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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/6/15

   December 12th, 2015 Brian Herzog

game over, thank you for playing, please try againThis week's question fits right in with the recent thread of "things that happen at closing time," but unfortunately gets filed under, "you win some, you lose some."

Wednesdays are my night to work until closing at 9pm, and in general that's a pretty quiet night. This week, at about 8:40, a patron walked up asking for help with the printer. Specifically, she didn't know how to release multiple jobs at the same time.

"No problem," I thought, as I walked over to the print station with the patron - "too bad it won't be interesting enough for the blog, but at least it's not going to keep me here late." Well, I've been wrong before.

Actually, this part of the question went smoothly. The patron had about $10.95 worth of print jobs sitting in the queue, all in 1- and 2-page jobs. Our coin box only accepts up to $9.50 at a time (so someone doesn't put a $10 bill in to pay for a $0.15 print job and get a whole jackpot of coins back in change), so I showed her how to select, pay for, and release half of the jobs - and then after those printed, how to do it again for the second half.

Once the second half started printing, I went back to the Reference Desk and made our 8:45 first closing announcement. Life was going well, until that same patron came back up to the Reference Desk at about 8:50, carrying her freshly-printed Very Large Stack of papers (by the way, $10.95 at $0.15/page is 73 pages), and said those dreaded words,

Do you have a scanner?

Arrgh, curse our patron responsiveness! Yes, we do have a scanner, and it even has a feed try. But man, she's got a lot to scan, and we close in ten minutes.

However, I tell myself, ten minutes is a long time, and although waiting next to the scanner is like watching a pot waiting for it to boil, it actually does scan pretty fast, so ten minutes is probably plenty of time. So I say, "sure," and take her to the scanner.

73 pages is too many for the feed tray, so I tell her to scan them in thirds. We open the scanner software, she puts about 1/3 of the pages on the tray, and it starts up. The scanner is loud enough, and since she's the only patron left in the reference area, the library is quiet enough, that I can go about my closing time routine and hear when the scanner finishes that first set.

When it does, I come back, get her started on the second third of the pages, and then continue closing - shutting off our OPACs, turning off lights and closing doors in the study rooms, making sure the courtyard door is locked, swapped out the daily calendar posting for tomorrow's, and generally straightening the area.

At about 8:56 we put the last stack of pages on the scanner, and I'm feeling pretty good - I think we'll run a few minutes over, but obviously the patron is appreciative. I make the final closing announcement, turn off one of the reference desk computers, and make a final pass through the stacks to make sure no patrons are hiding back there or laying on the floor unconscious (this is what I think about while closing at night).

Finally I hear the scanner finish - 73 pages through the feed tray with no jams! - and things are looking good. The next step with the scanner software is it goes through and "reads" each scanned page, to OCR the text and make a searchable PDF file. This generally takes a few seconds per page, which means it's going to take a bit to complete for this file. I explain what's happening to the patron, and then go upstairs to the circulation desk, to let the desk staff know I'm helping someone but they can go home.

And I ask the maintenance man to stay, which he's fine with. The desk staff all walk out, I go back downstairs, and I can hear the maintenance guy upstairs doing some general straightening - and then he starts signing Christmas carols. Okay, at least that means he's in a good mood and not annoyed with me.

So back downstairs to the patron, and I see the file is at 25% and making progress. Excellent. I ask the patron if she'd like to email it, and she says yes. So I open a browser, thinking she can log into her email and get a message ready to attach the file to.

She does, but then asks if she can save to a flash drive instead. "It'll be faster," she said, which I don't know that it would be, but either way is fine with me.

Then she pulls this MASSIVE external hard drive out of her bag. For my purposes it works just like a flash drive, but I am always a little surprised when people use imprecise speech. And I'm also surprised that she carries this thing around in her purse. But anyway, she plugs it into the computer, and -


The computer starts to recognize the new USB device plugged into it, but then freeze. Freezes solid. I don't know if it can't install a driver, or if processing the PDF file was just too much to do while also installing the hard drive, but the scanner software stops dead at 34%.

Okay, I think, it's just a momentary hangup. The memory will catch up in a few seconds, the computer will return to normal, and we won't have wasted the last twenty minutes working on this. I hope.

It is at this point that the maintenance guy finishes messing around upstairs, and comes downstairs, still singing Christmas carols, and sits on the steps behind where I'm working with the patron.

I don't know if you've ever stood with a patron watching a frozen computer hoping it will magically fix itself ten minutes after the library closes while someone sits ten feet behind you singing Christmas carols, but I would recommend against it. Strongly.

We really did wait a few minutes, playing with the mouse, pressing keys, and could not get the computer to do anything. I think the patron could see it was hopeless, and finally I just told her that I think we just ran out of luck.

The worst part is that, since it was now after 9pm, Staples was already closed, and I don't know where else she could get access to a scanner that night. I suggested trying the UMass Lowell's library, which I presume has a scanner and would be open late, but that was the only thing I could think of that might be helpful.

I felt terrible, but she was still grateful for the effort and staying late. She unplugged her external hard drive from the computer, put it and her stack of papers into her bag, and I walked her to the front door.

So, the moral of the story is, even when you try to go above and beyond to help patrons, you can still come up short sometimes.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/3/13

   February 9th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Oscar the GrouchEarlier this week I mentioned something I really like about working in libraries. For the reference question this week, I'm going to talk about something I don't like about my job:ambiguity.

And, fair warning: the next few paragraphs are just me whining, so feel free to skip to the question at the end.

This week was kind of a perfect storm of annoyances for me, if you'll pardon the pun. First, it's tax season. Second, I don't know if this made the news outside of New England, but we got a bit of a storm Friday and Saturday. Most of the questions this week dealt with one of these topics.

First, the tax stuff
Tax forms were late this year, which always brings out the worst in people. When we finally started getting the ones people wanted and put them out for the public, people were happy - until they noticed we didn't have all the forms and instructions they wanted.

Now, libraries don't create the tax forms, and we have no input into the publication schedule - we just help distribute them. We put out what we can, and for the ones we know we're missing, like the 1040 Instructions, we put up a sign saying something like "1040 Instructions have not arrived yet."

Of course this prompts people to ask when they'll arrive. We have no idea. They don't know we don't know, but also rarely seem to take "we don't know" for an answer. It's a no-win situation, and one I hate to be in - I hate it when "I don't know" is really the best thing I can tell someone. It has been especially bad this year.

Second, the snow storm
This storm was predicted to be a big one, starting early on Friday and lasting into Saturday night. It was supposed to be so big, in fact, that about noon on Friday, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick issued an executive order closing all the roads in the state at 4pm, with a $500 fine if you were caught out after that. So, yeah, serious.

All schools in the area were closed on Friday, and most libraries closed at noon - but not us. The way things work in my town is that it's the Town Manager's call, and his philosophy is to keep public facilities open as long as conditions allow. When we do close early, we usually only get an hour or two notice.

This can cause a bit of a problem, because while most libraries announced their early closing on Thursday, Friday at noon we were still telling patrons, "sorry, we don't know how long we'll be open." It was frustrating, because the phone was ringing constantly with people asking, "hey, are you open?" and, "are you closing early?" and, again, the best we could tell them was "we don't know."

This demoralized staff, but was also frustrating for patrons - road conditions were deteriorating, and they had to weigh if it was worth it to drive to the library to get books and DVDs for the upcoming snow-bound weekend. But then not even knowing if we'd be open once they got here was understandably irritating.

Now the question
One question I dread every winter is the "how much snow fell on X date?" We get similar weather-related questions throughout the year, but snowfall is always the toughest. The problem is there is no good local resource that provides the data the patrons want, so the best we can do is cobble together what we can find and let them draw their own conclusions.

This time, someone asked me how much snow fell on two different days in January, because the plow guy she uses billed her for $60 for plowing 4" on January 16th and $40 for 1" on the 29th. Something seemed off to her, so she wanted to double-check to make sure that's how much snow was on her driveway on those days.

Now that is hyper-local, and it's just tough. My favorite historical weather resource, which I've talked about before, is NOAA's snow data files, and they have snowfall and snow depth by month. The closest NOAA monitoring station is only the next town over, which is pretty good, but it's still far enough away to not be able to conclusively say what happened in her driveway on those days.

The other resource I've found that's good for this type of question is Accuweather's past weather table. This is great because it easily lets you scroll backward in time, and shows snowfall in addition to precipitation (most weather resources just show precipitation, which is why snowfall is more difficult than rainfall).

But a problem with consulting multiple resources is when, as in this case, the numbers don't match up. Accuweather's amounts different from NOAA's, which are themselves different from the plow guy's amounts. Not enough to dispute the bill, which I think is all this patron is looking for really. But I include this on my list of "ambiguity annoyances" because I don't like it when I can't find a solid answer for someone. I know it's the nature of research, but still - frustrating.

Anyway, in this particular case, the patron also slightly annoyed that the plow guy charged her for plowing an inch of snow - but, wisely, she decided she wasn't going to say anything to him until after the major storm this weekend.

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Another Take on the End of Borders

   July 26th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Borders sign: No Public Restrooms - Try AmazonLast week, the owner of Gibson's Bookstore in Concord, NH, sent a message to all his customers about the closing of Borders. There are primarily only two big bookstores in Concord, Gibson's and a Borders, so you might think this would be a celebratory message.

It's not. It's a very somber analysis of how the closing of Borders has the potential to have a widespread negative impact on the bookworld at large. I know there has been lots of articles and posts about Borders closing, but I thought this was worth passing along - thanks, Michael:

Book lovers love to go to bookstores. That’s always been true, and always will be.

Most people remember the first time they went to a book superstore, to encounter what seemed like acres of space, visual interest everywhere, beautiful art on the shelves, infinite discoveries awaiting the explorer, symbols of learning and entertainment as far as the eye could see. And room for like-minded explorers to gather and celebrate their love of books, often with coffee, that drug of choice for the serious reader.

It was Borders that pretty much invented that concept in their flagship store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and it was Borders that spread it across the nation. And today, with Borders going out of business, book lovers are upset and worried. What does this mean for the future of the book industry and of reading in general?

Let me get to that answer in a roundabout way, through a little local history.

When I bought Gibson’s - Concord’s oldest retailer, and now the oldest independent bookstore in New Hampshire - in 1994, it was my belief that Concord was too small a market for chain bookstores to enter. Amazon was still just a glimmer in a Wall Streeter’s eye. There were other small bookstores in the area. I thought we could coexist, serve our market in different ways, and grow.

Borders entered the area in 1999, right after we had doubled our space and added Bread & Chocolate as our café and retail partner. I was surprised and, frankly, worried for the future. Borders was like another independent, that was the buzz, except they were eight times larger than you, had a limitless supply of cash, had whole teams of people working on issues you could only tackle after you’d put the kids to bed, and - the killer - they had a real literary culture. It was hard to find a weakness there. It was hard to convince yourself that you had a future. All you could do was believe in yourself, in your book and business smarts, in the people you had around you, in your public, and in your luck.

Gibson’s took an immediate 25% hit when Borders opened. This was standard and inevitable. We were prepared for it. What we weren’t prepared for was that we would never climb back. Between Borders, the rise of Amazon, loss of parking, and various recessions, we were hard-pressed to stay in business at all. It wasn’t money but pure stubbornness that motivated me, to be honest. That, and the fact that I just loved books.

What did we do? Whatever we could do with no budget, because, frankly, sales were lousy. We introduced a loyalty program, we started doing more events and attracting bigger authors to the area, we built our newsletter and our presence on the Web. We did as many offsite events as we could handle, partnering with dozens of non-profits and schools. We became active in trade organizations, and through networking and staff development we improved what we do in the store.

Adversity made us better. Not richer, but better.

Over the same period, what did Borders do? They continued to attract great bookselling talent at the store level, here in Concord and across the nation. But at the management level, in Ann Arbor, they lost their focus. They frittered away a great brand. Injudicious long-term leases meant that they were stuck in many unprofitable locations. Their business model of the 1990s - relying heavily on CD/DVD sales, encouraging people to lounge for hours without buying - didn’t translate well to the 2000s, and the folks at the top didn’t come up with a viable new approach.

The Borders board in Ann Arbor hired team after management team with no book experience, and not a lot of their innovations worked. Outsourcing their online sales to Amazon, during such a critical time, was a mistake that will be studied in business schools for years to come. Aggressive “upsells” of Borders rewards cards alienated many customers (not to mention booksellers who were disciplined for not meeting their targets). “Category management,” a philosophy imported from the supermarket trade, didn’t translate well to the book industry. And that “make books” program - in which every bookseller in the chain was obliged to hand sell a particular title, as if it was his own favorite - was off-putting to readers who expected to get real recommendations from the talented booksellers they met at Borders.

And so the machine ground to a halt, and a once great chain eventually went out of business. Not because of e-books, not because of Amazon, not because of tough conditions in the book business, but because bad decisions made them vulnerable to those tough conditions.

How do we feel about that? Not good. Sure, Borders made our life difficult, and they didn’t make good decisions over the past decade, but let’s face it, the book industry has just lost millions of square feet of display space at a critical time. Even though e-books have not made the apocalyptic inroads that you might believe from news reports, the industry needs showrooms. The industry needs physical bookstores. No one has figured out how the industry can sustain itself, not to mention how writers can put food on their tables, without physical bookstores, and now all but a few thousand have disappeared.

This is not good news. So even though meeting payroll has just become easier, and maybe we’ll now have the resources to improve what we do here, we at Gibson’s are not as happy as we thought we’d be. The loss of a bookstore is sad for all, and the loss of 500 sadder still. Many of these were beautiful stores, a reader's dream. And they were staffed by thousands of people who love books just like we do.

We don’t know what the future holds. We might expand, we might sit tight. Another chain bookstore might move into the area, or they might not. E-books might take more than the 20% of the market we predict. The situation is in a terrible state of flux.

All we say is this: we are committed to the art of bookselling in Concord. We believe that the independent bookstore is a model not only from the past but for the future. Despite the rise of e-books and the cultural challenges facing our nation, there has never been a better time to own an independent bookstore. Readers still want physical books, and they want to shop in bookstores that are staffed and lovingly curated by local book people. We want to craft the best possible store to showcase the best the book world has to offer. We want to build it so they will come.

To do that, we need your help. In the next few weeks, we’ll be sending out emails describing some new initiatives we’re either contemplating or implementing. Please send us your ideas, too. And above all, buy books from us, if you want there to be an independent bookstore in Concord. That’s all it takes. The future, in large measure, is in your hands. If you want this store to stay in business, give your business to this store. We promise to do our best to earn it.

--Michael Herrmann & all your friends at Gibson’s

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/7/08

   December 13th, 2008 Brian Herzog

I Assure You We're Open sheet sign from Clerks movieDue to the ice storm that came through the area on Friday, there is a tie for most popular reference question today:

Hey, are you open?


Do you have internet?

My answer all day has been, "we're open, we have lights and heat, and everything is working normally except our internet connection is down*."

Needless to say, it's been a quiet day: not unbusy, just quiet - most of our work tables and all of our comfortable chairs are filled with people researching and reading, which all but goes unnoticed on a regular day. And because lots of area residents are still without power, there's even a couple people napping in the corners, just happy to be someplace warm.

The next most popular reference question has been:

Do you know how I can keep my pipes from freezing?

Most area residents lost power on Friday, 12/12/08, and although many homes are now back on, there are still plenty who are looking at two or three days without power. Temperatures are predicted to be in the teens and twenties for the next few days, so freezing pipes is a major concern.

The best advice came from Home Maintenance for Dummies. Before loaning it out to the first person who asked this morning, I photocopied the necessary page to keep a "reference copy" at the desk. It recommends:

A faucet left dripping at the fixture farthest from the main water inlet allows just enough warm water movement within the pies to reduce the chance of a freeze...

Insulating pipes that are above ground (those that are most susceptible to freezing) prevents them from freezing during most moderate-to-medium chills - even when the faucets are off. This includes pips in the subarea or basement and especially any that might be in the attic.

If your kitchen or bathroom sink faucets are prone to freezing, leave the cabinet doors open at night. This allows warm air to circulate in the cabinet and warm the pipes.

The last tip won't help much for a house that is at 39 degrees, but it's good to keep in mind anyway.

Hopefully the power to my house is back on by the time I get home, otherwise I might sleep at the library tonight.

*I'm sure you're asking, "No intertnet? Then how'd you post this?" As a reference librarian, I know the laundromat up the street has great wireless internet.

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Providing Access to Information, with a Shovel

   December 13th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Outside Shoveling - Be Back SoonLike much of the country today, Chelmsford was hit by the "fast-moving, intense" snow storm. And, throughout most of the storm, my library stayed open.

Even though I do not know what they are, the powers-that-be in Chelmsford Town Hall decreed that we remain open until 5:00 pm. For eastern Massachusetts, that was five hours into the storm, after dark, and after about six inches of snow. Wouldn't it be better to send staff home before the storm, so they can drive home before rush hour, in the daylight, and not in a blizzard? But I complain.

Anyway, we stayed open, and I spent most of the afternoon shoveling the steps and walks, making sure patron still had the regular access to information that it is a librarian's duty to provide. A few pictures from the day are shown here:
Library in Snow 12-2007

The Library Is Open

blizzard, chelmsford, closing, libraries, library, public libraries, public library, shoveling, snow, storm

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