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

Reference Question of the Week – 2/15/2015

   February 21st, 2015 Brian Herzog

shoveled drivewayThis question just happened this morning, and my coworker asked me about it before she gave the patron an answer.

Perhaps you've heard that New England is getting an unusually large amount of snow this year? This patron called in and said that her driveway had been clear, but some plow truck went by and now a large pile of snow was blocking both her driveway and mailbox. She was out at the time, and by the time she got home it was frozen and she couldn't pull into her driveway.

My coworker said she sounded like an older woman, and apparently her husband normally clears the driveway, but he's away this weekend. So, she left her car on the extra-narrow-because-of-the-snow street, climb over the pile, got into her house, and called us. My coworker took down her phone number and asked me what we could do for her.

I'm always happy when people think to call the library, but some of the things people call us about surprises me.

In this case, I think the best we could do was:

  • Give her the non-emergency phone number for the Police Department, to let them know her car was on the street. Hopefully this would prevent any kind of ticket, and perhaps the Police had additional ways to help her
  • Give her the number for the Highway Department, who is responsible for clearing the streets. They don't have office hours on the weekends, but if she needed to complain about street snow being pushed where it shouldn't be, they are the people to notify

Unfortunately, I don't think there's much else to do. Notifying the Police should help, but I don't think the Town is going to make a special trip to clear her driveway. Being blocked in by the plow is just part of winter, but perhaps her situation was particularly unnecessary.

I've noticed quite a few impromptu "call us to shovel" signs nailed to utility poles around Town, so between those and the kindness of neighbors, hopefully she can get her driveway clear again - until the next storm hits, anyway.

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Levels of Service

   December 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

503 Error: Service UnavailableSince the outages caused by the ice storm on Thursday, my library has been slowly reestablishing our affected services. First back up was our power and heat and catalog (day two), then wireless internet (day three), then internet to the public workstations (day four).

This progressive-improvement situation made for a good quote. When asked by a staff person if things were working again, the response was:

Everything is working, but we're still working on making it patron-proof again.

It made perfect sense in context, but when I thought about it later, it sounded both funny and counter-intuitive.

Recovering from an unintended power outage really draws a stark line between having something work, and having something work the way we want it to. Just having a computer that turns on isn't good enough - ours also need to automatically log in, track time, connect to printers and the internet, and protect the user's privacy and data. And ideally, do all this without intervention from the user.

On the surface, the answer above might sound like our goal was keep the computers safe from the public. The goal is actually to make sure the public needs to do as little as possible to use our computers (making sure they can do no harm is a side effect).

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