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




Reference Question of the Week – 11/7/14

   November 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

JwingdingsThis was kind of a funny question, right up until I realized I had created a monster.

A patron, who is somewhat new to email, walked up to the desk and said,

Patron: I think some of my friends' email accounts have all been hacked by the same person, and he's sending me messages.

Me: Oh really, why?

Patron: Because at the end of a lot of messages - not all of them, but some of them - it is signed with just the initial J. Someone named J must have hacked their accounts and is sending messages to me, but they don't know they've been hacked because sometimes the messages really come from my friends.

I love a good conspiracy, but in this case I explained what emoticons are and how people sometimes use them in email to display smiling or frowning faces. Some people just used keyboard characters, some use a special font, and some use images.

In this case the patron's friends must be using Outlook, which uses Wingdings font to display emoji. If other email programs don't use that technique, it will just show that character in the default font, which is usually a J for a smiley face.

We then went back over to his computer which still had his Yahoo mail up, and I showed him how he could add emojis to his message. He was thrilled, and I think now all of his friends are going to get sick of it very quickly.

Even though the patron was happy, I still much prefer the idea of a mysterious person named J hacking all his friends' accounts just to send him messages.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/2/14

   November 8th, 2014 Brian Herzog

wall street journal signI like reference interactions where the initial question really just ends up being an ice-breaker for a series of bonus tangents. Well, sometimes I like those.

In this case, a patron came up to the desk carrying a back issue of the Wall Street Journal and asked,

Can I check this out? I want to take it home to compare it to the online version, because I think they're not giving me everything online that they are in the newspaper. I cancelled my newspaper subscription and just do the online now, but an online subscription is the same price as the newspaper and I don't think they include all the articles that are in the real paper.

I don't know the specifics of the WSJ's pricing structure, but I suspect that this patron is correct. I noticed this years ago with our online subscription the Lowell Sun database - articles people swore they saw in the print paper were not coming up in the database (and it wasn't hard for me to verify).

At the time, I called Newsbank to ask them about it, and they said that yes, that is correct. They only have the rights to put Lowell Sun-generated content into their database - so, any syndicated content like AP articles, comics, puzzles, etc, will not appear online. This was a few years ago and in a different context, but the Newsbank person said we'd never see an online version of anything that has everything the print edition has.

I relayed this to the patron, and he appeared to feel vindicated.

He also was extremely interested in the previously-unknown-to-him fact that we had online access to the Lowell Sun - and the Boston Globe, and the New York Times. I showed him how to log in from home with his library card, so that was a happy little tangent. Then he had another tangent for me:

Well, that's okay anyway about the Wall Street Journal articles. Sometimes what I can do is look at the headlines on the Wall Street Journal website, and if an article I want to read is one you have to pay for, then I just search for that headline in Google and usually it links to the full article for free. I don't know why, and it's not all the time, but usually.

So then we had a little talk about paywalls and Google access, for which I had no good answer. But while listening to him, I suspect that some of the articles he links to from Google weren't actually on the WSJ website, just news articles from other sources that had very similar headlines.

What I did not tell him about was the Element Inspector trick - a method for editing a website's code to remove the "sign in to read the full article" blocking mechanism. However, after the patron left I did try out both that trick and his search-for-the-headline-on-Google technique, and I couldn't get either of them to work for WSJ.com articles. Which isn't too surprising - if anyone is going to put a lot of effort into making sure casual circumvention can't be used to access their content, it'll be online newspapers.

Anyway, so instead of taking the back issue of the newspaper home, he just sat down at one of our computers and spent some time comparing the print headlines to the articles available on WSJ.com. I didn't talk to him again though, so I don't know what he discovered.

But another delightful bonus from this question is the idea of letting patrons take home old issues of newspapers. We don't catalog them at all, so all our newspapers are in-library only. I've never been asked this before, but it's certainly a good one for our No Log, to see if we get to yes on it. We already use the honor system for our collection of Cliff Notes, so it might work for old newspapers too.



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Using Carbon Paper for Warning Slips

   November 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

carbon signSo, social media, wireless printing, circulating telescopes, blah blah blah - you know what else we've got? Carbon paper!

To go along with our public typewriter and public fax machine, my library has recently started using carbon paper again (well, actually, carbonless paper).

We got the idea while revamping our behavior warning slip - when a noteworthy incident occurred, staff would fill out a warning slip, and then have to go in the back room to make a photocopy for the patron to take with them. To streamline the process, we thought we'd redesign the form with carbon paper technology in mind, and now we're rolling out the result.

Our new form is three "pages" - really it's one, but with Admin, Desk, and Patron copies for the white, yellow, and pink paper. That way, staff can fill it out on the spot and have all the copies they need right there. One for the patron, one on file in the Admin office, and one to keep at the desk so other staff will know what's going on.

Hopefully, this will make things easier. It took some trial and error to make sure we were printing the pages correctly so the writing would transfer, but once we got it right, the forms seem to work very well. We shall see.



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/26/14

   November 1st, 2014 Brian Herzog

sadieThis happened over the summer, and got lost in my "to blog" folder.

A male patron called in and asked when was the next time the girl scouts would be meeting in the library. Since lots of groups use our meeting rooms, it isn't too unusual that someone might forget their meeting time. No, this didn't get unusual until I asked him which troop he was looking for...

Patron: Oh, I don't know.

Me: There are a few different Brownie and Girl Scout troops that meet at the library, but all on different nights and times.

Patron: Well, I read about one in the paper planting trees in a park, and I wanted to give them an award for community service award.

It's the Sadie Award, which is named after my dog.

I want to come to their next meeting to give them the award.

And I want it to be a surprise, so please don't tell them I'll be coming.

It is entirely possible I am overly-sensitive to such things, but this started to sound odd. But in any case, I didn't know which troop he was talking about. So, I told him I'd look it up and give him a call back.

I had heard of the tree planting, and checked the Facebook page for the local Open Spaces Stewardship group (which organized the event) because I figured they'd mention the troop number - which they did.

Fine, but now I also want to research this Sadie Award to see what that's all about. And apparently, it's totally a real thing. I even emailed the head of the Open Space Stewards to see if he'd heard of it, and he had - he said this is an local gentleman who created this award, and goes around giving it to anyone he feels has had a positive impact on the community. And Sadie, his dog, comes too and poses for photos.

Huh - I guess that's what I miss for being cynical.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find this Girl Scout troop number on our calendar, so I didn't know when they were next meeting. I called the patron back and let him know what I had found, and gave him the contact information for the Stewards. Since they coordinated with the troop for the tree-planting, they must know who to contact there about meeting times.

The patron thanked me and was excited to be a step closer to awarding the Girl Scouts for their good work. And I was happy to learn about such a nice thing in town that it seems everyone knew about but me.



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Halloween Book Displays

   October 31st, 2014 Brian Herzog

One of my coworkers got creative for our Halloween book displays, and I think they look great:

book display: pumpkin

book display: ghost

Happy Halloween everyone!



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Take-Home Tech Support, or, Why Second Thoughts Are Important

   October 29th, 2014 Brian Herzog

tabletphoneLast week, a patron came in and asked for help using the scanner. No problem.

But while I was helping her, she explained that she has an all-in-one copier/printer/scanner that used to work great but is now giving her trouble, hence the trip to the library. She tried describing to me what the problem was, and it seemed like it should be diagnosable and solvable, but I was just not getting it.

One great thing about the emergence of mobile devices, and increasing prevalence of laptops, is that people can bring them into the library for tech support. But with desktops, and in this case copier/printer/scanners, even something that would be simple to correct continues to plague them because it's too difficult to communicate either the problem or the solution remotely.

So, the idea struck me - why not start a program offering in-home tech support? I think it would be unrealistic to send library staff out to patrons' homes, but how about this: we have a special "tech support tablet" that patrons can check out, and then when they get home, use Skype or some other video chat service. That way, I could actually see what the problem was, read the error messages on their screen, see what lights were flashing, tell them which menus to click, etc.

Really, it'd be offering the same service we currently provide to patrons who can bring their devices to the library, so why not offer it remotely too?

Well, any number of reasons, if you think about it. First, this would still be difficult, and not like being there in person. Second, and maybe more frighteningly, who knows what else might show up on the screen besides tech problems. This was basically the reason this idea went no further.

I mean, I still like this idea, and think it could help people. But it would be tricky, and has a lot of downside potential, so for the time being this is just going to be filed under "maybe someday."



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