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




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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Reference Question of the Week – 10/25/15

   October 31st, 2015 Brian Herzog

series of unfortunate eventsThis isn't a reference question, but this whole scenario is a service provided by the Reference Desk (usually without incident) that this time ended up being a it's-funny-because-it's-true series of problems.

So, test proctoring. We do it so often that I created a little info webpage to answer general questions and make us look legit. We probably average one exam or so a week over the course of a year, which feels like a lot to me for a public library.

And of course, with this many exams, we deal with a variety of students and schools. It's mildly interesting to me how almost every school has their own process - 80% of which are totally fine and normal, 10% are oddly casual, and 10% are absurdly difficult.

In this case, the process was unnecessarily difficult. Usually, our process is to have the student tell us when they're coming in for the exam, and the school will send us the test (or login information for online tests) a week or so in advance.

Unfortunate Thing #1 with this situation is that the school's policy is to send us the exam 30-45 MINUTES in advance. That's cutting it close at the best of times, and, to me, seems entirely unnecessary. But it's their test, so okay.

However, Unfortunate Thing #2, the test was scheduled for 5:30pm. My shift ended at 5:00, which would have been no problem since the test should arrive 30-45 minutes early. But 5:00 comes, and my coworker reminds me the test hasn't arrived yet. In my library, any Reference staff person can proctor tests, but I am the primary coordinator so all tests are sent to my email or mailed to my attention.

Oh, and the student had come in about 4:45 wanting to start early, and kept hanging around the Reference Desk looking at us like we clearly were too incompetent to manage something like handing her pieces of paper. I would call this Unfortunate Thing #3, but it's a patron prerogative to come to the library whenever they want, and it's possible I was just projecting this look onto her - because she was actually very nice.

By 5:15 the exam still hadn't arrived in my email, so I call the contact I have for the school. Her phone rings and then goes to voice mail - that is not a good sign (Unfortunate Thing #4). I hang up and try calling the general number for the department - which also goes to voice mail. I look online and try to track down another number, and find a different number for the same academic department. Thankfully, someone answers that phone, and says the person who coordinates these tests has left for the day. Arrgh. But, she transfers me to someone else who she thinks can help.

That person apologizes that the test was never set, and said she'll have someone send it right over. Then, she confirms my FAX number.

Oh. Don't get me wrong, I fully support fax technology and love the fact that it is a service my library offers to the public. Because sometimes, it is the best tool for the job.

However, it is not the best tool in this case. Unfortunate Thing #5.

Regardless, I thank her, and then walk into our office and wait by the fax machine for the exam. After a few minutes, the fax machine comes to life and starts spitting out pages.

Spitting out might be overly-generous imagery - laboriously churning out pages is probably more accurate. After about five pages, at about a minute per page, I think, "okay, this must be about all of them," so I pick them up straighten them, and look at the cover sheet. It says,

Number of pages (including cover sheet): 26

Twenty-six! Holy smokes. Unfortunate Thing #6. And they faxed this to us! Emailing a PDF for me to print would have been So Much Less time. But, fax happens, and there's nothing for me to do but sit and wait it out. Meanwhile, through the office door's window, I can see the student waiting by the Reference Desk - still looking like we clearly were too incompetent to manage something like handing her pieces of paper (says I).

And then, Unfortunate Thing #7, one page later, the fax stops printing. That's suspicious, because I know it hasn't been 26 pages yet. I look at the fax's display:

CHK TONR

Oh jeez. I don't even know if we have a backup toner cartridge for the fax machine, so I ask our office assistant if she knows where they are. She's only been here a few months, and said she has never changed one before, but goes to where we keep all our toner - and thank goodness comes back with something that looks right.

I've never replaced the fax toner either, but between the two of us, we take the old one out, put the new one in, and, again, thankfully, the fax machine picks up printing right where it left off.

It's about 5:45 by this point, so I take the first batch of pages out to the patron. At least that way she can get started, and I'll bring the rest in when they finally finish printing.

I hand them to the patron, and her response is priceless:

Me: Here's the first ten pages - the rest are still printing, but you don't need to wait until they're done to get started.
Patron: How many pages are there?
Me: 26.
Patron: 26!

I wish I could explain the look on her face. It's really just 22 pages of test, because four of the pages were the cover sheet and exam instructions, but that didn't really help much.

So she goes off to get started, and I go back to the fax machine to wait.

Finally, just before 6pm, I take the rest of the test out to the desk and my coworkers gives it to the student in the study room.

And then, finally, I can go home - an hour late. Oh well.



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