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

Reference Question of the Week – 11/7/14

   November 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

JwingdingsThis was kind of a funny question, right up until I realized I had created a monster.

A patron, who is somewhat new to email, walked up to the desk and said,

Patron: I think some of my friends' email accounts have all been hacked by the same person, and he's sending me messages.

Me: Oh really, why?

Patron: Because at the end of a lot of messages - not all of them, but some of them - it is signed with just the initial J. Someone named J must have hacked their accounts and is sending messages to me, but they don't know they've been hacked because sometimes the messages really come from my friends.

I love a good conspiracy, but in this case I explained what emoticons are and how people sometimes use them in email to display smiling or frowning faces. Some people just used keyboard characters, some use a special font, and some use images.

In this case the patron's friends must be using Outlook, which uses Wingdings font to display emoji. If other email programs don't use that technique, it will just show that character in the default font, which is usually a J for a smiley face.

We then went back over to his computer which still had his Yahoo mail up, and I showed him how he could add emojis to his message. He was thrilled, and I think now all of his friends are going to get sick of it very quickly.

Even though the patron was happy, I still much prefer the idea of a mysterious person named J hacking all his friends' accounts just to send him messages.

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Reference Question of the Week – 4/21/13

   April 27th, 2013 Brian Herzog

emailreceiptA patron came up to the desk, saying she had an email question.

After a bit of a convoluted story, it boiled down to this: she was applying for a job, and emailed her information to their HR person. But she never got called for an interview, because the HR person said she had never received the patron's information. The patron wanted to know if there was a way to prove that the HR person did get it, because she knows she sent it.

The patron seemed to be fairly knowledgeable about computers and email, but I explained anyway that it is certainly possible for something not to get delivered, or get blocked for whatever reason, or go into a spam folder, etc.

Having a message in her own Sent folder would indicate when it was sent. That can probably be manipulated so I don't know if it'd be admissible in court, but in this case it might be good enough if the HR person was willing to listen.

But what the patron really wanted was confirmation that the HR person received the email. I didn't know how to find out after-the-fact (other than subpoenaing their server logs), so I told her about delivery receipts and read receipts. These are the little confirmation messages that come back to let you know someone got and opened your message.

Since it was the closest thing to what she wanted, we went into her email account so I could show her how to use them. However I explained that these aren't foolproof either - not all email clients will honor them. In fact, the email client I use offers a setting to ignore them.


She had both a Gmail and a Yahoo account, and it turns out - much to my surprise - neither one lets you request receipts.

I did some quick checking online, and it seems like Yahoo doesn't offer receipts at all, and Gmail only with their business accounts (not the free version).

Well, like I said, I was surprised. I tried searching for ways to make it happen anyway, and it looks like there are only two options: use an email client like Thunderbird or Outlook (which, for a patron using a library's public computer, isn't actually an option), or use one of the many email receipt services out there. Another website I found had some trickier solutions, but were too complicated for our purposes. There's also Boomerang for Gmail, but since that needs to be installed in the browser, it likewise wasn't appropriate.

Until this day I didn't even know these existed, so I have no idea how well they work. The patron was interested in the free web-based services, but only future-tense. Unfortunately, it looked like she was out of luck with her original question. I think she knew that before she even asked, but hoped librarians had some magic we could work - I hate disappointing patrons.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/31/13

   April 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Hello.  Have you tried turning it off and on again?This wasn't a very difficult question, and although it didn't have a great ending, I thought it was interesting anyway - and happy we could help because the patron had no where else to go.

A patron walked up to the Reference Desk and asked to use the phone. We generally only let people use desk phones to call for rides or other quick things, mainly to make sure phones are available for staff to answer incoming patron calls.

Since it was fairly early in the day, I asked him if he was calling for a ride, and he said,

No, I need to call email tech support. I called them last night to help with my email, but he said I needed to be in front of the computer. I don't have one at home, so I always use the library computers. I don't have a cell phone either, but I think this computer here in the corner is close enough to the Reference Desk that I could stretch the phone cord across the aisle while I talk to him. It should be a quick call.

Okay, by the time he was finished speaking, all kinds of red flags were waving for all they're worth.

I sympathize with people trying to use technology without actually owning their own technology - libraries are great, but obviously some things are much easier to do at home. However, also obviously, I couldn't allow this patron to:

  • block an aisle way by stretching a cord across it
  • engage in a phone conversation at the public workstation, since we routinely ask people doing this very thing to take their cell phone call in a different area of the library so as not to bother the other computer users near them
  • tie up one of the Reference Desk phones for this long a time - no tech support call in history has been "quick"

Hoping to avoid this situation entirely, I asked the patron what he was trying to do, and if I could help. His answer kind of surprised me:

I've always used Hotmail, but now I'm switching to Gmail. The Gmail people said they were able to import everything from my Hotmail account, except what was in my Drafts folder. But when I went in to move those myself, I accidentally deleted some, so I called Hotmail to see if they could be restored.

First, I had no idea that Gmail offered a migration service, but they do. Neat. Secondly, I think he's right in that he'd need Hotmail tech support to recover deleted messages. I did check his account with him, just to see if there was something he overlooked, but from what we could tell the draft messages in question were gone.

And so, this left us with the original question of how he could use a phone and a computer at the same time. Eventually it dawned on me that he could borrow one of the laptops we loan to the public, and the Reference Desk's cordless phone,* and sit in an area of the library where his talking wouldn't bother anyone. It seemed like a good solution, and he was happy.

45 minutes later(!) he came back, a little dejectedly, and said Hotmail couldn't recover his messages after all. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason, but by this point had accepted it. The messages weren't critical, but he certainly would have preferred to have them. I apologized and we commiserated a bit about technological dependence, then he thanked me for the library being able to accommodate his situation, and left.

So in case anyone was wondering, the digital divide is still alive and well. It also made me wonder: do any libraries loan cell phones to patrons? I'm not an expert on cell phone technology, but I think there are the the kind where patrons could just pay to put minutes on them, so it wouldn't cost the library anything. It would have been helpful in a case like this, or if a patron was going on a trip or something and wanted the security of being in touch. It seems like a good idea, but I'm sure I'm overlooking some vital flaw.


*Our Reference Desk has two phones at the desk (and two computers), as well as a cordless phone in the Reference Office behind the Desk. We carry this with us when we know we'll be away from the desk, because it sure beats trying to sprint back to the desk when the phone rings while you're in the stacks.

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Can Anyone Help With This Gmail Issue?

   November 28th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Gmail LogoI'm hoping someone can help with a solution to this. A librarian in Florida emailed me with this situation:

I recently ran across Google's "phone verification" for Gmail account creation. Essentially, our computers have been used to create Gmail accounts enough times that patrons are now asked to provide a working cell phone number when creating a new account - one that they can use to retrieve a passcode within minutes and one that hasn't already been used to verify accounts too many times (so I can't just give them the library's number).

This is just not an option for a good number of our patrons - they either don't have a phone or their phone is out of minutes or they're saving the minutes they have for job call-backs. Mind you, the library is often their only source of internet access and an e-mail address is often required to apply online for jobs, social services, unemployment benefits, etc.

The only solution I know of is to recommend Yahoo or a similar non-Google number. Have you heard of a way around this (eg. a Google-provided rotating list of phone numbers just for librarians to use) - or baring that, a petition I could sign regarding this issue?

We haven't encountered this in my library, but Yahoo is still the go-to for free email accounts. Has anyone else had this happened to them, and hopefully found a solution to it? Thanks.

Update 11/28/12: Based on the first couple comments, I wanted to clarify what we're talking about here. It's not just logging into an existing account (I have no cellphone, so I always skip that by just clicking the "Continue" button) - it's when you create a new account. After you create a username and password and other fields required during signup, you see the following screen:

Gmail verification screen

That's the problem - patron's don't have their own phones, or enough minutes, to receive this verification, and the library phone has been used to verify too many times so now it's blocked. On Google's Verifying your account via SMS or Voice Call info page, among other things they say:

Signing up without a phone

If you don't have a phone, you can use a friend's number to request the code via text message or voice call...


Maximum number of accounts reached

If you see the error message, "This phone number has already created the maximum number of accounts," you'll have to use a different number. In an effort to protect our users from abuse, we limit the number of accounts each phone number can create.

Both of which really back certain patrons (and librarians) into a corner. What is a patron to do?

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A Cloud of Cover Letters

   September 19th, 2012 Brian Herzog

This week we started the first round of interviews for my library's Head of Reader Services position. Which means, I've been reading a lot of resumes and cover letters lately.

Since we advertised for someone who is really into books and reading, many of the cover letters included more colorful adjectives than usual: passionate, voluminous, enthusiastic, voracious.

That got me thinking about mean cover letter word distribution, so I ran the text from the 26 leading cover letters we received through Wordle. I removed any identifying information (current/previous employers, phone numbers, emails, urls, etc), and Wordle also removes some words, and the resulting cloud is interesting:

Cover letter Wordle cloud

View the large size to see some of the smaller words, but overall, a lot of the most common words were what we were hoping to see ("love" ranked well).

Here's something else in this process I found interesting: This is the first time (for me) that every single resume was submitted electronically. They were all sent to the Library Director, who then forwarded them to those of us doing the interviewing.

To keep them organized, I created a "Jobs" folder in my inbox:

Emailed applications in my Jobs folder

The red boxes cover peoples name, but looking at the contents of this folder really shows how alike and "just part of the crowd" applicants can seem. From now on, I will always include my name in the subject line when I submit a resume.

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Email Scam Competency Testing

   May 6th, 2010 Brian Herzog

SPAM wallHere's something neat - and vital for library staff, both for those who directly provide computer help to patrons and for anyone else who uses a computer in their daily life:

A recent Slashdot post linked to a test to see how well people can identify spam, scam and phishing email messages (which can happen to anybody).

The test is provided by SonicWall, and would be a great for:

  • taking as a group during a staff meeting or training day
  • testing new employees to help protect your network and increase their tech competency
  • showing to students and computer literacy classes to teach them to evaluate websites and email messages

After you're finished, be sure to click the "why" links on the test results to see exactly what looks suspicious and what are the red flags - that is the most helpful part of the test.

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