April 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This week I have almost nothing to say. First, everyone here has been focused on the bombings in Boston and the ensuing manhunt, which thankfully ended with an arrest Friday night. Secondly, this week was also school vacation week in Massachusetts, which always makes for a slow time at the Reference Desk.
As a result, the most notable question of the week was actually the lack of a particular question. Friday, April 19th, was the first day since January that not one person asked me for tax forms. Now that is a milestone worth celebrating.
Hopefully next week things will return to normal, and I'll get back on track with library stuff - and put away our tax form display for another year.
April 17th, 2013 Brian Herzog
Although I'm 20 miles from Boston, the explosions at the Marathon have been the dominant topic for the last couple days. Amid the tragedy, I couldn't help but notice a few things about the way information (and misinformation) flowed.
Almost immediately, the authorities were calling for everyone with photos or videos of the day - not just the explosions, but the entire race route throughout the morning - to share their media with the Police. They're even stopping people leaving the city through Logan airport to individually ask people if they captured anything. Of course the majority of people watching the race would have been taking pictures and video, and these will be tremendous help to the investigators. I'd never heard of this kind of solicitation on such a massive scale before, but I was impressed that City officials did not hesitate - shortly after it became clear the explosions were not an accident, they were asking for help from the public.
Also in short order Google created the Boston Marathon Explosions Person Finder - it's a way to both get information on someone that may have been near the scene, as well as a way for people to let others know they're safe. It's not the first time it was used, but is another helpful tool for sharing information.
Somewhat related, I also found it interesting that officials were repeatedly asking people to text and email loved ones instead of using their cell phones to make calls, to lighten the load on the over-burdened cell phone network. Even radio reporters at the scene kept getting cut off as their calls were dropped, and this technological fail led to rumors that the cell phone network had been deliberately shut down.
Which was false, but rumors were to be expected, I think. So I thought it was great that by Tuesday, Snopes already had a page up debunking some of the conspiracies and rumors - some of which are still being circulating among people I know and on the radio. Snopes is also continually adding information as they can.
Of course, all of this is in addition to the tip hotlines, press conferences, and other traditional ways to pass along information in situations like this. This is the closest I've ever been to this kind of emergency, and distracting myself with information logistics helped deal with the event itself.
And one last thing - a quote from Mr. Rogers, seen on Twitter:
This quote is contained with PBS' page on helping kids cope with scary situations. From what I heard on the news, there was an abundance of on-the-scene helpers - sharing information is just another way to help.
April 13th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This might surprise non-librarians, but reference staff doesn't just sit around all day answering regular questions. Sometimes, you get something like this:
A 20-something patron walked up to me at the Reference Desk one evening and said,
You know that bulletin board in your teen area that always has different stuff on it? I don't know if you take suggestions from people, but here's a puzzle kids might like to try to figure out. I say "try" because I show this to lots of people and no one has solved it - even math teachers.
With that, he takes a piece of scrap paper, writes four 9s on it (as in, just 9999), and explains the puzzle.
The goal is to use these four nines, and any mathematical symbols, and have the result equal 100. You can use any combination of symbols - +, -, /, x, ( ), etc. - but the result must work out to be exactly 100.
Just then his ride came to get him, so he flipped the paper over, wrote the answer on the back, and said he hoped the kids would have fun with it.
So there I was - it was a slow night, I've got an "unsolvable" puzzle in front of me, and the answer is also at my finger tips. Such a temptation to cheat, but I gave it my best shot, trying all kinds of different ideas over the course of the night. No matter what I tried though, I just couldn't get it, so eventually I had to look at the answer.
I'm sure this puzzle (and the solution) is on the internet somewhere, but if you're interested, give it a try. If you give up, or want to check your answer, this link will launch the solution in a new window (this is exactly what the patron wrote on the back of the scrap paper).
April 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This wasn't a very difficult question, and although it didn't have a great ending, I thought it was interesting anyway - and happy we could help because the patron had no where else to go.
A patron walked up to the Reference Desk and asked to use the phone. We generally only let people use desk phones to call for rides or other quick things, mainly to make sure phones are available for staff to answer incoming patron calls.
Since it was fairly early in the day, I asked him if he was calling for a ride, and he said,
No, I need to call email tech support. I called them last night to help with my email, but he said I needed to be in front of the computer. I don't have one at home, so I always use the library computers. I don't have a cell phone either, but I think this computer here in the corner is close enough to the Reference Desk that I could stretch the phone cord across the aisle while I talk to him. It should be a quick call.
Okay, by the time he was finished speaking, all kinds of red flags were waving for all they're worth.
I sympathize with people trying to use technology without actually owning their own technology - libraries are great, but obviously some things are much easier to do at home. However, also obviously, I couldn't allow this patron to:
- block an aisle way by stretching a cord across it
- engage in a phone conversation at the public workstation, since we routinely ask people doing this very thing to take their cell phone call in a different area of the library so as not to bother the other computer users near them
- tie up one of the Reference Desk phones for this long a time - no tech support call in history has been "quick"
Hoping to avoid this situation entirely, I asked the patron what he was trying to do, and if I could help. His answer kind of surprised me:
I've always used Hotmail, but now I'm switching to Gmail. The Gmail people said they were able to import everything from my Hotmail account, except what was in my Drafts folder. But when I went in to move those myself, I accidentally deleted some, so I called Hotmail to see if they could be restored.
First, I had no idea that Gmail offered a migration service, but they do. Neat. Secondly, I think he's right in that he'd need Hotmail tech support to recover deleted messages. I did check his account with him, just to see if there was something he overlooked, but from what we could tell the draft messages in question were gone.
And so, this left us with the original question of how he could use a phone and a computer at the same time. Eventually it dawned on me that he could borrow one of the laptops we loan to the public, and the Reference Desk's cordless phone,* and sit in an area of the library where his talking wouldn't bother anyone. It seemed like a good solution, and he was happy.
45 minutes later(!) he came back, a little dejectedly, and said Hotmail couldn't recover his messages after all. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason, but by this point had accepted it. The messages weren't critical, but he certainly would have preferred to have them. I apologized and we commiserated a bit about technological dependence, then he thanked me for the library being able to accommodate his situation, and left.
So in case anyone was wondering, the digital divide is still alive and well. It also made me wonder: do any libraries loan cell phones to patrons? I'm not an expert on cell phone technology, but I think there are the the kind where patrons could just pay to put minutes on them, so it wouldn't cost the library anything. It would have been helpful in a case like this, or if a patron was going on a trip or something and wanted the security of being in touch. It seems like a good idea, but I'm sure I'm overlooking some vital flaw.
*Our Reference Desk has two phones at the desk (and two computers), as well as a cordless phone in the Reference Office behind the Desk. We carry this with us when we know we'll be away from the desk, because it sure beats trying to sprint back to the desk when the phone rings while you're in the stacks.
Tags: computer, digital divide, email, gmail, hotmail, libraries, Library, migrate, phone, public, Reference Question, tech support
April 4th, 2013 Brian Herzog
This is a good post for April Fools week, but I swear it's a real thing.
The photo below shows the "readers advisory" shelves in my library - the books patrons can use to find more books to read. Except, one day, a set of encyclopedias - copyright 1965! - suddenly just appeared on the bottom shelf, and staff have no idea where they came from:
Our best guess is a patron brought them in to donate, and when we said no, and our Friends group likewise wouldn't accept them for the booksale, the patron just snuck them into the library anyway and left them on a shelf.
This is especially weird because this particular shelf is not at all near the front door, and no staff saw anyone lugging an entire set of encyclopedias through the library.
But don't get me wrong - we've found far worse things left behind by patrons, so I don't really mind these. It's just, I don't know, odd. Like, the person wanted to donate them to the library, and even after being told the library doesn't want them - copyright 1965! - they sneakily left them there anyway. As if we wouldn't notice. Or as if just by accident some other patron would use them. More likely, the person just no longer wanted to deal with them, and dumped his problem on us instead of take them back home.
Public libraries are endlessly fascinating.