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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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