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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Can Anyone Help With This Gmail Issue?

   November 28th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Gmail LogoI'm hoping someone can help with a solution to this. A librarian in Florida emailed me with this situation:

I recently ran across Google's "phone verification" for Gmail account creation. Essentially, our computers have been used to create Gmail accounts enough times that patrons are now asked to provide a working cell phone number when creating a new account - one that they can use to retrieve a passcode within minutes and one that hasn't already been used to verify accounts too many times (so I can't just give them the library's number).

This is just not an option for a good number of our patrons - they either don't have a phone or their phone is out of minutes or they're saving the minutes they have for job call-backs. Mind you, the library is often their only source of internet access and an e-mail address is often required to apply online for jobs, social services, unemployment benefits, etc.

The only solution I know of is to recommend Yahoo or a similar non-Google number. Have you heard of a way around this (eg. a Google-provided rotating list of phone numbers just for librarians to use) - or baring that, a petition I could sign regarding this issue?

We haven't encountered this in my library, but Yahoo is still the go-to for free email accounts. Has anyone else had this happened to them, and hopefully found a solution to it? Thanks.

Update 11/28/12: Based on the first couple comments, I wanted to clarify what we're talking about here. It's not just logging into an existing account (I have no cellphone, so I always skip that by just clicking the "Continue" button) - it's when you create a new account. After you create a username and password and other fields required during signup, you see the following screen:

Gmail verification screen

That's the problem - patron's don't have their own phones, or enough minutes, to receive this verification, and the library phone has been used to verify too many times so now it's blocked. On Google's Verifying your account via SMS or Voice Call info page, among other things they say:

Signing up without a phone

If you don't have a phone, you can use a friend's number to request the code via text message or voice call...


Maximum number of accounts reached

If you see the error message, "This phone number has already created the maximum number of accounts," you'll have to use a different number. In an effort to protect our users from abuse, we limit the number of accounts each phone number can create.

Both of which really back certain patrons (and librarians) into a corner. What is a patron to do?

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