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


Reference Question of the Week – 6/9/13

   June 15th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Wednesday is my night to work at the library, and a couple hours before we closed I got an email from a coworker that just said,

I just took a picture that I think will be perfect for your blog. Ask me about it before you leave.

I had no idea what this might be, but at the end of the night, this was the picture from her phone:

patron kneeling at the Reference desk

She found this amusing because it looked to her that this patron was so desperate for help that she was willing to kneel before the desk (and pray?).

That is a funny thought, but when I explained to the rest of the evening staff what was really going on, they were even more amused.

So: around 2:30 that afternoon, a woman called in asking to reserve a study room for 7-9pm that evening, because she was proctoring a test for a student. No problem. Not 30 seconds after I hung up the phone, it rang again, this time a different woman asked to reserve a study room for her daughter, who was taking a test with a proctor.

I was quick on the uptake and asked if her daughter's name was the same one the proctor just gave me, and it was. Which, really, is just a funny little aside, and didn't really portend the communication difficulties to come.

The evening passd unremarkably. Seven o'clock rolls around and the proctor and student show up for their room.

About seven-thirty, the proctor comes out to the desk to ask if there is a way for her to print from her iPad. This perked me up a bit, because wireless printing is still new to us, and I am always happy when I can show it off. I gave her our little how-to handout, which she was satisfied with and went back to the room before I could help her with it.

About ten minutes later she was back, asking for help - and she was at the desk for the next half-hour. Here's what was going on:

  • It turns out, she was proctoring a test for a foreign exchange student from Australia. The test the girl was taking had been emailed to the proctor, as a password-protected PDF (two of them, actually)
  • She couldn't email the test to our wireless printer because it was a school iPad, and apparently could only send outgoing mail when it was connected to the school's network (this may or may not be true, but her email was definitely not working, and I wasn't going to change any of her school's settings playing around)
  • After we got the wireless printing app installed, we still couldn't print because the PDFs were password protected, and the app just kept saying it couldn't access the file (but gave no provision to enter a password)
  • She couldn't log into her school email from any other computer, because she couldn't remember her webmail password, and had left her school laptop at school

Sometime during our conversation, she also relayed that the test this girl was taking was some kind of Australian standardized test, which all Australian students must take - and must take at the same time. Which, of course, is Australia time, hence why they were in the library so late. Of course, the clock had already started, and we still hadn't even managed to print it yet.

The proctor was frazzled, the student was frustrated, and I, being functionally illiterate when it comes to Apple products, was running out of ideas.

But I know that if you start tapping things on an iPad other things happen, so this became my new strategy. When we just opened the PDF, it launched it Adobe Reader, which had limited export options*. However, at some point one of us noticed that her email had the option to move the PDF to iBooks, so we tried that.

Playing with it in iBooks, we found an option to email it with her personal (non-school) account, which miraculously did work. She emailed it to my library email, I opened the file at the desk, she entered the password, and thank goodness it printed okay. Repeat for part two of the test, and the girl was quickly to work - by about 8:20 pm.

All of this really was an ordeal to get through, compounded by the fact that the longer we screwed around, the less time the student had to take her test. My coworkers all appreciated this, and one remarked that she now understood why the woman was kneeling at the desk.

But no, that's not the reason. The proctor's shirt happened to have a very loose and floopy neckline, and if she leaned over towards the desk in the slightest, she'd be putting on quite a show. So, the entire time I was working with her, she kept using one hand to hold her shirt closed. And I don't know if you've tried it, but it is very difficult to try to operate an iPad while one hand is preventing a wardrobe malfunction.

Eventually, she just gave up and knelt in front of the desk, because at least that meant she didn't have to lean over. That was the point at which my coworker walked by.

So, amusing yes, but the story isn't quite over. At 8:55 pm I went to the study room to let them know the library was closing. Since I knew the student got a late start, I was going to offer to stay a bit past 9:00, if she needed just another ten or fifteen minutes to finish up.

The proctor said she appreciated that, but the test had another three hours(!) to go. Holy smokes. This town pretty much rolls up the sidewalks at 9pm, so I really have no idea where they were going to go to finish this test. I felt bad for them, but they were just happy to have the printed tests and said they'd figure something out.

And speaking of figuring something out, here's something I can't figure out: so, foreign exchange students usually go to the host country by themselves, right? So, when this student's mother called to reserve a room, she must have been calling from Australia. Huh.

 


*One option I never ruled out was opening the test on the iPad and just photocopying the screen. Luckily, we never had to implement this.



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Make Scanned PDFs Text-Searchable

   August 5th, 2010 Brian Herzog

WatchOCR logoI'm not entirely comfortable talking about something I haven't used myself, but I really like the idea of this software - it automatically OCRs flat-scanned PDFs and creates text-searchable versions.

Alright, some of you might be saying, "it does what now?" From their description (and more on SlashDot), this is software you install on your server. Then, when one of those horrible originally-scanned-as-one-big-image PDF files gets saved to a "watched" directory, the software automatically converts it to a proper, search-the-text type PDF.

Since I haven't tried it, I don't know how well it works. It sounds like it'll take a bit of tinkering to get operational, but it'd be worth it to make those scanned PDF more useful.

It would also be worth exploring hooking up a scanner directly with this software, to help speed the digitization of historical (and other) records. We looked at the Library Scan Station, which was pretty awesome itself, but was just too expensive for us. This might prove to be a lower-cost solution.



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Web Tool for Filling in PDF Forms

   February 18th, 2010 Brian Herzog

FillAnyPDF.com logoFile this web tool under "why didn't someone think of this before?" FillAnyPDF.com lets you upload any pdf or image file (such as a blank form), type on it, and then save the completed form as a new pdf file.

It's not perfect, but it's easier than a typewriter. I'll use this both for patrons and myself, and I'm still surprised there aren't tons of these sites out there.

via LibraryStuff



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Reference Question of the Week – 10/4/09

   October 10th, 2009 Brian Herzog

I was asked these two questions back-to-back one day this week:

I want to sell my car on craigslist, and I want to be able to email people an info sheet. I've already created an Excel spreadsheet with mileage and other statistics, including a couple pictures pasted in. Can you show me how to put arrows and text on the pictures, and how to convert it to a pdf file?

...and...

I've been on Yahoo for a few months now. I know that I can get letters from people, and I can reply to letters people send me, but, can I send people letters too?

Of course, both of these are legitimate questions. I was just struck by such different technology experience levels from two patrons who walked up to the reference desk at about the same time.

And the answers are:

Excel's Drawing Toolbar (View > Toolbars > Drawing) allows both of these things. Click the icon that looks like an Arrow to draw an arrow on a picture, use the Line Style to make it thicker, and the Line Color icon to change the color. Then, click the Text Box icon to create a text box wherever you want words to appear. Use the Fill Color and Line Color to make sure it's legible against the picture.

To create a pdf version, we installed PDFcreator on our public computers. It shows up in the printer selection dropdown box, and creates a pdf file patron can then save to disk

...and...

Just click the "New" button in the upper left corner of the Inbox.



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