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


Reference Question of the Week – 10/9/11

   October 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Change MachineThis was not a difficult question, and not the first time I've encountered it. But the patron was funny, and I was actually surprised how well this particular tool worked.

About eight minutes after we opened one morning, a woman comes to the desk and says,

You have to help me - I'm desperate.

And then she walked away. It didn't take my librarian-sense tingling to know she wanted me to follow her, back over to the computer where she was working.

She sat down and said (without looking to see if I had, in fact, followed her),

I can't print out this project. My son the poor kid wrote it at home and our printer is busted so I came here to print it for him but your computer won't let me open it and he needs it today so can you print it for me it's in my email do I need to save it to a disk it won't open...

You know, one of those situations when the patron won't let you get a word in edge-wise, even to answer their question. Obviously she was in crisis-mode, but was kind of humorously fatalistic about it, because apparently everything had been going wrong: their home printer broke, come to the library to print but can't open the file, etc.

She had emailed the file to herself (which was good), and I could see the attachment was a .odt file, which is the extension of a document created with Open Office. I thought Microsoft Work was able to open that file type, but when I downloaded her file and tried it (which I think is exactly how far she had gotten), it didn't work.

So first I explain to her why it doesn't work - because she created the file with Open Office (which she knew, and that was good), but that we don't have the right software to open that file type. Then I started to explain that she'd have to go back home and use Open Office to save the file in a format Word could open - .doc, .rtf, etc. She then started in (crisis-thinking again) on whether she should have saved it to a CD (which is never the answer), name the file something else, and all kinds of other options.

While she was talking, it occurred to me that we might just be able to use a file converting website, without her having to go home. So while explaining what a converter website is, I did a quick search for convert odt to doc and spotted a website called ConvertFiles.com.

It was perfect, and easier to use than any other converter website I've found (usually my go-to is Zamzar). You just upload your file by clicking the Browse button, choose the format you'd like to convert to, and then click convert. It took maybe twenty seconds, and then we could open the file in Word.

What I liked about this website was that it let you open the file right away, instead of them emailing it to your account as an attachment.

And boy, when her son's report popped up on the screen, she almost cried. She also tried to print it as quickly as possible, just in case it suddenly went away like some cruel trick.

In my library, printing costs $0.15 per page, and her son's report was two pages. She immediately pulled out a dollar bill, handed it to me and said, "keep the change." But she must have known we can't accept tips, because when I showed her how to use the pay-for-print machine, she took her change back - and then hugged the printed papers to her chest and kept saying, "oh, thank you thank thank you..." all the way back to her workstation.

From start to finish, this entire reference interaction took about three minutes - and in that time, this woman's emotions went from one extreme to the other. It was a very small part of my day, but I think it had a huge impact on her's (and her son's) - which is why I think a converter website like this should be in every reference librarian's toolbox.



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/17/10

   October 23rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

Volunteer facts bookmarkThis week's question is actually one I needed to answer myself - it's a little bit random, so bear with me.

My library just held our annual thank-you dinner for all of our adult volunteers. To illustrate "the value of volunteers" (in other words, how much money volunteers save us) my director and I came up with a "volunteer stats" bookmark* [ppt, 1.2MB] to hand out.

We had 241 volunteers last year, with a total of 5804 volunteer hours. We figured if we paid them each $15/hour, their labor would have cost the library $87,060. Just to add another little fact to the bookmark, I wanted to figure out just how tall $87,060 was in $100 bills.

So of course, I turned to the internet. I did a search for something like how tall is a stack of money, and after clicking on a few results, I found a forum posting that provided the Excel formulas needed to calculate not just the height of a stack of bills, but also the cubic volume and value of different denominations. Neat.

I copy/pasted the formulas into an Excel spreadsheet* [xls], and after a little tweaking, had my answer. And just to double-check it, I went back to the internet to find a "known value" (in this case, the height of $1 million in $100's). It checked out, so I had my fact for the bookmark, and a job well done, right?

Well, not so fast: being me, I thought, "hey, wouldn't it be awesome to turn this Excel spreadsheet into a web form that other people could play with? After all, that was so popular the last time."

Volunteer bookmark front

But this was all happening late in the day on Thursday, and I didn't have time to figure out how to convert the Excel formulas into javascript. So once again, I turn to the internet, thinking, "I just bet there's some easy spreadsheet-to-javascript converter out there."

And it turns out, there is: I found SpreadsheetConverter.com, which does exactly that. After you download the software, it converts spreadsheets to a web-ready format with just a click of a button - pretty neat.

But even better was their free demo offer, where you email them your spreadsheet and they convert it for you. Within 24 hours they sent back the converted webpage, and it works great - just enter the height** of your money stack below, and the spreadsheet tells you the value of various denominations, for both a single stack and a cubic block of bills.

One condition of the free demo is that it is for evaluation purposes only, so evaluate away and keep this tool in mind if you ever need to throw a spreadsheet up on your website - it can save you a lot of time. Too bad I didn't know about it when I was coding the Library Use Value Calculator.

The thank-you dinner went well, and the bookmarks were a big hit. Yay for volunteers.

 


*Feel free to download, edit and reuse our volunteer bookmark* [ppt, 1.2MB] or the Excel spreadsheet* [xls] if you like.

**This was designed to figure out height in inches - to use different measurements, the form below will convert those values into inches:





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Reference Question of the Week – 4/6/08

   April 12th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Windows Sound RecorderOne of our regular patrons has a radio show on a local station. He found some copyright-free songs on YouTube, and wanted to know how he could record them to play on his show.

Huh.

Of course, there are lots of ways to do this, including this how-to video on YouTube:

However, most of the usual ways require more access to the computer than we allow the public to have. Patrons cannot install software or get to Windows Sound Recorder, so he wanted something easier.

An internet search lead us to the website vixy.net, which is exactly what he wanted. Enter the url of the online video you'd like to record, choose the output file type (mp3 is an option), click start, wait, and then download the audio file. Nice.

The system is still in beta, and lists right on their homepage some of the errors you might encounter (after working with it awhile, the patron said he got an error on about one in three attempts). But when it works, it works, and it gave the patron exactly what he was looking for - mp3 files he could save to his flash drive.

But let me leave you with what I told him: just because something is possible doesn't mean it is legal. It is up to you to check to make sure the copyright on published work allows for this type of recording.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/24/08

   March 1st, 2008 Brian Herzog

Microsoft Office logoThis is a question I've gotten in various forms, and I finally have an answer for it. Usually, the reference interview goes something like this:

Patron: I can't open a file on your computer.
Me: Oh; what kind of file is it?
Patron: It's just my resume. My sister updated it for me on her new computer, but her printer is broken, so I came here to print it out. But now it won't open. It works fine at her house.

The two key parts of the patron's last statement are resume and new computer. These words almost always indicate a Word document created on a Microsoft Vista computer running Office 2007. My library's computers have Windows XP and Office 2003, which cannot open Office 2007 documents due to the change in file formats.

That is, until now.

Our IT person found a plugin that will allow Office 2003 programs to open Office 2007 files. This plugin is available from the Microsoft download center.

We have installed this on the computers at the reference desk, but not yet on all the public computers (we are changing the profiles on all of those, and this plugin will be part of it). And of course, since installing it, I haven't gotten this question again.

But we'll be ready for the next patron...



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