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


Reference Question of the Week – 2/21/10

   February 27th, 2010 Brian Herzog

I Assure You We're Open sheet sign from Clerks movieOnce again, heavy winds and rain has been knocking out power to most of the area (especially yesterday), so this question of the week is a repeat:

Hey, are you open?

My library had power all day, but most of the town and other nearby libraries did not. The library was packed, and more than a few times I was asked if I knew when power would be back on at a patron's house.

I think the power companies learned a public relations lesson last year, and have been more proactive in providing information. In searching the internet, I found some helpful National Grid storm resources:

When I asked my Director if we'd be staying open late to serve as a shelter for people without power, she said we officially cannot do that. Apparently there are strict certifications necessary for a Town building to function as an emergency shelter, and the library is not certified (neither is our Senior Center, which did stay open last year, but was closed when someone noticed the lack of certification). Granted, this week's outage (and weather) is certainly not as bad as last year's ice storm, but I really don't know how involved certification would need to be. We wouldn't be providing food or aid or beds for people, just heat and power and chairs and internet, which we already do every day. Of course, we'd have to pay staff to stay open, and that is tough with our budget situation.

So, not a very inspiring reference question, but it's been that kind of week. For a real Reference Question this week, check out a great transaction from The Surly Librarian.



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Levels of Service

   December 16th, 2008 Brian Herzog

503 Error: Service UnavailableSince the outages caused by the ice storm on Thursday, my library has been slowly reestablishing our affected services. First back up was our power and heat and catalog (day two), then wireless internet (day three), then internet to the public workstations (day four).

This progressive-improvement situation made for a good quote. When asked by a staff person if things were working again, the response was:

Everything is working, but we're still working on making it patron-proof again.

It made perfect sense in context, but when I thought about it later, it sounded both funny and counter-intuitive.

Recovering from an unintended power outage really draws a stark line between having something work, and having something work the way we want it to. Just having a computer that turns on isn't good enough - ours also need to automatically log in, track time, connect to printers and the internet, and protect the user's privacy and data. And ideally, do all this without intervention from the user.

On the surface, the answer above might sound like our goal was keep the computers safe from the public. The goal is actually to make sure the public needs to do as little as possible to use our computers (making sure they can do no harm is a side effect).



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