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


Reference Question of the Week – 6/9/13

   June 15th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Wednesday is my night to work at the library, and a couple hours before we closed I got an email from a coworker that just said,

I just took a picture that I think will be perfect for your blog. Ask me about it before you leave.

I had no idea what this might be, but at the end of the night, this was the picture from her phone:

patron kneeling at the Reference desk

She found this amusing because it looked to her that this patron was so desperate for help that she was willing to kneel before the desk (and pray?).

That is a funny thought, but when I explained to the rest of the evening staff what was really going on, they were even more amused.

So: around 2:30 that afternoon, a woman called in asking to reserve a study room for 7-9pm that evening, because she was proctoring a test for a student. No problem. Not 30 seconds after I hung up the phone, it rang again, this time a different woman asked to reserve a study room for her daughter, who was taking a test with a proctor.

I was quick on the uptake and asked if her daughter's name was the same one the proctor just gave me, and it was. Which, really, is just a funny little aside, and didn't really portend the communication difficulties to come.

The evening passd unremarkably. Seven o'clock rolls around and the proctor and student show up for their room.

About seven-thirty, the proctor comes out to the desk to ask if there is a way for her to print from her iPad. This perked me up a bit, because wireless printing is still new to us, and I am always happy when I can show it off. I gave her our little how-to handout, which she was satisfied with and went back to the room before I could help her with it.

About ten minutes later she was back, asking for help - and she was at the desk for the next half-hour. Here's what was going on:

  • It turns out, she was proctoring a test for a foreign exchange student from Australia. The test the girl was taking had been emailed to the proctor, as a password-protected PDF (two of them, actually)
  • She couldn't email the test to our wireless printer because it was a school iPad, and apparently could only send outgoing mail when it was connected to the school's network (this may or may not be true, but her email was definitely not working, and I wasn't going to change any of her school's settings playing around)
  • After we got the wireless printing app installed, we still couldn't print because the PDFs were password protected, and the app just kept saying it couldn't access the file (but gave no provision to enter a password)
  • She couldn't log into her school email from any other computer, because she couldn't remember her webmail password, and had left her school laptop at school

Sometime during our conversation, she also relayed that the test this girl was taking was some kind of Australian standardized test, which all Australian students must take - and must take at the same time. Which, of course, is Australia time, hence why they were in the library so late. Of course, the clock had already started, and we still hadn't even managed to print it yet.

The proctor was frazzled, the student was frustrated, and I, being functionally illiterate when it comes to Apple products, was running out of ideas.

But I know that if you start tapping things on an iPad other things happen, so this became my new strategy. When we just opened the PDF, it launched it Adobe Reader, which had limited export options*. However, at some point one of us noticed that her email had the option to move the PDF to iBooks, so we tried that.

Playing with it in iBooks, we found an option to email it with her personal (non-school) account, which miraculously did work. She emailed it to my library email, I opened the file at the desk, she entered the password, and thank goodness it printed okay. Repeat for part two of the test, and the girl was quickly to work - by about 8:20 pm.

All of this really was an ordeal to get through, compounded by the fact that the longer we screwed around, the less time the student had to take her test. My coworkers all appreciated this, and one remarked that she now understood why the woman was kneeling at the desk.

But no, that's not the reason. The proctor's shirt happened to have a very loose and floopy neckline, and if she leaned over towards the desk in the slightest, she'd be putting on quite a show. So, the entire time I was working with her, she kept using one hand to hold her shirt closed. And I don't know if you've tried it, but it is very difficult to try to operate an iPad while one hand is preventing a wardrobe malfunction.

Eventually, she just gave up and knelt in front of the desk, because at least that meant she didn't have to lean over. That was the point at which my coworker walked by.

So, amusing yes, but the story isn't quite over. At 8:55 pm I went to the study room to let them know the library was closing. Since I knew the student got a late start, I was going to offer to stay a bit past 9:00, if she needed just another ten or fifteen minutes to finish up.

The proctor said she appreciated that, but the test had another three hours(!) to go. Holy smokes. This town pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at 9pm, so I really have no idea where they were going to go to finish this test. I felt bad for them, but they were just happy to have the printed tests and said they'd figure something out.

And speaking of figuring something out, here's something I can't figure out: so, foreign exchange students usually go to the host country by themselves, right? So, when this student's mother called to reserve a room, she must have been calling from Australia. Huh.

 


*One option I never ruled out was opening the test on the iPad and just photocopying the screen. Luckily, we never had to implement this.



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Tech Trends from MLA2010

   April 29th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Locked BikeI was at MLA2010 yesterday and participated in a panel discussion of Top Tech Trends (it was good, and if I find the other talks online I'll link to them). The two trends I chose aren't exactly new, but are two things I think will have an impact at the reference desk. They deal with ownership of the resources we offer to the public.

[note: this post might not be news to anyone, but the links from which I drew my information are worth reading]

Trend One: Subscription Databases
This has been a pretty happy segment of the library world for a long time, and libraries probably are familiar and comfortable with subscribing to and offering this kind of content. But in the last couple years, new exclusive deals signed between publishers and database vendors has limited access to many popular periodicals (this also happened last year with Consumer Reports).

EBSCO was the focus of much criticism, but Library Journal reports that the publishers are also interested in exclusive contracts. I don't mean to vilify them, because businesses will always act in their own self-interest. But I couldn't tell what bothered me more: loss of access to these periodicals, or corporate press releases [pdf] saying these contracts were in libraries' best interest - there is a difference between "all libraries" and "libraries that are our customers," which is a distinction database vendors don't seem to make.

We non-customers can't afford to keep buying more and more subscriptions because these exclusive deals demand it, so our patrons lose out. The bottom line is that it took resources away from many libraries, and I'm sure this isn't the end of it.

Trend Two: Ebooks
People might be sick of hearing about ebooks* already. However, since it contains the word "books," there is a natural expectation for libraries to offer them, so you can either jump or be dragged into this discussion.

The problematic trend is that the "e" part of ebooks makes them an entirely different animal from print books. Lots of people are trying to figure out how libraries can offer them to patrons, but ebooks have the potential to drastically change the publishing industry (including a power struggle within the distribution chain), and there's no nice model right now that seems to include libraries.

Another problem (for libraries) is that the two most talk-about ebooks readers (the Kindle and the iPad) are also the most restrictive. Like publishers and database vendors, Amazon and Apple are companies acting in their own self-interest, and what they're interested in is sales. Their tactic to maximize their sales is to control where the customers can get ebooks - which excludes libraries.

At least right now: the same thing was true with the iPod and Overdrive audiobooks - when we initially signed up with Overdrive, they did not work on the iPod (which is what all of our patrons had). Eventually Apple relented, so I'm hopeful they'll also eventually open up the iPad to outside ebook sources.

However, there is a case to be made that the iPad is not designed for reading anyway.

Statistics for the Future
Ebooks are popular, but right now they only account for 2-5% of overall book sales. That seems small, but library sales are about 4%. Ebook sales will definitely grow, whereas library sales probably will not. Since the future of ebooks will hinge on decisions made by businesses, libraries will need to speak up to make sure we have a role in this market.

Bonus Trend: HTML5
Something I forgot to mention in my talk also related to the iPad: watching videos online using Flash might be a thing of the past, because the iPad does not support Flash (per Steve Jobs). Instead, the iPad is looking to HTML5, and so is Google. The most obvious impact will be in Flash-based like Youtube and Hulu, but it's worth reading about HTML5 to get an idea of what the web might look like in the next few years.

 


*I don't know if there is an official style guide for these things, but I decided to always spell "ebooks" the same way I spell "email." If it starts a sentence the first letter gets capitalized, but otherwise it's always all in lowercase, as opposed to eBooks, e-books, etc.



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