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

Reference Question of the Week – 10/9/11

   October 15th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Change MachineThis was not a difficult question, and not the first time I've encountered it. But the patron was funny, and I was actually surprised how well this particular tool worked.

About eight minutes after we opened one morning, a woman comes to the desk and says,

You have to help me - I'm desperate.

And then she walked away. It didn't take my librarian-sense tingling to know she wanted me to follow her, back over to the computer where she was working.

She sat down and said (without looking to see if I had, in fact, followed her),

I can't print out this project. My son the poor kid wrote it at home and our printer is busted so I came here to print it for him but your computer won't let me open it and he needs it today so can you print it for me it's in my email do I need to save it to a disk it won't open...

You know, one of those situations when the patron won't let you get a word in edge-wise, even to answer their question. Obviously she was in crisis-mode, but was kind of humorously fatalistic about it, because apparently everything had been going wrong: their home printer broke, come to the library to print but can't open the file, etc.

She had emailed the file to herself (which was good), and I could see the attachment was a .odt file, which is the extension of a document created with Open Office. I thought Microsoft Work was able to open that file type, but when I downloaded her file and tried it (which I think is exactly how far she had gotten), it didn't work.

So first I explain to her why it doesn't work - because she created the file with Open Office (which she knew, and that was good), but that we don't have the right software to open that file type. Then I started to explain that she'd have to go back home and use Open Office to save the file in a format Word could open - .doc, .rtf, etc. She then started in (crisis-thinking again) on whether she should have saved it to a CD (which is never the answer), name the file something else, and all kinds of other options.

While she was talking, it occurred to me that we might just be able to use a file converting website, without her having to go home. So while explaining what a converter website is, I did a quick search for convert odt to doc and spotted a website called ConvertFiles.com.

It was perfect, and easier to use than any other converter website I've found (usually my go-to is Zamzar). You just upload your file by clicking the Browse button, choose the format you'd like to convert to, and then click convert. It took maybe twenty seconds, and then we could open the file in Word.

What I liked about this website was that it let you open the file right away, instead of them emailing it to your account as an attachment.

And boy, when her son's report popped up on the screen, she almost cried. She also tried to print it as quickly as possible, just in case it suddenly went away like some cruel trick.

In my library, printing costs $0.15 per page, and her son's report was two pages. She immediately pulled out a dollar bill, handed it to me and said, "keep the change." But she must have known we can't accept tips, because when I showed her how to use the pay-for-print machine, she took her change back - and then hugged the printed papers to her chest and kept saying, "oh, thank you thank thank you..." all the way back to her workstation.

From start to finish, this entire reference interaction took about three minutes - and in that time, this woman's emotions went from one extreme to the other. It was a very small part of my day, but I think it had a huge impact on her's (and her son's) - which is why I think a converter website like this should be in every reference librarian's toolbox.

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NELA-ITS Spring Program 2007 – Wes Hamilton

   June 6th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Wes Hamilton speakingWes Hamilton, WMRLS
As a compliment to the previous presentations, Wes focused just on Linux as an operating system, rather than the applications that run on top of it. He started with an interesting evolutionary history of Linux, which put into context all of the different flavors available today, and why there are so many.

He also pointed out that, even without knowing it, almost every internet user is already a Linux user, even if indirectly. Some of the post popular websites today (Google, flickr, Wikipedia and YouTube) are all being run on Linux platforms (and in Google's case, Wes said that over 450,000 Linux servers power the search engine - that is an unfathomable number of servers).

A few websites of note from Wes' presentation:

   [view Wes' presentation]


drupal, firefox, libraries, library, linux, nela, nela-its, open office, open source, randy robertshaw, userful

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NELA-ITS Spring Program 2007 – Randy Robertshaw

   June 6th, 2007 Brian Herzog

Randy Robertshaw speakingRandy Robertshaw, Tyngsborough (MA) Public Library
Randy has converted his small public library over to as much open source Linux applications as possible.

His goal in this conversion was to save the library money by paying less for hardware and software, and by saving staff time in supporting the library computers. Randy's presentation focused mostly on available open source applications, such as Firefox, Drupal, Open Office, and on a company they use to maintain their Linux clients, Userful, and offered a lot of practical implementation tips (download his presentation below).

But Randy does not see open source software (OSS) as the be-all and end-all or library computing. He covered both pros and cons, in that it offers reduced cost and high flexibility, but the trade off is that the software isn't necessarily as high-quality or as stable as commercial software. When deciding to go with OSS, we really need to evaluate both what we want to accomplish as well as the available OSS tools, to find the best fit.

   [download Randy's presentation: pdf (5.2M)]


drupal, firefox, libraries, library, linux, nela, nela-its, open office, open source, randy robertshaw, userful

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