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

Reference Question of the Week – 3/31/13

   April 6th, 2013 Brian Herzog

Hello.  Have you tried turning it off and on again?This wasn't a very difficult question, and although it didn't have a great ending, I thought it was interesting anyway - and happy we could help because the patron had no where else to go.

A patron walked up to the Reference Desk and asked to use the phone. We generally only let people use desk phones to call for rides or other quick things, mainly to make sure phones are available for staff to answer incoming patron calls.

Since it was fairly early in the day, I asked him if he was calling for a ride, and he said,

No, I need to call email tech support. I called them last night to help with my email, but he said I needed to be in front of the computer. I don't have one at home, so I always use the library computers. I don't have a cell phone either, but I think this computer here in the corner is close enough to the Reference Desk that I could stretch the phone cord across the aisle while I talk to him. It should be a quick call.

Okay, by the time he was finished speaking, all kinds of red flags were waving for all they're worth.

I sympathize with people trying to use technology without actually owning their own technology - libraries are great, but obviously some things are much easier to do at home. However, also obviously, I couldn't allow this patron to:

  • block an aisle way by stretching a cord across it
  • engage in a phone conversation at the public workstation, since we routinely ask people doing this very thing to take their cell phone call in a different area of the library so as not to bother the other computer users near them
  • tie up one of the Reference Desk phones for this long a time - no tech support call in history has been "quick"

Hoping to avoid this situation entirely, I asked the patron what he was trying to do, and if I could help. His answer kind of surprised me:

I've always used Hotmail, but now I'm switching to Gmail. The Gmail people said they were able to import everything from my Hotmail account, except what was in my Drafts folder. But when I went in to move those myself, I accidentally deleted some, so I called Hotmail to see if they could be restored.

First, I had no idea that Gmail offered a migration service, but they do. Neat. Secondly, I think he's right in that he'd need Hotmail tech support to recover deleted messages. I did check his account with him, just to see if there was something he overlooked, but from what we could tell the draft messages in question were gone.

And so, this left us with the original question of how he could use a phone and a computer at the same time. Eventually it dawned on me that he could borrow one of the laptops we loan to the public, and the Reference Desk's cordless phone,* and sit in an area of the library where his talking wouldn't bother anyone. It seemed like a good solution, and he was happy.

45 minutes later(!) he came back, a little dejectedly, and said Hotmail couldn't recover his messages after all. He wasn't entirely sure of the reason, but by this point had accepted it. The messages weren't critical, but he certainly would have preferred to have them. I apologized and we commiserated a bit about technological dependence, then he thanked me for the library being able to accommodate his situation, and left.

So in case anyone was wondering, the digital divide is still alive and well. It also made me wonder: do any libraries loan cell phones to patrons? I'm not an expert on cell phone technology, but I think there are the the kind where patrons could just pay to put minutes on them, so it wouldn't cost the library anything. It would have been helpful in a case like this, or if a patron was going on a trip or something and wanted the security of being in touch. It seems like a good idea, but I'm sure I'm overlooking some vital flaw.


*Our Reference Desk has two phones at the desk (and two computers), as well as a cordless phone in the Reference Office behind the Desk. We carry this with us when we know we'll be away from the desk, because it sure beats trying to sprint back to the desk when the phone rings while you're in the stacks.

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Reference Question of the Week – 2/24/13

   March 2nd, 2013 Brian Herzog

Library Emergency PhoneThis sort of happened once before, and I think it's awesome - although it probably wasn't very awesome to experience.

One member of our staff recently took a two-week cruise, leaving from Florida. She and her partner flew to Florida, took a shuttle from the airport to the dock, and were just about to get on the boat when the realized one of their suitcases was missing. But worst of all, it was the suitcase that contained his blood pressure medicine.

They simply could not go on the cruise without it. And they only had an hour and a half before they had to check in on the ship, so they didn't have enough time to get all the way back to the airport and try to track down the bag.

So, she did the only smart thing - she called the library.

Her logic was this: they knew the name of his doctor and the town in which he practiced, but no other contact information. The Reference Desk was able to easily find the doctor's office phone number, which she then called from her cell phone in Florida.

The doctor's office said they could send a new prescription to a local pharmacy down there - but of course they were at a cruise ship terminal and had no idea where a drug store might be.

The ensuing story sounded like the stuff of a Benny Hill sketch: they found a taxi, but the driver barely spoke English. He tried to locate a CVS Pharmacy on his smartphone's GPS, while my coworker tried to keep the doctor's office on the phone. I can just hear Yakety Sax playing while picturing this cab racing down the street, cell phones blazing, communication barrier humming, and the clock ticking.

They finally find a pharmacy, (hopefully) convince the cabbie to wait in the parking lot because they'll be right back out and need to race back to the dock - my coworker still has the doctor's office on the phone and gives it to the pharmacy technician so they can work out where to send the prescription.

After a few tense minutes the new prescription is filled, the smiling taxi driver is happily waiting for them, and they make it back to the cruise ship just in the nick of time. The rest of the cruise goes smoothly, they have a wonderful time, and they even manage to pick up their lost suitcase on their way back through the airport going home.

And the moral of this story? Never go on vacation without taking your local library's phone number with you.

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Reference Question of the Week – 1/8/12

   January 14th, 2012 Brian Herzog

Cell phone with headphones plugged inI found this question interesting, even though I couldn't help much. An older woman came up to the desk one afternoon and said:

I have message from my granddaughter on my cell phone that I would like to save. How can I record that to a CD so I can listen to it whenever I want?

As you might suspect, I'm decently competent when it comes to tech questions, but I know nothing about cell phones. However, I suspected there must be some web interface she could log into and see all of her account's voicemail as mp3 files or something - at least, I hoped there was. Short of that, there was always the low-tech method of simply holding her phone close to a tape recorder.

Her carrier was AT&T, so I called the local AT&T store and asked them about downloading voicemail files - this is the guy's response:

No, we don't have anything like that - just tell her to hold her phone up to a tape recorder*.

Man. Yeah, I'm sure it'll work, but the quality would probably be pretty bad. So, I tried searching online for recording voicemail from cell phone and after reading a few posts, I found the obvious answer of using the phone's headphone jack to plug into a computer and use that to record.

The Ask MetaFiler post was particularly informative, as it provided multiple options including a list of the different hardware and software options available. Of course, we didn't have any of this in the library, so I couldn't help the woman directly. But it did provide me with enough information to call around to a few local computer repair shops, and ask them if they had the equipment and ability to record her message for her.

Of the shops I called, one said they'd do it for $10 and one said they'd do it for free, and the woman was very happy. She said she's try the free one first, and if it didn't sound good enough, she'd try the other.

It's kind of too bad we didn't have the right cable to do this - now I'm really curious to see if it works (but not enough to actually get my own cell phone).


*The guy at the AT&T store also did say that if the woman was being threatened she should take it to the Police, but that wasn't the case.

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Scanning Library Cards on Smartphones

   February 8th, 2011 Brian Herzog

Scanning library card barcode from smartphoneSomething I really like about smartphones are apps like CardStar and Key Ring - they let you input the numbers from all the club and rewards cards from your keychain and display the barcode on your phone.

Patrons also use these apps for their library card numbers, and some libraries aren't sure how to handle the library-card-on-smartphone situation. It hasn't really come up in my library, but I know our traditional scanners won't read barcodes off a smartphone screen. So, I thought I'd do some research to find out what it would take to accommodate these patrons.

The reason it doesn't work is because traditional barcode scanners are designed to read laser light reflected off a solid surface. Smartphone screens are emitting light, so an entirely different technology is needed.

The scanners that can read barcodes on smartphones are called CCD scanners (what that stands for is less important than a short description or a compare/contrast between CCD and traditional laser scanners).

After learning this, I started looking around at the different models and costs of CCD scanners. I stumbled across a Quora post mentioning a company called FaceCash* which sells scanners for $30. That's cheap enough for experimentation, so I contacted Aaron Greenspan (FaceCash founder) and bought one.

And it worked. I plugged it into a computer's USB port, held it up to an iPhone with a library card displayed on it, and Beep, the scanner read it just like it should. I'm always shocked when tech things work right out of the box. And happily, the scanner also reads** regular barcodes too.

So now, for just $30, my library can accommodate those patrons who make their lives easier*** through mobile technology.

Recent studies show this is fast becoming the standard in the business world - especially airlines. So the only question is whether or not libraries are willing to honor "virtual" library cards.

I don't see why not. It doesn't seem like fraud would be any more of an issue with this than with regular library cards. When we sign up a patron for a new library card, we give them a wallet card and a keychain card - so already there is more than one copy of the card in existence, which means more than one person could be using it. Since we don't make people show a picture ID when they present their library card, people could already be using someone else's card and we'd never know. Besides, if it's good enough for the TSA and airline security, I think we can manage.

But best of all, accepting these means that it's easier for patrons to bring their library card with them to the library. This is both better customer service and will save staff time in not having to look patrons up. Now that I have this scanner, I just have to wait for a patron to come in who needs it - what a strange feeling to be ahead of the curve.


FaceCash - Pay with Your Face*FaceCash is a new way to pay for things - you add money to your FaceCash account, and install the FaceCash app on your phone. Then when you're in a store or restaurant that accepts FaceCash, the app displays your account barcode for the business to scan, and also a picture of your face, so the clerk can verify that you are actually you. With more and more personal data being stored in phones, the visual verification is a great idea. If my library charged fines, I'd want to sign up us to accept FaceCash.

**One limitation of CCD scanners is their short range - just a couple inches, compared to 8-10" range of traditional scanners. Plus, the scanner I bought is trigger-operated, rather than motion-operated like our existing scanners. So, even though it can read both physical and digital barcodes, I don't think we'll swap out what we've got for it, but instead just plug it in and use it when a smartphone patron comes to the desk.

***I like just about anything that reduces waste and clutter. These apps let you store useful information easily, instead of lugging around a whole deck of various cards, and that makes life better. Read a few more tips to simplify your wallet, so you don't end up like George:
George Costanza and his wallet

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Detecting and Redirecting Mobile Devices

   December 16th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Mobile website mockup in testiphone.comRemember a few months ago, when I was inspired by Steve Butzel's presentation at NELA2010 and created a mobile version of my library's website? I bet you have that date marked on your calendar.

Anyway, one lingering problem I had was some mechanism to automatically detect mobile devices when they visited our website, and reroute them to the mobile version instead of the full web version. I finally had some time this week and was able to accomplish that - aided by the fact that it was easier than I expected.

The ultimate goal is to redesign our entire site along the lines Brett suggested, by creating a stylesheet specifically for mobile devices. Brad pointed out that the Canton Public Library employs this, awesomely: visit their site and slowly make your browser window smaller, and watch the website flip from "full web" mode to "mobile" mode.

That was more than I could handle this week, so I opted for the detect-and-redirect approach. I had found online instructions using both javascript and php, and I went with the php method because

  • I think php is more reliable than javascript, because javascript depends on the browser whereas php runs on our server
  • Php is more fun, and I know our server runs php

The website offering the php method is http://detectmobilebrowsers.mobi, and very happily they make it available free for non-profits. Here's what I did:

  1. Read and reread their website
  2. Downloaded the main bit of code, and uploaded it to our web server
  3. Used their Function Generator to create the snippet of code to paste into the top of our homepage. I chose to treat all of their options as a mobile browser, and redirect them to http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/mobile - the resulting code looked like this:

    (this should be two lines of code, but it wraps because of the width of my blog - if you use this code, make sure the second and third lines above are actually one long line)

  4. I copy/pasted that code into our index.html homepage. However, because this is php code, it had to go between php tags, (<?php and ?>), so the complete code I actually added to the top of our page was:

    (again, see note above about line wrapping)

  5. Note that the path in the "require_once" line must match where on your web server you actually saved the mobile_device_detect.php file (downloaded in Step 2)
  6. Now, the last step was a little tricky, because it involves editing the .htaccess on the server. It's easy though, and one of their faq answers explains it.

    Basically, .html files don't normally run php code - .php files do that. So if our homepage was index.php instead of index.html, I could have skipped this step. Instead, in order to make .html pages execute php, I had to add a few lines to our server's .htaccess file - which was no trouble at all - and then everything worked splendidly

That is, at least, so far. I've done some testing with mobile devices and (as suggested) with the User Agent Switcher Firefox add-on, and all of that has worked. But please, if you have a mobile device, visit our homepage (http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org) and let me know if you don't get redirected to our mobile site.

A couple other notes:

  • I also added a link to the mobile site in the upper-left corner of the homepage, in case the redirect doesn't work
  • I only added this auto-detect to the homepage. I thought about adding it to every page, but our full site has a lot of information our mobile site doesn't - especially descriptions of our events. If I added the redirect to every single page, people with mobile devices basically wouldn't have access to any of that. So, my thinking is to provide mobile users with the (robust) basics, but if they want more than that they'll have to endure our not-great coding until we're able to redesign the entire site to be mobile-friendly

This was easier than I was expecting, which makes me think I missed something.

Update: someone pointed out a gap in my logic. On the mobile site, there is a link to "Visit our main site" which linked back to our full homepage. However, since the homepage redirected people to the mobile site, anyone clicking that link from the mobile site just got looped right back to the mobile site. So, I changed that link to go to our About page. Again, this is a good reason to just have mobile-friendly stylesheets like Brett and Brad suggest above.

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Reference Question of the Week – 11/28/10

   December 4th, 2010 Brian Herzog

Pay PhoneThis reference question has actually been in the works for a couple weeks, and isn't officially closed. But I don't expect to get any better answer than what has already been found, so I thought I'd share it.

Before I got into work one day, a patron asked if she could use the phone. Since our pay phone was removed from the lobby, we've been more permissive about letting patrons use our desk phones. However, when the patron said she was going to call India, staff told her she'd need to use a pay phone. So of course she asked,

Where is the nearest pay phone?

They were pretty sure there was one across the street, but just to be sure they also searched online to see if there were any pay phone listings or directories. They found three, but each seemed incomplete or out-of-date:

When I got in, I also searched and found the same thing. I thought the best way to get a listing of pay phones in town was to contact the Verizon rep who handled our old pay phone - if anyone had a current list, it'd be them, right? So I called our Town Hall and spoke to the woman who handles the pay phone contracts for Town buildings. She said all of the Town-run phones had been removed to save money, and that dealing with our Verizon rep was a pain. She didn't have his phone number handy, but said she'd look and call me back (I still haven't heard from her, which is why this question isn't officially "closed").

In the meantime, I thought I'd just call Verizon and see how far I could get. I found a list of Verizon contact phone numbers, and called the Massachusetts support line.

After going through their menu options and waiting on hold for a few minutes, I finally got a nice guy in the billing department. I explained that I was looking for a list of pay phones in my town, and he laughed and said he didn't even know if they even still had a pay phone division. Eventually he found a "coin phone department" on his department list, and transferred me there. But he also gave me the number: 800-782-8355.

After waiting on hold for a long while, I spoke to a woman who didn't seem to like the idea of me asking for this list. First she said I had to go through Town Hall, so I explained that the Town pulled out their phones, which is why I was looking for a list of the rest of the phones in town. Then she put me on hold to confer with someone, and when she came back she said,

I can't give you that list, because a list of where all our phones are is proprietary information.

Yes, "proprietary information." She suggested I just walk around town and look for Verizon signs, because, "they're all well marked."

The good news is that there is indeed a pay phone across the street from the library, so we can just refer people there when necessary. And the woman was correct, it is well-marked.

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