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


Reference Question of the Week – 4/14/13

   April 20th, 2013 Brian Herzog

This week I have almost nothing to say. First, everyone here has been focused on the bombings in Boston and the ensuing manhunt, which thankfully ended with an arrest Friday night. Secondly, this week was also school vacation week in Massachusetts, which always makes for a slow time at the Reference Desk.

No Tax SignAs a result, the most notable question of the week was actually the lack of a particular question. Friday, April 19th, was the first day since January that not one person asked me for tax forms. Now that is a milestone worth celebrating.

Hopefully next week things will return to normal, and I'll get back on track with library stuff - and put away our tax form display for another year.



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IRS Accounting Thoroughness

   March 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

I know the IRS prides itself on keeping track of assets, but it makes me laugh every time I see the packing lists that come in tax forms shipments from the IRS:

IRS packing lists

The first line on the top packing list (1 Z Shrink Wrap) accounts for the shrink wrap used to seal the forms, and the first line on the lower list (1 E 182 W) accounts for the one Envelope used. Now that is some fine-tuned accounting, and I can appreciate that.



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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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You May See An Increase In Patrons

   October 14th, 2010 Brian Herzog

IRS logoI'm sure everyone has heard that the IRS is not going to be mailing 2010 tax forms to peoples' homes next year.

I don't blame them for looking for ways to save money, and it's good to be moving towards more efficient processes. But this isn't exactly a gentle nudge - this is a sharp push, which will be especially painful to people without internet access or few computer skills.

This also means, of course, that libraries will see even more demand for tax forms next year (and probably hear from many annoyed patrons). To warn us, the IRS sent out the following email through their Tax Form Outlet Program - forgive me if you've seen this, but the bold line below was too priceless not to share:

IRS TFOP ALERT: NO IRS TAX PACKAGES
10/01/2010

TO TAX FORMS OUTLET PROGRAM (TFOP) PARTICIPANTS:

Thank you for your participation in TFOP. The IRS announced that individual[1] and business[2] taxpayers will no longer receive paper income tax packages in the mail from the IRS. These tax packages contained the forms, schedules and instructions for filing a paper income tax return. The IRS is taking this step because of the continued growth in electronic filing and the availability of free
options to taxpayers, as well as to help reduce costs.

There are numerous FREE OPTIONS available for your patrons to obtain tax products, tax preparation and assistance in filing their tax returns:

  • Download Forms and instructions online[3] at IRS.gov
  • Visit an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center (TAC)[4], participating libraries and U. S. Post Offices
  • Individuals making $49,000 or less can use the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance[5] program for free tax preparation and, in many cases, free electronic filing
  • Individuals aged 60 and older can take advantage of free tax counseling and basic income tax preparation through Tax Counseling for the Elderly[6]
  • IRS Free File[7] provides options for free brand-name tax software or online fillable forms plus free electronic filing. For more information, visit IRS Free File[8] on IRS.gov

YOU MAY SEE AN INCREASE IN PATRONS

Although tax products are available online[9] at IRS.gov and IRS Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TACs)[10], you may experience an increase in patrons visiting your location for tax products.

The IRS mailed postcards[11] to individuals who filed paper returns last year and did not use a tax preparer or tax software. The postcard provides information on how to get the tax forms and instructions they need for filing their tax year 2010 return.

ASSISTING YOUR PATRONS

Your TFOP order form lists the most commonly used tax products. Use the order form to order additional stock of any of these products, if necessary. Your order form lists Publication 1132, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms and Instructions/ and Publication 3194, /Reproducible Copies of Federal Tax Forms /- Laminated Version. These publications contain the most commonly used tax products that, if available, can be photocopied by your patrons. Tax products will become available beginning January 2011.

Thank you.

IRS TFOP Administrator

I think "you may see an increase in patrons" is a bit of an understatement.

So to prepare, I'll be making signs to put up near the tax forms explaining the situation, and will also try to get the local newspaper to run a notification article or two before tax season starts. I will also quote to them from the CNN article:

Those who prefer hardcopy documents can still find them at libraries, post offices and walk-in IRS offices around the country. After Jan. 1, they can request a mailing through the IRS toll-free number, 800-829-3676.

Yes, it should be a fun one this year.



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Reference Question of the Week – 9/12/10

   September 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

April 15 - Time is Running OutEarlier this week, a patron walked up and asked if we had any tax forms. I showed him where we keep the leftovers from last tax season, and told him anything he couldn't find there we could print from the IRS and state websites.

He looked at the forms for a few seconds, then turned to me and said,

No, I want the new forms for this year, so I can get an early start on them.

I feel the need to reemphasize that this happened this week, specifically on September 14th (eight months and one day early!). Being asked for tax forms in December and January always seemed early, but September?



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Reference Question of the Week – 3/28/10

   April 3rd, 2010 Brian Herzog

1040 starsThis isn't really a reference question, but it is a question from a patron. It's, well, you decide:

Patron: Have you see the monk hidden on the cover of the tax forms?

As Liz Lemon would say, "what the what?" The patron explained, somewhat cryptically, that the negative space between the stars on this year's 1040 instruction booklet cover design seemed to form a monk.

Can you see it? Hover your mouse over the image to see what he was talking about. It's slightly easier to see on a larger animated version on flickr.

I saw it after he pointed it out, but personally, I think it looks more like Darth Vader. The conspiracist in me knows it's not unusual that secret symbols appear in government printing, but they're usually more Masonic than Imperial (but maybe the stars were just to much to resist).

There must be a word for this - hidden pictures formed by positive space shapes. This is sort of like the distorted tessellations in MC Escher's art, but not quite. I looked around but couldn't find a name or description, so I'll keep looking.

In the meantime, if you're interested, here are a few examples of logos employing negative space.



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