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


Reference Question of the Week – 4/7/13

   April 13th, 2013 Brian Herzog

9999This might surprise non-librarians, but reference staff doesn't just sit around all day answering regular questions. Sometimes, you get something like this:

A 20-something patron walked up to me at the Reference Desk one evening and said,

You know that bulletin board in your teen area that always has different stuff on it? I don't know if you take suggestions from people, but here's a puzzle kids might like to try to figure out. I say "try" because I show this to lots of people and no one has solved it - even math teachers.

With that, he takes a piece of scrap paper, writes four 9s on it (as in, just 9999), and explains the puzzle.

The goal is to use these four nines, and any mathematical symbols, and have the result equal 100. You can use any combination of symbols - +, -, /, x, ( ), etc. - but the result must work out to be exactly 100.

Just then his ride came to get him, so he flipped the paper over, wrote the answer on the back, and said he hoped the kids would have fun with it.

So there I was - it was a slow night, I've got an "unsolvable" puzzle in front of me, and the answer is also at my finger tips. Such a temptation to cheat, but I gave it my best shot, trying all kinds of different ideas over the course of the night. No matter what I tried though, I just couldn't get it, so eventually I had to look at the answer.

I'm sure this puzzle (and the solution) is on the internet somewhere, but if you're interested, give it a try. If you give up, or want to check your answer, this link will launch the solution in a new window (this is exactly what the patron wrote on the back of the scrap paper).



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Reference Question of the Week – 4/1/12

   April 7th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Sleep modeOne night this week, a father brought his eight year old daughter to the desk, along with her new laptop and Nook Touch, and asked that I show her how to download ebooks. This was, hands down, the most interesting ebook instruction I've ever given.

Happily, everything went smoothly - usually the biggest hurdle is actually finding an ebook the patron is interested in downloading, but in this case, there were quite a few kids books that caught her eye (she struggled to decide between Junie B. Jones Has a Peep in Her Pocket and Barbie and the Three Musketeers).

We checked out and downloaded one, but when it came time to transfer it to the Nook, the father realized that he had left the Nook's cable out in the car. The daughter stayed at the desk with me while he ran out to get in. While we were waiting, I asked the girl if she had any homework to do that night.

She said she had expanding math to do, which they were just learning and she really didn't understand. I told her I had never heard of "expanding math" before (which was true), and asked her if she could show me. We got some scrap paper and a pencil, and the practice problem she came up with was 104 - 57. She explained it as she worked it out, and when she was finished the paper looked something like this:

104 = 10090 + 0 + 14    
- 57 = 0 + 50 + 7    

    90 + 0 + 7    
        50        
        40 + 7 = 47

This seemed slightly over-complicated, but I was able to follow her, and she actually explained it quite well. I had just never heard it called "expanding math," I guess. But when her father came back, his reaction made me laugh. He just stared at the paper, and commented that he's never seen her doing homework like that.

Anyway, cable in hand, we were back to ebooks. We plugged in the Nook, transferred the ebook with no problem, and they were delighted to see the text and pictures on the Nook's color screen. They went through the whole process again, this time downloading Go, Dog. Go! for her little brother, and again, everything worked smoothly.

The dad reminded the girl that she had homework, and said it was time to go. He started putting the Nook away, and told her to pack up the laptop. When she clicked Start > Shut Down, I overheard this exchange:

Father: Oh, you don't need to shut it all the way down, just put it to sleep.
Daughter: I don't like putting it to sleep.
Father: Why not?
Daughter: [leaning over and whispering] Sometimes it has bad dreams.

Again, a puzzled look on the dad's face, but mixed with a little humor, because it was a random and funny comment.

After they finished packing everything up, the only thing left on the desk was the scrap paper with the girl's math problem on it. The dad picked it up to take with him, saying,

Father: Come on, it's time for you to teach me how to do your homework.

And they walked away from the reference desk holding each other's hand.

All in all, this was one of the most ridiculously saccharin slice-of-family-life scenes I have witnessed at the library. The bad dreams comment kind of bothered me, but hopefully they will bond while doing her homework together.



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Reference Question of the Week – 2/13/11

   February 19th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Academics use these to measure their degrees (sorry - I have a weakness for bad jokes)One afternoon, a middle school-age patron asked to borrow a protractor. Normally, requests like this aren't a problem - we have lots of school tools and office supply stuff that we let people use all the time. But this time, I looked everywhere - Reference, YA, Childrens, and our supply closet - and there wasn't a protractor anywhere.

After my search, I went back to the table where the patron was sitting with her tutor to apologize for not having one for her. As I did, kind of spur of the moment, I offered to see if I could find one online to print out - if that was okay with them.

The student and tutor both kind of looked stunned, but then said sure, a printed one would probably work fine - although they both seemed kind of skeptical.

I went back to the desk and searched Google Images for "protractor" (limited to Large size since I was going to print it).

The very first result seemed perfect, so I printed it and took it, along with a pair of scissors, over to their table.

As I handed it to them, I think it finally dawned on them what I was doing - and that they now had to cut it out. They both were laughing and kind of delighted with the novelty of adding a craft project to math homework.

An hour or so later when they were finished, the student came to return the scissors to the desk. I asked her if it worked okay, and she smiled and said she liked it so much she was going to save it to take to school.

Meanwhile, my homework is to go to the dollar store to get a protractor to leave at the Reference Desk.



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