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

Reference Question of the Week – 1/19/14

   January 25th, 2014 Brian Herzog

hand to the lightHere's something nice about librarians: we know that one of the best ways to self-medicate is with information. One of my co-workers told me this story - it could have happened to anyone, but since she approached it in a librarian way, I figured other people would enjoy it too.

My coworker was talking to her sister recently, who had hurt her arm and was required to sleep with her arm propped up. Which sounds normal enough, but this idea struck terror into the heart of my coworker.

One of her childhood fears, that has stuck with her all her life, is sleeping with her arms propped up. It stemmed from reading a book of Christian stories in her dentist's waiting room - the story was about how Jesus knew you were dead and ready to be taken to Heaven if you were in bed with your arms propped up.

She decided to search to see if she could re-locate whatever story this was - because no one else remembered reading it. She searched for various combinations of keywords (jesus dead holding up hand childrens story), and eventually she found it!

It's called Jesus Understood, and I agree with her that the whole thing comes across now as pretty creepy. I had never heard of this propped hand = Heaven idea, but I can see why the last sentence might stay with a child:

jesus understood

It's a short story (just three pages), so read it and see what you think.

Anyway, I thought this was a very librarian way to face a childhood terror - go back and find the source, and see how it reads as an adult. Hopefully my coworker can now sleep peacefully.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/12/14

   January 18th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Abuse of Power Michael SavageI don't like applying the label "victim mentality" to people, but sometimes, it really fits. In this case, it seemed like this patron delighted in being "subversive," and all the government-sponsored persecution it might entail.

Late one afternoon, a patron walked up and said something about big brother. I didn't catch it all, partly because some of it was nonsense. I asked if I could help, and she said she didn't think so, because the powers didn't like what she was doing on the internet.

Still a bit at sea, I asked if she was having trouble with one of our computers. She said she was having trouble with all of our computers, because They didn't want her hearing the message. Because the powers don't like it.

We had a little back-and-forth for a few minutes. Sometimes I wish my library had security cameras, just so I could replay for people conversations like this - because there is just no way an after-the-fact description can do them justice.

Eventually I figured out this patron was watching videos on the Michael Savage website. But when she did, our computers would shut down. According to the patron, she had tried multiple computers over the course of a week or so, and all of them did the same thing. The video would start, then the computer would shut down. I see this as a technical issue, but she was convinced the government didn't want her hearing Michael Savage's message, and so was turning off the computers deliberately.

Ironically, perhaps, I believe she was coming to me for help, despite me being a government worker and possibly part of the conspiracy to keep her down.

Anyway, I tried to approach this from a technical "videos sometimes crash browsers" aspect (like I do many times a week because that's just how the internet is), but she refused to hear any explanation that didn't involve black ops. I kept asking questions, trying to diagnose the problem - did it happen on other websites, were there popups, did it happen right away or after a bit of time, etc.

Finally, she let slip some actual information that helped: the videos would play for about ten minutes, and then the computer would restart. She figured this was how long it took for the government censors to catch on, but I knew ten minutes is actually how long we have Deep Freeze's inactivity limit set for.

So now this should be an easy fix - and it's not actually uncommon. Since our computers are public and we want them to reboot automatically if someone walks away and forgets to end their session, we have Deep Freeze do this reboot after ten minutes of inactivity. If someone is watching a video, usually they're not typing or moving the mouse or anything. The computer interprets this as inactivity=patron walked away, so it reboots.

I tell the patron all she needs to do is move the mouse every so often when watching a long video, to let the computer know she's still there, and it won't reboot.

Simple! Problem solved? Nope!

See, this answer didn't involve President Obama, so I think it was difficult for her to accept. After a few more minutes of explaining though, I think I convinced her it was worth a try next time she came in.

She hasn't come back up to the desk since then though, so either it worked, or the government stopped its monitoring.

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation Organizes Copyright Week

   January 15th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Copyright WeekIn case you missed it, this week (Jan 13-18, 2014) is Copyright Week. The EFF and partners are using this time, the week leading up the two-year anniversary of the SOPA blackout protests, to talk about the current trends in copyright, and what's at stake.

Read more here, but the real meat is at https://www.eff.org/copyrightweek - each day focuses on a single issue within the world of copyright, and they post resources related to that issue. Here's the topics:

  • Transparency
    Copyright policy must be set through a participatory, democratic and transparent process. It should not be decided through back room deals or secret international agreements.
  • Building and Defending a Robust Public Domain
    The public domain is our cultural commons and a public trust. Copyright policy should seek to promote, and not diminish, this crucial resource.
  • Open Access
    The results of publicly funded research should be made freely available to the public online, to be fully used by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
  • You Bought it, You Own It
    Copyright policy should foster the freedom to truly own your stuff: to tinker with it, repair it, reuse it, recycle it, read or watch or launch it on any device, lend it, and then give it away (or re-sell it) when you're done.
  • Fair Use Rights
    For copyright to achieve its purpose of encouraging creativity and innovation, it must preserve and promote ample breathing space for unexpected and innovative uses.
  • Getting Copyright Right
    A free and open Internet is essential infrastructure, fostering speech, activism, new creativity and new business models for artists, authors, musicians and other creators. It must not be sacrificed in the name of copyright enforcement.

So definitely, check it out - at least with a cursory glance to see what the top issues are.

Also related to copyright, I highly recommend following Alan Wexelblat's Copyfight blog. Alan provides great summaries (and details) of emerging issues and how they actually affect people.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/5/14

   January 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog

licoriceOne of my favorite things about working at a Reference Desk is encountering things I probably would never have found in my normal life. This question wasn't at all challenging, but it's something I probably never would have known had this patron not called.

So, a patron calls and asks if we have a encyclopedia of music theory. I said we didn't, which is true, but I told her we have lots of music books, which is also true, and I figured we could find in one of them whatever she was looking for. She seemed skeptical, but was willing to let me try. So then she asks her question:

In regards to music theory, can you tell me what a licorice stick is?

Now, even though I grew up in Ohio and speak like a Midwesterner (which is to say, proper American English), I usually have no trouble deciphering the New England accent here in Massachusetts. However, I had no idea what this woman just said, so I asked her to repeat it. Twice. When I asked her to spell it, she finally she said, "licorice, you know, like the candy."

I could feel her skepticism growing, but now at least I knew the question.

And we're already a minute or two into this call, so in the interest of speed, I do a quick search online for "licorice stick" music theory - and it turns out that was enough. From skimming the first page of results, the consensus was that "licorice stick" is what jazz musicians call a clarinet.

I relayed this the patron, and her response was,

Oh yes, that makes sense, now can you tell me Benny Goodman's first name? Have you heard of him? Was his first name really Benjamin, or something else?

Again, a quick web search and Wikipedia told me his full name is Benjamin David "Benny" Goodman. The patron thanked me and hung up.

I knew jazz people have words and jargon unto themselves, but this was a term I'd never heard - and not being a jazz person myself, may never hear again. But if I do, I'm hep, daddy-o.

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Did You Know There Are Audiobooks On YouTube?

   January 9th, 2014 Brian Herzog

I saw this tweet yesterday from @librarythingtim:

Audiobook listeners: Do you find yourself listening to audiobooks on YouTube sometimes rather than buying them? http://twtpoll.com/huckvsm1sxqgz9j

I had no idea there are audiobooks on YouTube (and according to Tim's subsequent tweets, I wasn't the only one). Yet sure enough, a simple search for "audiobook" on YouTube is very promising:

YouTube audiobook search results

However, like many other nice internet resources, I suspect this might be less-than-legal - and disclaimers like this aren't kidding anyone:


Especially with the built-in spam link - that seems to indicate this may not be long for this world.

However, audiobooks on YouTube - who knew? Well, Tim did, and I bet a lot of other people too. And since it's likely these are very transient, I bet the people who know they are there benefit from websites to convert YouTube videos as mp3 files, and keep them forever.

The internet really is the wild west of intellectual property.

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Reference Question of the Week – 12/29/13

   January 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

phone number padSo, here's an odd question that came in twice - once to my coworker and then later to me.

When I answered the phone, the patron asks,

Can you tell me the phone number for 1-800-Go-FedEx?

At first it sounds like a prank phone call, but this is actually a good example (ie, trick question) for a reference services class. This particular patron is blind, and so can't easily correlate the letters of "Go FedEx" to numbers on her phone's keypad.

I'm not an expert on accessible equipment, so maybe there are phones that do have the letters indicated too, but this seems like a perpetual problem for low-vision people.

Anyway, instead of manually figuring this out with our desk phone, which would have taken more time, I just did a quick search for "800-go-fedex" and found it listed on FedEx's Customer Support Phone Menu webpage as 1.800.463.3339.

And my call was the second time. Earlier that evening, my coworker had told me she got this call (and that it initially struck her as odd until she recognized the patron's voice) - but I guess the patron had forgotten the digits in the meantime.

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