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

Reference Question of the Week – 12/6/15

   December 12th, 2015 Brian Herzog

game over, thank you for playing, please try againThis week's question fits right in with the recent thread of "things that happen at closing time," but unfortunately gets filed under, "you win some, you lose some."

Wednesdays are my night to work until closing at 9pm, and in general that's a pretty quiet night. This week, at about 8:40, a patron walked up asking for help with the printer. Specifically, she didn't know how to release multiple jobs at the same time.

"No problem," I thought, as I walked over to the print station with the patron - "too bad it won't be interesting enough for the blog, but at least it's not going to keep me here late." Well, I've been wrong before.

Actually, this part of the question went smoothly. The patron had about $10.95 worth of print jobs sitting in the queue, all in 1- and 2-page jobs. Our coin box only accepts up to $9.50 at a time (so someone doesn't put a $10 bill in to pay for a $0.15 print job and get a whole jackpot of coins back in change), so I showed her how to select, pay for, and release half of the jobs - and then after those printed, how to do it again for the second half.

Once the second half started printing, I went back to the Reference Desk and made our 8:45 first closing announcement. Life was going well, until that same patron came back up to the Reference Desk at about 8:50, carrying her freshly-printed Very Large Stack of papers (by the way, $10.95 at $0.15/page is 73 pages), and said those dreaded words,

Do you have a scanner?

Arrgh, curse our patron responsiveness! Yes, we do have a scanner, and it even has a feed try. But man, she's got a lot to scan, and we close in ten minutes.

However, I tell myself, ten minutes is a long time, and although waiting next to the scanner is like watching a pot waiting for it to boil, it actually does scan pretty fast, so ten minutes is probably plenty of time. So I say, "sure," and take her to the scanner.

73 pages is too many for the feed tray, so I tell her to scan them in thirds. We open the scanner software, she puts about 1/3 of the pages on the tray, and it starts up. The scanner is loud enough, and since she's the only patron left in the reference area, the library is quiet enough, that I can go about my closing time routine and hear when the scanner finishes that first set.

When it does, I come back, get her started on the second third of the pages, and then continue closing - shutting off our OPACs, turning off lights and closing doors in the study rooms, making sure the courtyard door is locked, swapped out the daily calendar posting for tomorrow's, and generally straightening the area.

At about 8:56 we put the last stack of pages on the scanner, and I'm feeling pretty good - I think we'll run a few minutes over, but obviously the patron is appreciative. I make the final closing announcement, turn off one of the reference desk computers, and make a final pass through the stacks to make sure no patrons are hiding back there or laying on the floor unconscious (this is what I think about while closing at night).

Finally I hear the scanner finish - 73 pages through the feed tray with no jams! - and things are looking good. The next step with the scanner software is it goes through and "reads" each scanned page, to OCR the text and make a searchable PDF file. This generally takes a few seconds per page, which means it's going to take a bit to complete for this file. I explain what's happening to the patron, and then go upstairs to the circulation desk, to let the desk staff know I'm helping someone but they can go home.

And I ask the maintenance man to stay, which he's fine with. The desk staff all walk out, I go back downstairs, and I can hear the maintenance guy upstairs doing some general straightening - and then he starts signing Christmas carols. Okay, at least that means he's in a good mood and not annoyed with me.

So back downstairs to the patron, and I see the file is at 25% and making progress. Excellent. I ask the patron if she'd like to email it, and she says yes. So I open a browser, thinking she can log into her email and get a message ready to attach the file to.

She does, but then asks if she can save to a flash drive instead. "It'll be faster," she said, which I don't know that it would be, but either way is fine with me.

Then she pulls this MASSIVE external hard drive out of her bag. For my purposes it works just like a flash drive, but I am always a little surprised when people use imprecise speech. And I'm also surprised that she carries this thing around in her purse. But anyway, she plugs it into the computer, and -


The computer starts to recognize the new USB device plugged into it, but then freeze. Freezes solid. I don't know if it can't install a driver, or if processing the PDF file was just too much to do while also installing the hard drive, but the scanner software stops dead at 34%.

Okay, I think, it's just a momentary hangup. The memory will catch up in a few seconds, the computer will return to normal, and we won't have wasted the last twenty minutes working on this. I hope.

It is at this point that the maintenance guy finishes messing around upstairs, and comes downstairs, still singing Christmas carols, and sits on the steps behind where I'm working with the patron.

I don't know if you've ever stood with a patron watching a frozen computer hoping it will magically fix itself ten minutes after the library closes while someone sits ten feet behind you singing Christmas carols, but I would recommend against it. Strongly.

We really did wait a few minutes, playing with the mouse, pressing keys, and could not get the computer to do anything. I think the patron could see it was hopeless, and finally I just told her that I think we just ran out of luck.

The worst part is that, since it was now after 9pm, Staples was already closed, and I don't know where else she could get access to a scanner that night. I suggested trying the UMass Lowell's library, which I presume has a scanner and would be open late, but that was the only thing I could think of that might be helpful.

I felt terrible, but she was still grateful for the effort and staying late. She unplugged her external hard drive from the computer, put it and her stack of papers into her bag, and I walked her to the front door.

So, the moral of the story is, even when you try to go above and beyond to help patrons, you can still come up short sometimes.

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Reference Question of the Week – 5/31/15

   June 6th, 2015 Brian Herzog

This is, hands down, one of the saddest reference interactions I've ever had.

One evening a couple weeks ago, a young girl came up to the desk with a stack of pages she had just picked up off the color printer. She said the photo was coming out too dark, and she handed me one to show me what it was:

Lost pet notice

See, that's sad. She wasn't exactly crying, but you could tell that the too-dark picture was just the latest in her series of unfortunate events.

It was easy enough to go back to her computer, save the file onto a flash drive, and then print it to the staff printer at the Reference Desk. For whatever reason, those copies came out just fine, and she was happy.

While we were waiting for the copies to print, I asked her a bit about her cat. She was hopefully he'd be found, so I wished her luck and then she left.

I debated leaving her contact information on the sheet - after all, you'd need it to contact her. However, I was just not comfortable putting a little girl's personal information online, so if you happen to be in the Chelmsford area and spot this cat, please contact me and I'll forward it to her. But since this was a couple weeks ago, hopefully he is found by now.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/1/15

   March 7th, 2015 Brian Herzog

powerpoint-printanimationsThis question wasn't all that difficult to answer, but I thought it was interesting in that, it's something I didn't know before and for some reason feel a little bit better for knowing now, kind of way.

A grad student patron had been at one of our computers for awhile, working on a Powerpoint presentation for a group project. She'd asked me a few various questions over the course of maybe an hour, but then came up very frantic.

It turned out one of her team members had added a bunch of animations to their presentation, and now that she was finished adding her part and was playing the slideshow to see how it all looked, none of the animations were working. She said they had worked for her at home, but our computer was not displaying them.

I don't know if Powerpoint has a setting that would block animations - or if there was one, that our computers set that way - but then in the course of talking about it with her Powerpoint suddenly crashed.

She was surprisingly calm about that. I knew she had it saved so there was no danger of losing anything, but usually when something isn't going well, anything out of the ordinary escalates stress quickly. However, she saw the crash as a positive thing - her logic was that Powerpoint on this computer must be glitchy, which would account for both the crash and not playing animations (as opposed to the idea that something was wrong with the presentaiton and that's what caused the crash). Now this is my kind of patron.

Anyway, here comes the reference question:

At this point she said she no longer cared about playing the slideshow, and all she wanted to do was print a copy for her professor to have during their presentation. However, how do you print slides with animations? Good question (and much more reasonable than the patron who asked how to print a YouTube video).

Apparently her team member created one slide where the animation was four different graphs replacing each other (instead of just creating four separate slides). Only one showed at a time during the actual presentation, but looking at it in normal edit mode, all of them were superimposed over top each other.

It seemed logical that Powerpoint would have a "Print Animations" option, so I went online to look for the solution.

From what I gather, Powerpoint 2007 (which we have on our workstations) does not. However, you can still do it, but it's a bit of a manual process. The answer I found was this:

  • click on the "home" tab
  • go to the far right and click on "select" (it is located in the "editing" box on the far right)
  • (for me, a dropdown box opened and I chose Selection Pane)
  • the "visibility panel" will open up showing you the animations for the [slide] you are on
  • just hide each [animation layer] at a time and print them out

See the image above for this Powerpoint pane (or try it yourself!).

Although a manual process, this worked extremely well. You can show or hide whichever layers you want by clicking the little eye icon, so the patron was able to always show the slide title, and toggle off/on each chart and print them pretty quickly.

She was extremely happy with me - although still annoyed at her team member for making all this necessary.

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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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Print From Anywhere to the Library

   March 27th, 2013 Brian Herzog

PrinterOn: mobile printing solutionLast week's reference question reminded me to post about a new service we've just started offering in my library - wireless "print from anywhere" for patrons.

We use Envisionware's LPT:One for our pay-for-print station in the library, which does have wireless capability. But patrons need to install a driver on their laptop, and only really works within the library - which is great for people printing from their own laptops, but we were hoping for more.

A couple nearby libraries were using PrinterOn, and that's what we decided to go with. It is web-based printing, which lets people really print from anywhere - the library, home, the coffee shop in the Town center, their smartphone while standing on the sidewalk, Canada - anything that can get to the internet can now send print jobs to be picked up at my library. Pretty neat.

Getting it Set Up
Of course we kept LPT:One for printing from our public workstations, because it works really well. Our initial intent was to integrate the wireless printing with our existing pay-for-print station, so it would be totally self-serve for patrons. However, when we spoke with our printer/copier management company, the cost of integration was prohibitive (about $4,000, mainly to update the hardware already in place) - especially for a service that we had no idea how much use it would get.

So we decided to do it the cheap way and run everything out of the Reference Desk. We lose the self-service aspect, and staff have to release each print job and manually handle patron payments, but it was worth it for a trial (and, if use justifies the $4,000, I'm sure we can negotiate with the print management company later on).

The PrinterOn software works well and was easy to install. There was a $200 setup fee and about a $500 annual subscription (roughly - and our Friends group provided the funding), and PrinterOn tech support installed everything we needed on our existing network server. The only other cost was that we bought a new printer, because we wanted to offer B&W and color, single- and double-sided printing, all from one printer. The printer we chose was the Xerox Phaser 6500, which, so far, has been just fine.

How It Works
To use it, patrons start at http://www.chelmsfordlibrary.org/webprint, and it's pretty straight-forward. You can upload a file from your computer or print a website, choose between B&W/color, single- or double-sided, and page orientation. Patrons both name their print job and get a job number, so we know which is theirs when they pick it up. There's also an option to print from email - you just email an attachment to our "print" email address (provided by PrinterOn), and the software knows to add the attachment to the print queue.

When patrons come to the Reference Desk, we log into the print queue and locate their job, hit print, and then calculate cost X number of pages after the job prints. We charge $0.15 for B&W and $0.25 for color, and charge based on pages - so, printing double-sided still only counts as one page. We also set it so jobs stay in the queue for 72 hours - after that, they automatically disappear.

Promotion and Results
We've got handouts for in-library promotion, and we're going to try to leave them at other likely spots around town - coffee shops, hotels, etc. It's fairly simple, but anyone is free to use and adapt it for your library if you like:

We launched this service about two weeks ago, and I have been shocked at how much it's been used so far - about once a day, at least. When it was ready, I added a link to our homepage (and mobile and Library Anytime sites too), and we put it on Facebook and in our weekly email newsletter. The next day three different patrons casually picked up print jobs, as if we'd been offering it for years.

But best of all, all patrons have figured out the interface, and no one has had any trouble sending print jobs.* The whole thing couldn't have gone more smoothly, and I love offering library services people can use from home.


*We did encounter one Acrobat PDF that the system couldn't handle - a complex text form that had a special print button built in, but we sometimes have trouble with PDFs on our public workstations, so I can't fault PrinterOn for that.

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Reference Question of the Week – 3/17/13

   March 23rd, 2013 Brian Herzog

PrintFriendly logoOne of the most common questions we get at the Reference Desk is something along the lines of:

I tried to print something, but all I got was this blank page. Can you print it for me?

The reason this happens (I think) is that a lot of web pages - especially news sites and free email accounts - compartmentalize information using frames*, and many web browsers have a difficult time trying to print all these different frames at the same time.

When patrons try to print a page like this just using the browser's File > Print function, it often doesn't work. The page designers know this, so they usually embed a little printer icon somewhere within the content frame the person wants to print - the body of the email, the news story, etc. It generally seems to appear in the top-right corner of the content window, and when you click it, opens the important content in an entirely new window that will print nicely. However, it is often so subtle that people never notice it.

But check this out: I stumbled upon PrintFriendly by accident, and I love the idea. It is specifically designed to make printing these annoying pages easier. You can copy/paste in the URL of the page you want to print, it grabs the content, and then you have full control over which parts of the page actually print - it lets you remove anything you don't want.

What I thought was even more useful is their bookmarklet that you can stick right in your browser - that way when you want to print a page, the PrintFriendly button is always right there, instead of having to mess with copy/pasting the URL. Neat.

Since finding this, I've been testing it every chance I get, and it seems to work about 90% of the time. Usually, exactly what I want to print is the only thing that shows up. But even when extra sidebars and things do show - like in this Lowell Sun newspaper article (source) - PrintFriendly makes it so easy to remove all the junk (just click on whatever you want to delete). This means the good content fills the page (a single page), instead of being a very narrow column four pages long.

It didn't work everywhere though. For instance, Zap2it.com listings seem to print much better the normal way than through PrintFriendly.

A few more neat features: once you render a page to print in PrintFriendly, it gives you the option to print, create a PDF, or email it. Very handy.

Of course, my first thought was to put the bookmarklet in all the browsers on our public workstations. This still might be a good idea, but patrons will need to be trained to use it, which will be a challenge. Everyone is so conditioned to File > Print, and usually people don't know something went wrong until after they've paid for their print job (why doesn't anyone File > Print Preview?!?).

So for the time being, this might just be a handy tool in the librarian toolbox (but I do have it installed on my computer).

I have no idea how long PrintFriendly has been around, so I might be the last person to know. Has anyone been using this? I'm curious to see how well PrintFriendly works on a wider array of websites.


*Frames is an HTML way of embedding multiple "windows" into the same webpage. The best clue for knowing whether or not there are frames on a page is to notice if there are scroll bars inside the page. There will always be the main vertical scroll bar all the way on the right edge of the browser window (for pages longer than the screen), but sometimes there are additional vertical scroll bars in the page itself, that just moves some content in a little window. This is a frame, and may or may not print when you print using the browser's File > Print functionality.

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