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

Reference Question of the Week – 11/15/15

   November 23rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

Not all of the reference interactions I post here have a moral, but this one does - and it's one of my favorite morals.

On Fridays, my library closes at 5:30pm. At about 5:25 one Friday, an older gentleman comes down the stairs to the reference area, where most of our public computers are. Now, any patron coming in right at closing time is always a bit worrysome - but moreso when they, like this patron, come right up to the desk and say they need to print something.

Printing at the last minute is always fraught with potential calamity. However, thankfully, all this patron needed to do was to print a boarding pass attached to an email - we opened it, printed it, and everything went smoothly so we were still finished before 5:30. Nice.

But while I was thinking "nice" to myself, the patron surprised me by saying,

You don't know who I am, do you?

Being that I'm paranoid in general, this is a miserable thing for someone to say to me. However, even after looking at him more closely, no, I didn't recognize him, so I apologized to him and said I didn't know who he was. He then said,

I'm the guy that donated all these computers [motioning to the workstations]. That's me [pointing to the wall plaque below]. I need help using them, but I know they're important.

Workstation Plaque

We had a bit of a laugh over that, then he thanked me for helping him, and I thanked him for his generous donation, and walked him out.

Hopefully, the moral is clear: when you work at a public library, it's important to provide good customer service for every patron interaction, because every patron is a voter and you never know what other connection to the library they may have - even five minutes before closing time.

And more importantly, thank you to everyone who supports their local library!

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/1/15

   November 8th, 2015 Brian Herzog

woodyWhen I came in on Tuesday this week, I found a note with a patron's name and number, and the message, "donate wood." I thought that seemed interesting, so I asked my coworker (based on the handwriting) what that was all about.

She explained that this patron had called the night before, saying that he had a bunch of nice boards in his workshop that he wasn't going to use, and asked if we knew of anywhere that would accept them as a donation.

This is actually a fairly straight-forward question, as people ask us things like this (for items other than wood) every so often. But for some reason, this question just felt different.

Anyway, my coworker said that she had suggested the local vocational schools to him, but he wasn't interested in those - but without explanation. So it's possible that this question felt odd because it wasn't so much about place to donate to as much as finding someone willing to come clean out this patron's basement. We didn't know that, and I did have a few other ideas for possible donation ideas, so I called the patron back.

He turned out to be a very nice older gentleman, who did woodworking as a hobby and prided himself on using only quality material. The wood he had was various sizes of oak, poplar, and even some mahogany. At first we talked about the quantity and condition of it, so I could gauge whether it would make more sense for a group like the Chelmsford Open Space Stewards, who do lots of outdoor work, or something like Lowell Makes, our local community makerspace. Or, if he didn't mind, the library could hang on to it and use it as necessary.

It turned out that although it was nice wood, he didn't actually have a huge amount to donate - maybe eight boards (as opposed to the piles and piles I initially pictured for some reason). And when I took down his address, I realized he lived a half a block from somewhere I was going to be that evening for a meeting anyway. So, I told him I could be by that night to pick it up.

When I got there he had it ready to go in his garage, and loading into my car only took a few minutes. I must have been asking the right kind of questions, because he started telling me about some of his previous projects, and even offered to show me his workshop. Clearly he was proud of his hobby, and I can't blame him for that. However, since I was on my way to another meeting, I just thanked him for the donation and headed off.

In the past, I (and other library staff and volunteers) have done home pickups for items being donated to the library, but it's not something we ever do otherwise. In this case, if it's not stuff the library can use after all, I can always call around later to find someone who can. But it was definitely worth the trip, and the patron really appreciated it too.

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I Don’t Remember Seeing THOSE Before

   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:

Library shelves with non-library books

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.

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Reviews in Context in the Physical World

   August 16th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Something the whole Web 2.0 revolution introduced was the ability for websites to include user-reviews right along side product/company information. Yelp.com is my favorite example, listing a restaurant's address and details, and reviews from diners about their experience. This, perhaps more than most things, changed the nature of how people use the internet (and how companies on the internet use people).

So anyway, this past weekend was one of my library's drop-off days for our annual Friends of the Library book sale. While going through some of the donations on Saturday, I found the movies below - the previous owner added their own review right to the cover.

I don't know if this was for personal use, or staff reviews from a video store, or someone writing reviews for a family member to read, but I love the idea. It's the same as posting reviews on Amazon, Yelp, or in the library catalog, but just in the physical world.

On-item user review
On-item user review
On-item user review
On-item user review

Every once in awhile I'll request a book from another library, or buy an old library book at a used book sale, and stuck inside the front cover will be a review from a newspaper or magazine. I would love it if my library could do this, but the volume of new items just makes this practice unsustainable. Not only would it be helpful for patrons, it would also remind me why I bought the book in the first place.

Of course, since I do most of my selection via RSS feeds, instead of by reading physical journals, I guess it wouldn't work anyway. Sigh.

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Good Memories = Great Donations

   February 5th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Census Atlas of the United States coverLast week, we received a large package from the U. S. Census Bureau. In it was a copy of Census Atlas of the United States and a letter that read (in part):

I am pleased to be able to present the Chelmsford Public Library with a copy of the recently-published Census Atlas of the United States, a volume which I cooauthered with several colleagues at the Census Bureau here in Washington, DC.

...I wanted to personally send a copy to the Chelmsford Public Library as a way of expressing my profound gratitude to the library for the role it played in helping me discover my career as a demographer.

I grew up in Chelmsford...and as a kid spent many rainy Sunday afternoons at the Adams Library. When an elementary school research project required me to incorporate census data, I found myself in the top floor of the old library, poring through Census volumes with the assistance of the reference librarian. I didn't know it at the time, but those afternoons looking through old census volumes were my introduction to population statistics and to the Census Bureau, and a preview of what is now a rewarding and enjoyable career as a demographer and statistician for the federal government.

...Who knows - maybe [this donated volume] will inspire a future career path for some youngster spending quality in the library on a rainy Sunday afternoon.

Not only is this a wonderful story, and a nice sentiment, but the atlas itself is pretty incredible. It is large, 12-1/4" x 15-1/4" - and almost every page is a glossy, full-color map of a particular population breakdown. Definitely a nice addition to our reference collection, and probably one that I wouldn't have purchased.

So, the moral of the story is, once again, a patron's library experience is critical to the health and longevity of a library.

donation, donations, experience, libraries, library, patron, patrons, public

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/2/07

   December 8th, 2007 Brian Herzog

IRS logoThis reference question is a bit self-serving, but...

A patron called my library's Director and said she wanted to donate money to the library. However, she said she could only donate to 501(c)(3) organizations.

My library is a department of the Town's municipal government, and has a trust fund, but our Board of Trustees had voted not to apply for 501(c)(3) status, as it is a tremendous amount of paperwork.

So, my Director asked me to find some kind of documentation stating that this patron could in fact donate the money to the library, and still write it off as a donation.

The first thing I tried was a Google search of the IRS website for "municipal donation site:irs.gov." Among the matches were the IRS' Publication 17 [pdf], Your Federal Income Tax, and their Publication 526 [pdf], Charitable Contributions.

In Pub 526 (page 2), I found the following to answer the question (emphasis added):

...You can deduct your contributions only if you make them to a qualified organization...

Types of Qualified Organizations
Generally, only the five following types of organizations can be qualified organizations.

1. A community chest, corporation, trust, fund, or foundation organized or created in or under the laws of the United States, any state, the District of Columbia, or any possession of the United States (including Puerto Rico). It must be organized and operated only for one or more of the following purposes.

  • Religious.
  • Charitable.
  • Educational.
  • Scientific.
  • Literary.
  • The prevention of cruelty to children or animals...

Even though that seemed to qualify us for the donation, I wanted to find a more definite answer. We still have a reference copy from of Pub 17 from last tax season, so I consulted that and found on page 150:

Deductible As Charitable Contributions
Money or property you give to:

  • ...
  • Federal, state, and local governments, if contribution is solely for public purposes (for example, a gift to reduce the public debt)
  • ...

Okay, "local government...for public purposes" - that's pretty clear. I still maintain that librarians should never give tax advice, but I copied that and gave it to my Director.

And since I enjoy reading the tax code as much as the next person, I read on, and was rewarded with this gem:

You cannot deduct contributions to organizations that are not qualified to receive tax-deductible contributions, including the following.

  • Certain state bar associations...
  • Chambers of commerce and other business leagues or organizations.
  • Civic leagues and associations.
  • Communist organizations.
  • Country clubs and other social clubs.
  • Foreign organizations...
  • Homeowners' associations.
  • Labor unions...
  • Political organizations and candidates.

The one that caught my eye was "Communist organizations." I thought it odd to single them out, especially since "Political organizations and candidates" is also listed. Commies can never catch a break.

charitable, communist, communists, contribution, contributions, donation, donations, irs, libraries, library, reference question, tax, taxes

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