, because they were always out when I went. And of course, if it's hard for us to get, it's also hard for patrons - and when I occasionally did get a copy for the library, it wasn't long before it went missing.

Which is why an online exam prep tool seemed like a good idea. But, not being an expert on MA traffic laws, I thought I'd ask the RMV if they've heard of it and if they considered it useful. I knew contacting the RMV like this was a long shot, but I was shockingly and pleasantly surprised.

Less than 24 hours after sending in my question through the RMV website's general contact form, I received this reply:

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles does not license any online driver education programs, nor do we approve or disapprove of any online training programs. A student could not receive credit towards the mandatory training time by having taken an online program.

A very casual review of this particular web site leads me to believe that the content is not entirely accurate.

Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Wow, that was exactly what I was looking for. And since I had their attention, I did ask another question: how can libraries reliably get a copy of the Driver's Manual each year?

The same person emailed me back saying they didn't have any kind of standing order program, but to just email him our address and he would mail me a copy**. I did, and he did! I'm going to start doing this every year, too, because the Driver's Manual is a perennial request.

Now back to the main story: after our print copy of the Driver's Manual arrived, I decided to take the test again, this time trying to look up each question in the booklet to see if I could find the answer. I could, for all but two of them - and in every case where I did find the answer, it was correct.

I only did this for the MA Permit Practice Test 1, but that was better than I expected. It seems like a number of libraries have already signed on to their library version (here's Alameda (CA) Free Library, and I am really curious to hear about the experience of their patrons - does this website help prepare them for their driver's test? Do patrons benefit from the library version more than the regular free version?

If you have any experience with this tool, please leave a comment - thanks!


*I did not, the first time. But I re-took the same test the next day and did much better!

**Note to other MA librarians: I asked if it was okay for me to share his info with other libraries, and he said no problem. So contact me if you'd like his email address.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/14

   December 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

stereoThis is a hard question to relay. What you're reading below isn't necessarily what the patron asked, it's just my understanding of what the patron asked - and I'm really not sure I ever understood correctly just what he was trying to do.

A patron came to the desk and said he had a pair of stereo earbuds, which were only playing sound on one side, and the guy at Radio Shack said he'd need to buy an adapter to make both sides play when he plugged into a mono jack (which he said our computers must have because he was only getting sound on one side). But instead of buying an adapter, the patron thought he could just go get another set of stereo earbuds and then plug one into the headphone jack on the front of our computers and the other into the jack on the back of our computers, and put whichever two of the four buds that worked into different ears and listen that way.

Most of this only marginally made sense to me. For one thing, the library headphones we offer for people to use all play sound out of both sides. I had no idea if our computer audio jacks were mono or stereo though, so we proceeded to do a little experimenting:

  • First I plugged library headphones into the front, and both sides played
  • Then I plugged them into the back, and again both sides played
  • Next I left them plugged into the back as he plugged his earbuds into the front - and he had sound on only one side and the headphones had no sound
  • Finally we plugged the earbuds in the back, and again he only had sound on one side

Since using the front jack shut off the back jack entirely, that shot down his idea of two simultaneous separate earbuds - which kind of deflated the whole situation. So after he sat down to work, I went back to the desk to try to figure out if our workstations had mono or stereo jacks. However, I poked all around inside the Control Panel and on the Dell website for our model PCs, and could not determine this one way or the other.

But what the internet did teach me is that you can tell from the plug if your headphones/earbuds are mono or stereo:



Huh - that seems so obvious, but I never knew this. I checked the library headphones, and sure enough all of them had stereo plugs, not mono plugs.

So knowing that, I decided to take a different tack - find a recording that was in stereo and see if the headphones play it correctly. A quick YouTube search found this:

Besides this being my new favorite YouTube video (the guy is so nice and polite!), it also told me that our computers definitely play in stereo. But, sadly, by this time the patron had left.

So now my working theory on what was happening is that the patron actually had mono earbuds, which apparently will only play one side when plugged into a stereo jack. Maybe this is what he was asking all along and I was just confused. He's one of our regulars though, so I'll watch for him and hopefully catch him before he buys some kind of adapter. It won't help with mono earbuds, but at least it'll save him some money. And I can also thank him for prompting me to learn all this stuff.

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Random Notes on a Tech Program for Seniors

   November 19th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Watch for Seniors signI don't often give presentation-based programs for patrons at my library, but last week I assisted one of my coworkers with a "Using Library Ebooks" program at our local Senior Center. A few things stood out to me during this program that I didn't anticipate, so I thought it might be worthwhile to share them here.

(But again, I don't do this very often, so it might be old news to people that do.)

First of all, we were invited to do this tech program at the Senior Center - they're always happy to have speakers visit them, and seniors seem to be the demographic that we help the most with ebooks and mobile devices. It seemed like a win-win.

The plan was to do a short presentation with slides, then live demonstrations downloading to devices, and finally hands-on helping the seniors with their devices they brought with them. Unfortunately, the Senior Center's wi-fi was down, which pretty much killed any live demo or helping we planned because no one could get online.

My coworker stretched out her slides as long as she could, and then we just talked with the seniors and answered the questions. Although things didn't go as planned, I felt it went really well. The thing about just sitting around talking is that the people felt comfortable enough to ask us just about anything.

So, based on this experience, here's what I learned for next time:

  • Don't count on wi-fi - this is true for any presentation really, and having backup slides is just good practice. But in our case, having slides that had screenshots of the different websites we were talking about was invaluable, because we could still show what the sites looked like, where important links were, etc.
  • Make a Large Print Presentation - many seniors read Large Print books for a reason, so it makes sense that they'd be more comfortable with Large Print slides too. Even though it's projected up on a wall, it's still easy to accidentally make the type small to cram a lot of information on a slide. In a few cases I noticed the seniors leaning in towards the screen to read the slides, so this is definitely something I'll keep in mind for future presentations to seniors.

    A little harder to manage are screenshots, because you can only get so big with those. But one option is to pull a zoomed shot of the part of the page you want to highlight, so people can read it - but to also show the full page and where that zoomed shot fits in. I could see just a series of enlarged fragments being confusing.

  • Do these talks before Christmas - conventional wisdom over the last few years has been to offer ebook workshops right after the holidays, in order to help all those people who just received devices as gifts. This program was in early November, and something interesting came up: it was perfect timing, because it caught all of these seniors before they went South to Florida for the winter.

    That hadn't really occurred to me before, and if we waited until January for this program we would have missed them. Obviously not everyone goes to Florida for the winter, but in our case it really is a strategy to accommodate.

    Another nice benefit of mobile seniors is that they aren't limited to just what this library offers. Chances are the library in where ever they're going also offers ebooks, and it's worth their time to stop in there to ask about it. Some of the seniors in our program own property in Florida and some only rented, so they may or may not be able to get library cards down there depending on library policy. But we can help them with the Collier County Public Library's Overdrive catalog as easily as we can our own, and they seemed to appreciate it.

  • Be ready to talk about anything - this isn't really something you can prepare for, but it's good to allow time for wide-ranging conversations. In our case, when my coworker mentioned using Adobe Digital Editions, one senior gentleman said he must not be able to use ebooks after all because his computer at home has been telling him to update is Adobe and he can't.

    That led to a bit of an explanation on the differences between Adobe the company, Adobe Flash, Adobe Reader, and Adobe Digital Editions. It took some time, but in the end the seniors seem to understand why all of those are different things and not really related, and a problem with Flash doesn't mean he can't read ebooks. Of course I'd talk about this with anyone who asked, but having the freedom to spend some time on this seemed to benefit everyone.

  • If at all possible, work on their devices - I think every one of our attendees brought their own device, and they also each had unique questions about their experience (and problems) so far. I felt bad that we couldn't get online and address each one of them, because people in general aren't usually interested in the overall Way Things Should Be, they're interested in the very specific Ways It Is For Them.
  • Bring handouts - my coworker brought copies of her slides as handouts, but what we forgot were the ebook step-by-step booklets we have at the library. I also forgot to bring business cards with my contact information so people could easily contact us for one-on-one tech help appointments. Everyone was very interested in those, and said they'd be stopping by the library for more personal assistance. Which is great, but I feel bad that we didn't think ahead to make it easier for them to do so.

Overall I think it was a very successful program. The six or so attendees really seemed to benefit, and my coworker and I enjoyed the casual instruction. If anyone else has helpful tips to make programs better, please let me know in the comments.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/7/14

   November 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

JwingdingsThis was kind of a funny question, right up until I realized I had created a monster.

A patron, who is somewhat new to email, walked up to the desk and said,

Patron: I think some of my friends' email accounts have all been hacked by the same person, and he's sending me messages.

Me: Oh really, why?

Patron: Because at the end of a lot of messages - not all of them, but some of them - it is signed with just the initial J. Someone named J must have hacked their accounts and is sending messages to me, but they don't know they've been hacked because sometimes the messages really come from my friends.

I love a good conspiracy, but in this case I explained what emoticons are and how people sometimes use them in email to display smiling or frowning faces. Some people just used keyboard characters, some use a special font, and some use images.

In this case the patron's friends must be using Outlook, which uses Wingdings font to display emoji. If other email programs don't use that technique, it will just show that character in the default font, which is usually a J for a smiley face.

We then went back over to his computer which still had his Yahoo mail up, and I showed him how he could add emojis to his message. He was thrilled, and I think now all of his friends are going to get sick of it very quickly.

Even though the patron was happy, I still much prefer the idea of a mysterious person named J hacking all his friends' accounts just to send him messages.

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Web Designer-Client Translation Infographic

   November 12th, 2014 Brian Herzog

My library is in the very beginning stage of redesigning our website, so I've been collecting various links on the subject. I thought this infographic was funny, and maybe actually useful too.

The "translations" down the right side are actually a nice little collection of sample ideas. And of course, when our design team starts getting input on early drafts from staff and patrons, the translations themselves will surely be invaluable.


via Lifehacker.

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