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

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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Reference Question of the Week – 3/21/10

   March 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

2010 censusThis was a challenging question, because it took place over the course of a week and because I kept getting conflicting information.

On a Thursday, my Director asked me where we were keeping our 2010 Federal Census forms. Town Hall had been referring people who to us for a new form after they made a mistake or destroyed the one they received in the mail. I told her we hadn't gotten any Census forms, but I'd look into it.

On the 2010 Census website, I didn't see anywhere to download or request blank forms, so I found their Contact Us page and called our local office (but oddly, the regional offices have since been removed from their contact page). The woman I spoke with there said there will be no generic blank forms people can pick up. She said every Census form has a personalized barcode on it, so if anyone makes a mistake and needs a new form, they have to contact the closest Census Call Center to request a new barcoded form - but that information wouldn't be on the website until Monday.

I emailed Town Hall with this information, and they forwarded back the email that they received saying these forms are available at the library (emphasis mine):

> From: [email protected]
> Sent: Friday, March 19, 2010 9:07 AM
> Subject: RE: Census form
> Hello,
> Before calling to request a form, we ask that you wait until April 12 to allow
> sufficient time for the questionnaire to be delivered to your address. If you
> still have not received your form by April 12, then you may contact one of
> our 2010 Census Toll‐free help lines.
> o English: 1‐866‐872‐6868
> o Chinese: 1‐866‐935‐2010
> o Korean: 1‐866‐955‐2010
> o Russian: 1‐866‐965‐2010
> o Spanish: 1‐866‐928‐2010
> o Vietnamese: 1‐866‐945‐2010
> o TDD (Telephone Display Device for the hearing impaired): 1‐866‐783‐2010
> o Puerto Rico (in English): 1‐866‐939‐2010
> o Puerto Rico (in Spanish): 1‐866‐929‐2010
> You can also complete a Be Counted questionnaire if you have not received
> your form. Beginning March 19 through April 19, Be Counted
> questionnaires will be available in public locations, such as libraries
> within your community and at Questionnaire Assistance Centers where census
> workers will be available to answer questions. Beginning March 18, these
> locations will be posted on 2010Census.gov.
> Direct link: http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/
> Thank you

The Direct Link wasn't yet working, so I looked around the Census website and found another reference to these "Be Counted" forms on their Questions You May Have page under the question "Is there another way to get the form other than the mail?" When I searched the internet for that phrase, I found a Census faq [pdf] from the Missouri State Government that stated,

The Be Counted program makes census forms available in many different public locations in areas that have been historically undercounted by the census. These locations include community centers, health clinics, convenience stores, churches, businesses and other.

Okay, within that context, the information started to make sense. Chelmsford is a fairly typical upper-middle-class small town, and the residents probably are not "historically undercounted by the census." I emailed other librarians in my consortium, and sure enough, a couple libraries in large cities with significant immigrant, migrant or homeless populations had received these forms.

I tried the http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/ link again the following week, and this time it listed the Questionnaire Assistance Centers - and as expected, they were clustered in larger cities.

Just to verify I had everything correct now, I called the main Telephone Questionnaire Assistance phone number (866-872-6868). When I finally got a live person* she gave me this summary:

  • everyone gets mailed a census form at their house, and these have
    personalized barcodes on them
  • there are public assistance centers throughout the country, which do have blank Be Counted forms (as well as scheduled times census workers will be available to answer questions). A map of these sites is available at http://2010.census.gov/2010census/take10map/ - if you're not already one
    of these sites, you can't get any blank forms to pass out
  • if someone needs a form, they can either use the map to find a location to pick one up in person, or else call the Telephone Questionnaire Assistance listed at http://2010.census.gov/2010census/contact/index.php (different numbers for different languages)
  • participating in the Census is required by law: Title 13 > Chapter 7 > Subchapter II > § 221 (also). Anyone who destroys or ignores their Census forms because they feel it's an invasion of their privacy will be visited at home by Census workers to answer the Census questions in person (privacy info and video)

All very interesting. And since I spent a lot of time on the Census website, here's a few of the pages I found most useful:


*The menu system at this number is kind of annoying, but I learned that you can say "operator" at any point to circumvent the system and speak to a live person.

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Reference Question of the Week – 9/13/09

   September 19th, 2009 Brian Herzog

band-aid boyA woman walks up to the desk and says that she needs blank Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms. Internally I cringe, because legal forms always have the potential to be problematic.

I took her over to our Forms on File sets, and we found a Power of Attorney form, but no Health Care Proxy. While she made photocopied, I went back to the desk to keep searching for the other form.

I didn't find anything in the few minutes it took her to make copies. But, when she came back to the desk, she started to tell me more of the story:

  • The forms were actually for her son
  • Who will be deploying to Afghanistan soon
  • And who lives in Vermont
  • But she lives in Massachusetts
  • And Vermont doesn't have Health Care Proxy, they call it a Living Will
  • If anything happens to him, she'll want the son brought to a hospital in MA
  • The son doesn't want to think about any of this, and so isn't helping or doing any research
  • Her husband is driving up next week and wants to bring all this paperwork with him so the son can just sign it

Oh. I don't know this for sure, but when she mentioned he was deploying to Afghanistan, I suggested that the military should be able to help take care of all these issues and forms before he deploys. Not to mention that if he is hurt, she might not have a choice where he goes to recover.

Which was all well and good, but she still wanted these forms. However, neither of us knew if she'd need Massachusetts forms or Vermont forms. Then she said she had some errands to run, and would come back later that afternoon to pick up whatever I found.

mass med logoOkay. I decided the first thing to do was to call Massachusetts Health and Human Services, to see if they knew which form the son would need, and if they had the forms on their website. The woman I spoke with said she had no idea on either count, but said she actually was just looking for the Health Care Proxy form the week before for her own parents, and did find it online. However, it was on a different computer in her office, but she'd email it to me in an hour when she was back at that desk. And she wasn't sure, but she thought she found it on the Massachusetts Medical Society's website.

So I search the web again for health care proxy form massachusetts medical association and found their Health Care Proxy information page, and a link to the form itself [pdf].

Since they make the form available, I thought I'd call them, too, and ask them the MA/VT question. I do, but the woman on the phone has no idea. She said it's up to the hospital itself to honor the form, and she thought that any hospital in the country would, regardless of which state it came from. She did verify Vermont calls it a Living Will, but wasn't sure what the difference was.

VTmd logoSo I went back to the internet searching for living will form vermont (found one [pdf]) and the Vermont Medical Society. I called them, too, and again the answer I got was, "I don't know. That's a good question."

This woman confirmed that the form I found would be okay, and also said that every doctor's office in Vermont will have copies of the form, too, so they should check with his local doctor. And she also felt that the military would be able to provide all of the paperwork the son would need, and she recommended the parents start there.

Shortly thereafter the woman returned, and I conveyed everything I found. She didn't think it was likely that the military or local doctor would be much help, since her son was avoiding this topic, so she was happy to have copies of the different forms - even if she didn't know which she needed.

It bothers me when, after helping someone, all I can do is hope they have the right information.

And shortly after she left, the forms the woman from the MA-HHS emailed me arrived. Happily, it was the same one I found on the MassMed website.

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/30/07

   January 5th, 2008 Brian Herzog

2007 1040 InstructionsBy far, this was the most frequently-asked question this week:

Hey, you got any tax forms yet?

Why yes, we do.

Since last year's display worked so well, I did the same thing again. We've been receiving tax forms since about November, but my library just got big ones last week - the 1040s, Publication 17, and the State forms.

I don't know if there is any hard and fast rule as to when libraries can put out tax forms, but since patrons have asked me about ten times every hour all week, I decided today was the day.

Also like last year, as part of our tax assistance offerings, we plan to have an AARP Tax-Aide volunteer again, but that hasn't been scheduled yet. Better him giving tax advice than library staff.

I guess the only surprise this year was the fancy new cover for the 1040 instruction booklets. It certainly looks nice, but I wonder how many thousands of tax dollars went into designing and producing that.

Happy tax season to all.

form, forms, irs, libraries, library, public, tax, tax forms, taxes

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