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

Archives for Technology:

Reference Question of the Week – 11/2/14

   November 8th, 2014 Brian Herzog

wall street journal signI like reference interactions where the initial question really just ends up being an ice-breaker for a series of bonus tangents. Well, sometimes I like those.

In this case, a patron came up to the desk carrying a back issue of the Wall Street Journal and asked,

Can I check this out? I want to take it home to compare it to the online version, because I think they're not giving me everything online that they are in the newspaper. I cancelled my newspaper subscription and just do the online now, but an online subscription is the same price as the newspaper and I don't think they include all the articles that are in the real paper.

I don't know the specifics of the WSJ's pricing structure, but I suspect that this patron is correct. I noticed this years ago with our online subscription the Lowell Sun database - articles people swore they saw in the print paper were not coming up in the database (and it wasn't hard for me to verify).

At the time, I called Newsbank to ask them about it, and they said that yes, that is correct. They only have the rights to put Lowell Sun-generated content into their database - so, any syndicated content like AP articles, comics, puzzles, etc, will not appear online. This was a few years ago and in a different context, but the Newsbank person said we'd never see an online version of anything that has everything the print edition has.

I relayed this to the patron, and he appeared to feel vindicated.

He also was extremely interested in the previously-unknown-to-him fact that we had online access to the Lowell Sun - and the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. I showed him how to log in from home with his library card, so that was a happy little tangent. Then he had another tangent for me:

Well, that's okay anyway about the Wall Street Journal articles. Sometimes what I can do is look at the headlines on the Wall Street Journal website, and if an article I want to read is one you have to pay for, then I just search for that headline in Google and usually it links to the full article for free. I don't know why, and it's not all the time, but usually.

So then we had a little talk about paywalls and Google access, for which I had no good answer. But while listening to him, I suspect that some of the articles he links to from Google weren't actually on the WSJ website, just news articles from other sources that had very similar headlines.

What I did not tell him about was the Element Inspector trick - a method for editing a website's code to remove the "sign in to read the full article" blocking mechanism. However, after the patron left I did try out both that trick and his search-for-the-headline-on-Google technique, and I couldn't get either of them to work for WSJ.com articles. Which isn't too surprising - if anyone is going to put a lot of effort into making sure casual circumvention can't be used to access their content, it'll be online newspapers.

Anyway, so instead of taking the back issue of the newspaper home, he just sat down at one of our computers and spent some time comparing the print headlines to the articles available on WSJ.com. I didn't talk to him again though, so I don't know what he discovered.

But another delightful bonus from this question is the idea of letting patrons take home old issues of newspapers. We don't catalog them at all, so all our newspapers are in-library only. I've never been asked this before, but it's certainly a good one for our No Log, to see if we get to yes on it. We already use the honor system for our collection of Cliff Notes, so it might work for old newspapers too.

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Using Carbon Paper for Warning Slips

   November 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

carbon signSo, social media, wireless printing, circulating telescopes, blah blah blah - you know what else we've got? Carbon paper!

To go along with our public typewriter and public fax machine, my library has recently started using carbon paper again (well, actually, carbonless paper).

We got the idea while revamping our behavior warning slip - when a noteworthy incident occurred, staff would fill out a warning slip, and then have to go in the back room to make a photocopy for the patron to take with them. To streamline the process, we thought we'd redesign the form with carbon paper technology in mind, and now we're rolling out the result.

Our new form is three "pages" - really it's one, but with Admin, Desk, and Patron copies for the white, yellow, and pink paper. That way, staff can fill it out on the spot and have all the copies they need right there. One for the patron, one on file in the Admin office, and one to keep at the desk so other staff will know what's going on.

Hopefully, this will make things easier. It took some trial and error to make sure we were printing the pages correctly so the writing would transfer, but once we got it right, the forms seem to work very well. We shall see.

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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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Why Your Privacy Matters, Even If You’re Not “Doing Anything Wrong”

   October 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

One of the anti-privacy arguments that I hate - hate - is the idea that people who are not doing anything wrong shouldn't mind pervasive surveillance.

The video below is Glenn Greenwald's TED talk on why that is complete crap, and on the larger issue of why privacy is vital to normal human life. It's a 20 minute video, with Greenwald's talk the first 15 minutes and then some question and answer afterward. It is 20 minutes well-spent.

Privacy is of course paramount in libraries, and this talk clearly parallels why librarians care so much about it.

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A Couple of Minor Interesting Things

   October 9th, 2014 Brian Herzog

magnifying glassI know there are significant issues coming to light this week regarding security and privacy, but this post highlights two far less consequential items. Both are search tips from Lifehacker.

1. Searching for Lyrics
The first is that Bing Now Shows Lyrics at the Top of Your Search Results. This will actually be extremely useful, because I haven't felt comfortable about visiting a lyrics website since about 2000. I don't know why those always seem to be the most virus- and crap-prone websites, but they are.

Of course this doesn't work for every song. In fact, quite literally while I still had the Lifehacker post open, a patron walked up and asked me to print the lyrics for Anything Goes. I was librarian-excited to try out a new tool to answer a question, but this Bing trick didn't work for that song. That's a fairly well-known song - and so are God Bless America and Born In The USA. I don't know what makes Man In The Mirror special, but something apparently. Maybe it's a copyright thing, or maybe the Bing developers are just starting with their favorite artists. But it's still worth trying out when the moment arises. And, it'd good to see Bing being innovative.

2. Searching Individual Websites
The second item is how you can Search Individual Sites on Google by Searching For Their Name. This is something I've been noticing for years, but also not something I've ever really counted on. But if it's planned to be a deliberate feature, I'll try to use it more. At least, it's sure easier that using the "site:" limiter.

Again, it doesn't work for every website. It seems like mainly just big, popular, and news websites have this available, but I also found some notable exceptions.

So that's it - now back to more important things.

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Creating Better Passwords By Knowing How They’re Cracked

   October 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

password are like pants signThis weekend on Twitter, @itsokayihaveabook linked to a great article on the current thinking for choosing a secure password. I don't keep up with this stuff all the time, but every so often I will check in to see what the developments are. If you only read one password security article this year, this is a good candidate.

I liked this one because it wasn't just preachy-talky on why good passwords are important - he explains how password hacking works, and gives advice based on that to create better passwords.

Some things not to do:

  • don't use words: password guessing software crunches through multiple dictionaries at unbelievable speeds, so even nonsensical word combinations will eventually be guessed
  • don't use personally-identifiable information: many aspects of our lives are online, and hackers will use everything they know about us when guessing passwords - so don't use addresses, phone numbers, birthdates, schools, mascots, relatives' names, etc
  • don't be common: there's lots of standard passwords (like pa$$w0rd, temp1234, i<3book$, etc) that are incorporated into password-guessing - even though it looks tricky to the eye, if other people are using it, chances are the hackers will try it
  • don't reuse passwords: with corporate-level security breaches, even a good password might be compromised through no fault of your own. But if you use the same good password for all your accounts, once the hackers get it from Home Depot or Target or where ever, then it's much easier for them to get into your PayPal and Amazon and bank accounts

So here's what he feels you can do - the "Schneier scheme":

So if you want your password to be hard to guess, you should choose something that this process will miss. My advice is to take a sentence and turn it into a password. Something like "This little piggy went to market" might become "tlpWENT2m". That nine-character password won't be in anyone's dictionary. Of course, don't use this one, because I've written about it. Choose your own sentence -- something personal.

The entire article is worth reading. But his bottom-line takeaway is kind of scary: "Pretty much anything that can be remembered can be cracked."

I'm going to start recommending this technique when helping patrons set up email accounts. Thanks Jenny!

Update 10/3/14:

A reader sent me a link to another article, Why you don't need long, complex passwords. I sort of referenced the gist above, but it does a much better job of spelling out another major vulnerability. Thanks R. E.!

The bottom line of all of this seems to be that living is inherently dangerous, so live well and don't worry too much about it.

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