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

Reference Question of the Week – 8/30/09

   September 5th, 2009 Brian Herzog

MySpace for smartttI hesitated to post this question, because I don't mean to be picking on this kid. But then I thought that if the kid involves reads this, it might help him.

So with that in mind, I present this week's reference question as yet another example of how personal flippancy on the internet can affect someone's professional life.

Here's the story: an elderly woman called the desk one day, asking me to look up a company for her. She lives alone and needed yard work done, so she called a company that a friend recommended to her. They arrived to give an estimate, but she wanted to know more about the company because:

  • the crew consisted of just two kids (no adults)
  • the kids didn't write anything down, and only provided a verbal estimate
  • there was no sign on their truck, but the company's logo was on their t-shirts
  • when she went in the house to answer the phone, she saw them through the window "goofing around in the street"

So, she wanted to know if it was a real business - she was partly worried about being scammed, but moreso was concerned about kids using power equipment on her property without them having insurance.

The company name she gave me was Smart Choice Landscaping. They weren't listed in the yellow pages, so I searched for "smart choice landscaping" chelmsford, and the results were promising. One was the company's website, one was a lawnmower forum posting, and a third was a 2007 article in the local paper about an ambitious high school kid starting his own landscaping business.

So far, so good, right? Everything supported what the patron said - it just seemed like a kid taking his summer job very seriously, and had been at it for two years.

But then I clicked on the final result - the kid's MySpace page. Which is a fine thing for a 20 year old to express himself with, but since he listed the company name, I could easily see that the owner of Smart Choice Landscaping, among other things, enjoys listening to "nigga beats."

I've certainly seen worse, but this might offend some people, or at least taint his professional image a bit.

I left this out when describing my findings to the patron on the phone. She said he was very nice, and was happy to hear he's been doing this for two years, even if he was young. I suggested she ask for proof of insurance, and also get the estimate and invoice in writing - she agreed and said she was going to hire them.

But if this hadn't been a mediated search, and the patron had seen his MySpace page, it very well could have cost him the job. Again, I've certainly seen more questionable MySpace pages, but this one does, probably without realizing it, cross the line between personal and professional.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/15/09

   February 21st, 2009 Brian Herzog

spanish_reconquista animated gifA patron came up to the desk with this question:

I found a picture in Wikipedia that shows a map at four different periods in history. I want to print all four versions, but I can't get the image to stop.

We looked up the map he was talking about on one of the desk computers, and I saw that it was an animated gif file. By repeatedly printing the page at various stages of loading, the patron said he was able to get the first and last frames, but never the middle two.

I've never attempted to print an animated gif, and thought this was an interesting problem. I don't know if there is an official way to do this, but my solution was to simply do screen-captures for each frame, and then paste that into PowerPoint to print.

If you've never done this before, screen-capture is a handy tool - like the name implies, it is a method to capture whatever is displaying on your computer's screen. The display gets copied to the clipboard as an image, and can be pasted into other programs, just like anything else copied to the clipboard. (This is an especially useful technique if you're making how-to instructions [pdf, 297kb] for using software or a website - you can easily include visuals of exactly what your user will see.)

Here's how to do it:

  • Press the [Print Screen] key on the keyboard. That's it, you did a screen-capture. Now paste it somewhere to see what it looks like
  • A variant on this is to press [Alt]+[Print Screen] - while just the Print Screen key copies the entire screen, pressing Alt simultaneously will capture only the active window. This is useful as it lets you size the window to show only want you want, and it also leaves out the Start Bar and other menus or Desktopery

It worked, and the patron was happy - he liked it so much, in fact, that he wanted me to reprint the two maps he printed, so they'd all look the same. He also asked me to send him all four screen-captures as a single file [pdf, 567kb].

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/11/09

   January 17th, 2009 Brian Herzog

Eustachian TubeThis reference question started off normal enough. A patron called and asked if I could email her a picture of the Eustachian tube (a part of the inner ear).

While I took down her email address and got the correct spelling of "eustachian," she explained that she had an Eustachian tube infection, which was causing an echoing in her head. This was a bit more information than I needed to know (and you as well, probably), but she made light of it saying "it's like hearing voices when I speak, but there's nobody else in there."

Finding an answer was easy enough, too. I first checked our subscription database, Magill's Medical Guide. It had an informative entry and a diagram, but as I described it to her, she said it wasn't what she wanted.

She said she really wanted an image that showed where the tube was located in the ear. I switched to a Google image search for Eustachian Tube site:.gov. I described to her a couple images that I found, and she became positively jubilant.

This is where it got a bit unusual. She explained that she wanted the picture to hang on the wall, so every morning and night she could concentrate on clearing the infection through focused attention. She confessed it might sound odd, but said it worked before for a herniated disk.

Patrons never need to justify to me why they're looking for some particular piece of information, but the back story is usually worth listening to. I emailed her the image, and she replied saying that if it worked then I deserved "xoxoxo." As it happens, staff at my library is not allowed to receive tips or gifts, so I'll just be happy to hear she makes out.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/30/08

   April 5th, 2008 Brian Herzog

Ivy and Bean imageI enjoy working with little kids at the reference desk - especially kids who are enthusiastic about whatever it is they are doing.

A little girl (maybe a fifth grader) came to the reference desk and asked if I could help her find a picture on the internet. She said she had found it at home using Google image search, but their printer is broken. However, now that she's at the library and can print it, she can't find the same picture again.

She was looking for pictures of the characters from the Ivy and Bean books to put in a school report. She couldn't remember her exact search terms, so we first started searching Google with just "ivy and bean."

We looked through the first four or five pages, but she didn't see the pictures she was looking for (drawings of the characters from the stories, and not just the book covers). We then tried a variety of other phrases, like "ivy and bean" pictures, "ivy and bean" annie barrows, and even criss cross applesauce, which apparently is what the character says in one of the pictures she saw.

But after five or ten minutes of trying various keywords, we still had nothing, and my little patron was getting discouraged.

LibrarianInBlack often reminds people not to rely on just one search engine, so I switched over to AllTheWeb's image search. The patron was reluctant, because she knew she had seen them in Google images search, but she went along with it - and we were rewarded quickly.

On the first page of a search for "ivy and bean," we found one of the pictures she had seen. Every search results page after that had additional images, and she got more and more excited with each picture we found.

She wrote down the URL and raced back to the computer she was using - overjoyed to continue with her homework.

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/9/07

   December 15th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Pixenate logoA high school student walks up to the desk and asks if there are any "picture programs" on the computers.

After a bit more questioning, I realize he's looking for a photo editor, like Photoshop. It turns out he was joining some online group, and needed an image for his avatar. He wanted to crop a picture of himself from his friend's myspace account, and use just the t-shirt he was wearing in that picture to be his avatar.

(Quite the far cry from helping a student find information on European explorers for a homework project, but you answer the question you're asked.)

Unfortunately, my library doesn't have any kind of photo editing software on the public computers (not even MS Paint). Perhaps because of this, I've been paying attention to mentions of online photo editors, so I had something to offer this kid.

I personally have used Pixenate (or, PXN8) a couple times. It allows most of the basic photo editing functions, and doesn't require you to create an account to use it. This is what I showed the student, and we were able to save the photo from myspace to the harddrive, crop it accordingly, resize it, and upload the result as his avatar.

I like to think that this high school kid has new respect for the library as a high tech mecca, but since I need to tell this particular kid regularly not to swear in the library, "respect" might not be the right word.

Anyway, here's a roundup of online photo editor posts I've seen recently (along with a few other image-related posts, for good measure):

I'm sure there are more out there, and that everyone has their favorite. I'm going to keep my eye on Splashup, and in the meantime stick with Pixenate for the simple stuff.

image, libraries, library, online photo editors, picture, public libraries, public library, reference question, tools, web-based

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