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




Reference Readiness : A Manual for Librarians and Students

   August 13th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Ready Reference coverI was weeding the reference collection when I came across Ready Reference : A Manual for Librarians and Students. It was published in 1984, so I flipped through it thinking the viewpoint of ready reference from 25 years ago might be humorously outdated.

I was wrong. I was 10 when this book was published, but I still use many of the resources author Agnes Ann Hede recommends.

Each chapter in the book is devoted to different types of resources, and describes the best books in each area. As you would expect, most of the book focuses on print:

  • Dictionaries: 31 pages
  • Encyclopedias: 23 pages
  • Indexes, Serials and Directories: 26 pages
  • Bibliographies: 32 pages
  • Computer Sources and Services: 5 pages

I did get a laugh from the page comparisons, but it was certainly appropriate for 1984.

However, when I read the Computer section, I was amazed by how relevant it still is. There was no "computers are a difficult fad we just need to humor" mentality. In fact, the language she used is exactly what is commonly used today. She speaks of "getting into" databases, and casually refers to online searching (not on-line searching or "online" searching).

And her characterization and advice concerning balancing print and online resources is as true today as it was then:

[T]o be today's "compleat librarian," you must add to those [print] sources the increasingly abundant resources offered through computer technology.

The sad part is that this advice, 25 years later, is still not being fully embraced by the profession.

I debated, but ultimately weeded this book. As much as I liked it, it certainly was outdated, even though we do have the current copies of many of the print resources it recommends. But take a look to see if your library has this book. And weed your reference collection!



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Reference Question of the Week – 5/31/09

   June 6th, 2009 Brian Herzog

In this funny video, replace "dad" with "library patron" and it's a reference question many librarians know all too well. At least, for the first third of the video - after that, it gets kind of weird and definitely violates the appropriate library behavior policy.

via Huffington Post



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/22/09

   February 28th, 2009 Brian Herzog

zoomtext large print keyboardThis question actually took place months ago, but was only recently resolved.

An elderly patron came to the desk and asked about email. She said her grandchildren all wanted her to get an email address, but she didn't know anything about computers.

I took her over to a computer, intending to help her sign up for an email address. However, when the patron said her eyesight was too bad to read the computer screen, I decided to move to our large print workstation.

The "large print" workstation is more or less the same as our regular computers, except that it has a much larger monitor, and it has the Zoomtext software to make reading the screen more comfortable for people with low vision. The other difference is that it is located in our large print room, so the atmosphere is more quiet and calm than the computer area.

We sat down, and I fiddled with the mouse and keyboard to adjust the screen text so it was at a size she could read comfortably. At that point, I sat back and started saying things like "okay, now use the mouse to point the arrow there..." and "type mail.yahoo.com in the white bar..." I could tell the patron was understanding what I was saying, but was still having trouble.

I asked her if the screen was clear enough, and she said,

I can see the words on the screen just fine, but I can't make heads or tails of the keyboard.

It turned out, even though we tricked-out the software, we neglected to make one very important piece of hardware "large print." The keyboard was the same type we used on the regular computers, and the small white-on-black keys were just not something this patron could read.

I brought this up with the library's IT person, and she asked our Friends group to purchase a real low-vision keyboard. It took a few months, but they came through, and we have a new Zoomtext large print keyboard hooked to the large print computer.

It's kind of an embarrassing oversight - at least it was for me when I was trying to help this patron. I don't expect to be able to anticipate every need and requirement, no matter how hard we try - that's why it's important to get feedback from real patrons (and pay attention to it and act on it).

I've seen some patrons using the new keyboard, and the few I've talked to are extremely happy with it. They'd been making due with the old one, and it never occurred to them to ask for something else. I feel better knowing there is one less barrier for these patrons, but one older gentleman summed it up perfectly:

It used to be that typing was a struggle, but now email is actually fun. Or rather, it probably will be when I understand what I'm doing.



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Reference Question of the Week – 1/18/09

   January 24th, 2009 Brian Herzog

default Mac desktopOne of the nice programs my library offers is One-on-One computer training. Patrons can sit with a librarian and get help with any computer issue - searching library resources, setting up email, learning Word, etc.

It's a very popular service, and the appointments are often booked weeks in advance. It's not unusual to make appointments over the phone, but a phone call last week wasn't the typical "help with Word" request:

Patron: I read that you guys do computer classes there?
Me: Yes we do, what would you like help with?
Patron: I know how to use regular computers, but I got a Mac laptop for Christmas and don't know how to turn it on. Can you teach me how to use it?

Now, granted, if I were a Mac person or used Macs with even the most infrequent regularity, I might not have balked at this request. However, as it stands, I explained to her that I didn't know much about Macs, but I would show her what I did know and then we'd use the library's Mac books and learn the rest together.

By the time she came for her appointment, she had figured out how to turn her Macbook Air on. I showed her how to use the AirPort to connect to the library's wireless network, and then showed her how to launch applications from the icons on the bottom of the screen. We went through each of the application icons, and eventually she was getting the hang of it.

Then came her next question:

Patron: How do I get to the games?

Ha. I told her I was pretty sure Macs didn't come with games, but showed her how to use the Finder to search the computer. After going through that a few times (which is probably as much as the average person needs to know about using a computer), we moved on to using the internet.

Her nephew, who had given her the Macbook, had also created both Yahoo and Gmail accounts for her, so we practiced getting to each and logging in. Then came another surprising comment.

Patron: How do I get to the people in my Yahoo address book from my Google account?
Me: I don't think that's something you can do.
Patron: But my nephew said that you can do anything on a Mac, so why couldn't I do this?

Hmm. The rest of the appointment was spent managing expectations of the Mac and just practicing logging into things. Before she left, she made another appointment for the following week, but then called a few days later to cancel it. She said she had been using the computer on her own and felt she didn't need anymore training. Maybe Macs really are easier to use than PCs.



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Levels of Service

   December 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

503 Error: Service UnavailableSince the outages caused by the ice storm on Thursday, my library has been slowly reestablishing our affected services. First back up was our power and heat and catalog (day two), then wireless internet (day three), then internet to the public workstations (day four).

This progressive-improvement situation made for a good quote. When asked by a staff person if things were working again, the response was:

Everything is working, but we're still working on making it patron-proof again.

It made perfect sense in context, but when I thought about it later, it sounded both funny and counter-intuitive.

Recovering from an unintended power outage really draws a stark line between having something work, and having something work the way we want it to. Just having a computer that turns on isn't good enough - ours also need to automatically log in, track time, connect to printers and the internet, and protect the user's privacy and data. And ideally, do all this without intervention from the user.

On the surface, the answer above might sound like our goal was keep the computers safe from the public. The goal is actually to make sure the public needs to do as little as possible to use our computers (making sure they can do no harm is a side effect).



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/19/08

   October 25th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Jobs listings on Craigslist websiteBefore I get into this week's reference question, I want to point out that this is my 100th Reference Question of the Week - that's almost two years of weekly reference questions. My, my, doesn't the time just fly when you are giving patrons directions to the bathrooms?

In honor of such a momentous event, I thought I'd share one of the reference questions I just dread. I get variants of this question occasionally, but last week all the components came together in a perfect storm of reference question difficulty:

Patron: I've never used a computer before, so can you help me find a job on craigslist?

Sigh. For non-reference librarians, here's why this simple request is especially hard:

  1. Almost any kind of job-related request can be difficult
  2. Most of the job resources available in the library are online, so having no computer experience is automatically a setback
  3. Craigslist? It is certainly a valid job search tool, but there are other places I'd be more comfortable starting off a computer novice (she never did tell me how she got referred to craigslist)

Lots of people would jump on a question like this and consider it a golden teaching moment. Which I tried to do, but I was alone on a busy Thursday morning and I didn't have the amount of uninterrupted time it would take to teach the patron to use a mouse and then educate her enough about the internet and craigslist to find a job safely.

But happily, she was a fast learner, and really took to the mouse and using the browser. Since she asked for craigslists, I showed her how to get there and use it, and while doing so also told her about other job search websites she could try. We also have a handout for career resources, and pretty soon she sent me away so she could look on her own.

She left before I could talk to her again, but she stayed at least forty-five minutes on the computer. Which is not bad for a first timer. Even if nothing from her first search pans out, I hope at least she knows the library is a resource for job searching.

More About Online Job Searching
Something I've been noticing for awhile is that it seems that online job applications are becoming more and more complex. Lots of large companies are requiring applicants to fill out an online application instead of providing a resume.

The problem with this is, from my and the patron's point of view, many patrons have trouble with the website or application form itself. Some get so frustrated that they quit halfway through, cursing the company for not just taking their resume. I wonder if companies are doing this intentionally, because filling out these applications requires a certain level of computer skills, and so it weed out anyone who isn't computer savvy enough to finish it.

I've helped a few people complete what even I thought was a difficult form, and I wonder if I'm really helping them or not. If the job really does require that level of computer skill, and I spend a half an hour basically filling out the form for them, are they just wasting their time on a job they don't have a hope of getting?

Because of this need (and especially in the current economic climate), my library lately has been partnering with the local career center to hold series of job search workshops. These range from updating resumes to online searching to interviewing to networking to reentering the work force. They've been well attended, and all the library has had to do is provide the space - people from the Lowell Career Center plan and run the programs.

I feel like we can never do enough for patrons looking for jobs, but that this is one of the key roles a library plays in the community.



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