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




Reference Question of the Week – 1/4/15

   January 10th, 2015 Brian Herzog

restart dialog boxA patron came up to the desk and asked for me specifically (I was in the office at the time). She said she needs help with her computer, and hoped that I could fix it for her.

The abbreviated version of the story is that her laptop was having problems, so she took it "to the shop" to have them fix it. They said they did, and she never tried it to make sure - she just put it on a shelf and didn't use the computer.

For a year.

Now, a year later, she wanted to use her computer again, but can't remember the password. And can I help?

At least she knew that she had Windows XP, which is something. She didn't have the computer with her, so she said she'd come back the next day.

Which gave me a day to research how to reset or bypass a Windows XP user password, because I had no idea - and it sounded like something that should not be an easy thing to do. However, I found all kinds of websites with all kinds of complicated methods of discovering or resetting the password, including putting password recovery software on a boot disk. Then I found this kid's video:

That seemed easy and straightforward, so I figured I'd try it first - too easy in fact, but, as much as I wanted to help the patron, I didn't think we could really offer support beyond this. Downloading hacking software to a boot disk seemed a bit drastic.

So she came in the next day, and I was shocked that the kid's technique worked flawlessly. Partly because I didn't expect it to be so easy, and partly because it doesn't seem at all safe that it is that easy. But then, this was on a very old laptop with XP.

At any rate, the patron was happy she had access to her computer again - and of course thought I was a genius. I gave her a little talk about updating the anti-virus and getting a year's worth a security updates before she use it normally online, and also told her that XP is no longer supported and maybe think about getting a new computer. She said she got along for a year without a computer at all, so she'll see how it goes.

With a little luck, she may still enjoy XP for years to come.



Tags: , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 12/28/14

   January 3rd, 2015 Brian Herzog

Since I've been off so much over the holidays, I haven't got a question for the week. However, in keeping with the general New Year's theme of time passing, here's something great the New York Public Library has been doing - posting photos of old reference questions on Instagram:

NYPL reference question index card

They're also using the #letmelibrarianthatforyou hashtag - if you haven't already seem this (I saw it on Boing Boing), it's worth checking out.



Tags: , , , , , ,



What’s Your Take on Driving-Tests.org?

   December 17th, 2014 Brian Herzog

Here's something I really curious to learn more about: I've seen a lot of talk lately about driving-tests.org.

It's a website that offers free test prep for driver license exams, but what I keep hearing about is their library version. I think that version is the same as the free one, except it has no ads, and can also be branded with your library's logo (and obviously links directly to the exam for your state).

Check out their marketing email, but this banner pretty well sums it up:

driving-tests

It seemed interesting, so I poked around the free Massachusetts tests (mainly to see if I would pass it*). Some of the questions seemed so odd - and so very specific - that I really had no idea if they were actual laws or not.

Now, here's a tangent: one of our historically high-theft items is the MA Registry of Motor Vehicle's Driver's Manual. Anyone used to be able to get these free to study for the test, then they went to $5 and you had to pick them up at an RMV office. But then I couldn't even get them from an office, because they were always out when I went. And of course, if it's hard for us to get, it's also hard for patrons - and when I occasionally did get a copy for the library, it wasn't long before it went missing.

Which is why an online exam prep tool seemed like a good idea. But, not being an expert on MA traffic laws, I thought I'd ask the RMV if they've heard of it and if they considered it useful. I knew contacting the RMV like this was a long shot, but I was shockingly and pleasantly surprised.

Less than 24 hours after sending in my question through the RMV website's general contact form, I received this reply:

The Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles does not license any online driver education programs, nor do we approve or disapprove of any online training programs. A student could not receive credit towards the mandatory training time by having taken an online program.

A very casual review of this particular web site leads me to believe that the content is not entirely accurate.

Please let me know if you have any other questions.

Wow, that was exactly what I was looking for. And since I had their attention, I did ask another question: how can libraries reliably get a copy of the Driver's Manual each year?

The same person emailed me back saying they didn't have any kind of standing order program, but to just email him our address and he would mail me a copy**. I did, and he did! I'm going to start doing this every year, too, because the Driver's Manual is a perennial request.

Now back to the main story: after our print copy of the Driver's Manual arrived, I decided to take the test again, this time trying to look up each question in the booklet to see if I could find the answer. I could, for all but two of them - and in every case where I did find the answer, it was correct.

I only did this for the MA Permit Practice Test 1, but that was better than I expected. It seems like a number of libraries have already signed on to their library version (here's Alameda (CA) Free Library, and I am really curious to hear about the experience of their patrons - does this website help prepare them for their driver's test? Do patrons benefit from the library version more than the regular free version?

If you have any experience with this tool, please leave a comment - thanks!

 


*I did not, the first time. But I re-took the same test the next day and did much better!

**Note to other MA librarians: I asked if it was okay for me to share his info with other libraries, and he said no problem. So contact me if you'd like his email address.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 12/7/14

   December 13th, 2014 Brian Herzog

yogaheadphonesThis one took me by surprise.

A patron called in and ask if she could request some books. No problem. And usually when a patron tells me right off that they'll be requesting multiple books, I'll grab a pencil and paper to write titles down and look for after we hang up. If they're requesting just a few items, I'll type them in and request them as we go, but when there are a bunch of titles there's no need to make the patron wait while I do them all one at a time.

So this patron gives me her list of items, which are all yoga books with titles like Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual. After about six titles, she gives me the punchline:

Okay, that's all. And I'd like all those as audiobooks.

A yoga practice manual on audiobook? I'm not familiar with this book, but it sounds like it would be mostly photos of poses, which doesn't seem like it would work at all in audio.

So I conveyed my uninformed skepticism to the patron, and she was in complete disagreement. She was as uninformed as I about the actual existence of these audiobooks, but she was far more confident that they should exist.

Which they might, and I said I'd look for them on audio and request them if I could find them. I checked our catalog, the rest of the state, WorldCat, and Amazon, but unfortunately didn't find any of them with an audio version.

At least, so far - this is one of those questions where I'll end up keeping that piece of scrap paper for years and periodically checking and rechecking various sources to try to locate the item. We'll see, but I'm not going to hold my breath.



Tags: , , , , , , ,



Pondering a Potential Paper Cutter Policy

   December 11th, 2014 Brian Herzog

papercutterSo this came up recently in my library: should we allow patrons to use the staff paper cutter?

We have a few of them in the library, including one in the Reference Office. Staff use it all the time, and occasionally a patron asks to use it. Initially I felt this was one of those, "oh, that seems too dangerous," but for years now have been allowing people to use it. However, these are my conditions:

  • They can't come into the Reference Office (since staff personal items are in there), so,
  • I carry it to a table for them
  • I ask if they know how to use it, and ask them to be careful
  • I tell them to let me know when they're finished so I can carry it back into the office
  • And I remind them again to be careful

Like I said, I've been doing this for years, and have never had an incident (other than satisfied patrons). However, some staff are uncomfortable with the whole paper cutter situation, so the question was raised: should we be letting patrons use it?

I think the main concern was safety and liability. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't see how this opens us up to any more liability than scissors (which we provide free access to at the desk along with pens, pencils, tape, stapler, staple remover, etc). Almost all the furniture in the library is wooden, which makes for a lot of hard sharp corners someone could fall and hit their head on. Not to mention the large heavy books we keep on shelves seven feet in the air, well above many peoples' heads.

So it seems to me there's plenty of "liability" potential just by allowing people into the building. So for me, as long as the paper cutter is in good working order, and staff offers to help and/or train patrons to use it, we're in the clear.

As a result of this coming up, I did put a big red sign on the paper cutter as a sort of "not our fault" disclaimer, although I doubt it would have much impact in a lawsuit. Here's what our paper cutter looks like:

librarypapercutter

And a closeup of the red sign:

paper-cutter-be-careful

Do you have a paper cutter in your library that you allow patrons to use? How about a shredder, or anything else slightly unusual and potentially dangerous? I'm really curious to hear what other people think, so please share your experience in the comments - thanks.



Tags: , , , , ,



Reference Question of the Week – 11/30/14

   December 6th, 2014 Brian Herzog

stereoThis is a hard question to relay. What you're reading below isn't necessarily what the patron asked, it's just my understanding of what the patron asked - and I'm really not sure I ever understood correctly just what he was trying to do.

A patron came to the desk and said he had a pair of stereo earbuds, which were only playing sound on one side, and the guy at Radio Shack said he'd need to buy an adapter to make both sides play when he plugged into a mono jack (which he said our computers must have because he was only getting sound on one side). But instead of buying an adapter, the patron thought he could just go get another set of stereo earbuds and then plug one into the headphone jack on the front of our computers and the other into the jack on the back of our computers, and put whichever two of the four buds that worked into different ears and listen that way.

Most of this only marginally made sense to me. For one thing, the library headphones we offer for people to use all play sound out of both sides. I had no idea if our computer audio jacks were mono or stereo though, so we proceeded to do a little experimenting:

  • First I plugged library headphones into the front, and both sides played
  • Then I plugged them into the back, and again both sides played
  • Next I left them plugged into the back as he plugged his earbuds into the front - and he had sound on only one side and the headphones had no sound
  • Finally we plugged the earbuds in the back, and again he only had sound on one side

Since using the front jack shut off the back jack entirely, that shot down his idea of two simultaneous separate earbuds - which kind of deflated the whole situation. So after he sat down to work, I went back to the desk to try to figure out if our workstations had mono or stereo jacks. However, I poked all around inside the Control Panel and on the Dell website for our model PCs, and could not determine this one way or the other.

But what the internet did teach me is that you can tell from the plug if your headphones/earbuds are mono or stereo:

audioplug-stereo


audioplug-mono

Huh - that seems so obvious, but I never knew this. I checked the library headphones, and sure enough all of them had stereo plugs, not mono plugs.

So knowing that, I decided to take a different tack - find a recording that was in stereo and see if the headphones play it correctly. A quick YouTube search found this:

Besides this being my new favorite YouTube video (the guy is so nice and polite!), it also told me that our computers definitely play in stereo. But, sadly, by this time the patron had left.

So now my working theory on what was happening is that the patron actually had mono earbuds, which apparently will only play one side when plugged into a stereo jack. Maybe this is what he was asking all along and I was just confused. He's one of our regulars though, so I'll watch for him and hopefully catch him before he buys some kind of adapter. It won't help with mono earbuds, but at least it'll save him some money. And I can also thank him for prompting me to learn all this stuff.



Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,