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 -

Disaster!

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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Closing at Night – How Does Your Library Do It?

   December 10th, 2015 Brian Herzog

you don't have to go home but you can't stay here signLast week, in response to my recent Reference Question of the Week about the importance of providing good customer service right up until closing time, Emma posted this comment:

Brian, can I ask: Are your hourly people paid for some amount of time after 5:30 on your 5:30 closing days?

Something that drives me crazy at my library is that our closing time is the same as our clock out time for hourly staff. So most days we close at 9 p.m., but 9 is also when the clerks and assistants stop getting paid. Of COURSE they want to get lights turned off and money counted and everything by 9, since otherwise they are doing the closing tasks unpaid, on their own time, but it drives patrons crazy that we claim to be open until 9, but a lot of services are either worse or not available at all from about 8:45 onward. What does your library do to provide better service to last-minute patrons?

I responded with a typical, long-winded reply, below, but what I'm really curious about it what other libraries do. I know it will vary by library, because circumstances in libraries vary, but please leave your responses in the comments on how closing time is handed in your library - thanks a lot!

Brian Herzog Says:
December 5th, 2015 at 1:41 pm

@Emma: oh, wow, this comment is worth an entire management course of its own.

We’re the same as you, in that staff is scheduled until closing time at 9pm, and are only paid until then. But of course, since we’re open until 9pm, patrons have every right to be in the building right until then – so we experience the same clash of tides.

We’ve had various conflicts in the past, but right now things are pretty calm with an understanding staff that knows that good customer service might sometimes mean an extra minute or two past nine o’clock. We’ve talked in the past about scheduling and paying staff until 9:15, but 99% of the time that would mean the building would be closed and staff is just sitting around doing nothing. So instead of forcing people to stay later through scheduling and doing busywork most of the time, it has just worked itself out in an unspoken way in my library. Most of the time, that is, and we just deal with the incidents where that fails as they happen.

The only two actual policies we have regarding this are:

  • we do close the downstairs bathrooms 15 minutes before closing time. There are bathrooms right by the front door that are never closed, so people can use those on the way out, but the downstairs bathrooms are the only “library resources” that end before closing time
  • all the part-time staff scheduled to work until closing are all free to leave right when their shift ends. The full-time librarian who is the closing department head, and whichever maintenance man is working that night, are the two who will stay if something with a patron runs past closing. This happens occasionally, and some staff have no problem staying longer and some do, but the department heads always stay to take care of whatever it is even if all other desk staff has left. Once in awhile it’s some kind of horrendous checkout calamity, but more often than not it’s a kid waiting for a ride in winter, and we are not going to lock the doors and make them wait in the snow. So the department head and the maintenance guy (and sometimes other staff just hang around and chat too, and partly because people all like to walk to their cars together) all wait inside until the ride gets there.

I think we’re lucky in that good customer service is so ingrained into my library’s culture that staying over is just no big deal to us. It’s also good that the administration values good customer service, and would have no problem with someone coming in late the next day if they stayed late the night before to help a patron.

Our closing procedures aren’t too extensive, which also works in our favor – just turn computers off, really, and make sure everyone is out of the building. So there’s no routine duty that holds people up. One of my own hard-and-fast rules that I try to enforce whenever I close is to NEVER turn any lights off when there are still patrons in the building. Not only do I see this as incredibly rude, but it also seems like a lawsuit waiting to happen – staff rushing a patron out at closing when half the lights are off, and that patron trips or hurts themselves, and then it comes out during the hearing that staff had shut the lights off already. Sure there is probably still enough light to see by, but it certainly would make the entire library sound like a jackass.

We haven’t come to absolute solution for this, so it’s good that my library’s staff is just willing to make it work. I don’t know that any of this will help, but aside from scheduling people beyond closing time, I don’t really know what else can be done.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/29/15

   December 5th, 2015 Brian Herzog

The Only Museum signSometimes, the most interesting part of my job is the unexpected glimpse into a stranger's life.

About fifteen minutes after I got to work on my first day back from spending Thanksgiving in Ohio with my family, the phone rings:

Me: Chelmsford Library, can I help you?
Patron: Oh, hi, do you have, can I, go to the museum?
Me: Okay, sure, when would you like to go?
Patron: This Friday.
Me: [click to my library's museum pass reservation page for the right date] Okay, now which museum would you like?
Patron: Um, the museum.
Me: Oh [huh?], we have passes for a few different museums - which one would you like to go to?
Patron: What do you mean, like different days?
Me: Well, we have one pass per day for each museum, and we have passes for about 20 different museums. Would you like me to list them for you?
Patron: You mean there is more than one museum?
Me: Y-yes.
Patron: In Massachusetts?
Me: Yeah.
Patron: You mean Massachusetts has more then one museum? I thought there was only one.
Me: Oh, no, there are lots - like art museums, history museums, activity places - and we have passes for a few different ones.
Patron: I thought there was only one museum in Massachusetts. In Boston?

Okay, the idea that someone could live in Massachusetts and not know that you can't throw a rock here without hitting a museum is just fascinating to me. Just about anywhere, really, but Massachusetts in particular.

Anyway, from this patron's voice, I thought she was in her early twenties, so just to get the call back on track, I went out on a limb and guessed she might be a new mother...

Me: Yeah, we have a lot. Are you looking for one to take kids to?
Patron: Yes. You know, the museum in Boston.
Me: Okay sure, the Boston Children's Museum. [very quickly look to see if it's available so we don't get sidetracked] Oh good, it's available - do you know your library card number?

And from there I reserved it for her like normal. She was happy, and that pass does give a pretty good discount, so great.

But wow. Not that I border on omniscient, but it really is amazing how peoples' lives can be so narrowed to their own stuff that they totally miss things that are common knowledge to most other people. It makes me wonder what I don't know about.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/15/15

   November 23rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

Not all of the reference interactions I post here have a moral, but this one does - and it's one of my favorite morals.

On Fridays, my library closes at 5:30pm. At about 5:25 one Friday, an older gentleman comes down the stairs to the reference area, where most of our public computers are. Now, any patron coming in right at closing time is always a bit worrysome - but moreso when they, like this patron, come right up to the desk and say they need to print something.

Printing at the last minute is always fraught with potential calamity. However, thankfully, all this patron needed to do was to print a boarding pass attached to an email - we opened it, printed it, and everything went smoothly so we were still finished before 5:30. Nice.

But while I was thinking "nice" to myself, the patron surprised me by saying,

You don't know who I am, do you?

Being that I'm paranoid in general, this is a miserable thing for someone to say to me. However, even after looking at him more closely, no, I didn't recognize him, so I apologized to him and said I didn't know who he was. He then said,

I'm the guy that donated all these computers [motioning to the workstations]. That's me [pointing to the wall plaque below]. I need help using them, but I know they're important.

Workstation Plaque

We had a bit of a laugh over that, then he thanked me for helping him, and I thanked him for his generous donation, and walked him out.

Hopefully, the moral is clear: when you work at a public library, it's important to provide good customer service for every patron interaction, because every patron is a voter and you never know what other connection to the library they may have - even five minutes before closing time.

And more importantly, thank you to everyone who supports their local library!



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/8/15

   November 14th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Today I Feel: ConfusedThis started out as a simple question, and just kept getting weirder.

On Thursday morning, a patron called asking if she could come in later that day for a one-on-one session. She'd like to work on basic computer skills, she said, because she only uses a computer at the library and senior center, but not very often, so she felt she was forgetting everything she knew in the meantime and wanted a refresher.

Okay, that's fine. But then she said she's also interested in buying a computer, and could I pick one out for her?

Well, I had to stop her there. I haven't bought a computer for myself in like six years, so I'm certainly not an authority by any stretch. I told her I could help her find reviews of computers, and try to explain the basics of computer buying, but I couldn't pick one for her.

She was fine with that, and we made an appointment for later that afternoon.

The appointed time comes, and the patron shows up right on the dot. Despite that, she apologizes for being late, because she said she took the bus and it was a running behind, but I assured her everything was fine.

I set up a laptop with an external keyboard and mouse, because many beginners find those more comfortable to use. But she stopped me and asked me what all that was. I explained the difference between our desktop workstations, with regular keyboards and mice, and a laptop, which has the keyboard and touchpad built in.

Now she was very interested in that, and said,

Well I was up at Barnes and Noble last week and bought a Nook, but I had trouble with it and decided I couldn't afford it so I returned it. I didn't know there was an in-between size of computer [meaning the laptop, in between a desktop and a tablet].

Huh. So then I went on a bit of a tangent about the pros and cons of each of the three styles, and she was already convinced that a laptop is what she wanted to buy. In the course of this little discussion I asked her what she'd be using a computer for, and she said writing letters to friends and printing them.

So we get started by opening Word, and I have her type a little bit to get the feel of the keyboard and touchpad, as well as some Word basics.

When she's ready, we go through the steps to print, and she seems to pick all of that up quickly. I asked her what else she'd like to do on a computer, and she said,

I'd like to buy things from Amazon and Google and Ebay, are those all the same company? And is it safe to do that?

Whoa, that's a departure from computer basics - but maybe not so much these days. So we then talked about the differences between those websites, and the fact that most stores, like Target, Sears, etc., also all have websites that sell products. And that buying online does involve risk, but really, using a credit card at all involves risk, since stores like Target have had their customer data hacked having nothing to do with buying online.

The patron seemed pretty interested in all of this, and wanted to try shopping for something on Amazon. At this point however we were just about out of time for the one-on-one appointment, so our plan was to just run through the steps of searching Amazon and finding product information, but not the buying steps.

Which she was fine with. We go to Amazon.com, and I tell her to type into the search box whatever it is she'd like to buy, and we'd get back a variety of those products to choose from.

What is it she typed in, you ask?

"typewriter"

What? She calls up the library asking for someone to pick out a computer for her, and then goes from that to asking about online shopping, and THEN the first thing she wants to buy online is a typewriter?

I did not see that coming.

But I can tell you I'm really curious to find out where things go at our next one-on-one session next week.



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Reference Question of the Week – 11/1/15

   November 8th, 2015 Brian Herzog

woodyWhen I came in on Tuesday this week, I found a note with a patron's name and number, and the message, "donate wood." I thought that seemed interesting, so I asked my coworker (based on the handwriting) what that was all about.

She explained that this patron had called the night before, saying that he had a bunch of nice boards in his workshop that he wasn't going to use, and asked if we knew of anywhere that would accept them as a donation.

This is actually a fairly straight-forward question, as people ask us things like this (for items other than wood) every so often. But for some reason, this question just felt different.

Anyway, my coworker said that she had suggested the local vocational schools to him, but he wasn't interested in those - but without explanation. So it's possible that this question felt odd because it wasn't so much about place to donate to as much as finding someone willing to come clean out this patron's basement. We didn't know that, and I did have a few other ideas for possible donation ideas, so I called the patron back.

He turned out to be a very nice older gentleman, who did woodworking as a hobby and prided himself on using only quality material. The wood he had was various sizes of oak, poplar, and even some mahogany. At first we talked about the quantity and condition of it, so I could gauge whether it would make more sense for a group like the Chelmsford Open Space Stewards, who do lots of outdoor work, or something like Lowell Makes, our local community makerspace. Or, if he didn't mind, the library could hang on to it and use it as necessary.

It turned out that although it was nice wood, he didn't actually have a huge amount to donate - maybe eight boards (as opposed to the piles and piles I initially pictured for some reason). And when I took down his address, I realized he lived a half a block from somewhere I was going to be that evening for a meeting anyway. So, I told him I could be by that night to pick it up.

When I got there he had it ready to go in his garage, and loading into my car only took a few minutes. I must have been asking the right kind of questions, because he started telling me about some of his previous projects, and even offered to show me his workshop. Clearly he was proud of his hobby, and I can't blame him for that. However, since I was on my way to another meeting, I just thanked him for the donation and headed off.

In the past, I (and other library staff and volunteers) have done home pickups for items being donated to the library, but it's not something we ever do otherwise. In this case, if it's not stuff the library can use after all, I can always call around later to find someone who can. But it was definitely worth the trip, and the patron really appreciated it too.



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