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


Reference Question of the Week – 8/16/15

   August 22nd, 2015 Brian Herzog

oxps iconA patron came up to the desk with a flash drive and said she needed to print a file, but was told she needed a Windows 8 computer to print it.

I thought that was odd - I've heard of files requiring certain versions of Microsoft Office to print, yes, but never a certain version of the operating system.

So I plugged it into our desk computer, which is Windows 7 and Office 2010, and sure enough, it didn't work. While I was doing that, the patron explained,

I live in [town nearby] and tried this in the library there, but couldn't open the file on their computers either. It didn't occur to her to ask the staff for help. Then a friend then told me that the Chelmsford Library was good with computers, so I thought it was worth another shot. I tried it on my own here first, but my friend told me to make sure I asked someone for help.

Well now I really can't let her down.

The file was an .oxps file, which she had generated while on the Fidelity website when she wanted to print some account information. I tried forcing Word 2007 to open it, but no luck. The computer just didn't recognize the file extension.

So, I grabbed my laptop from my office (which is the only computer in the building with Windows 8, as I am the Library guinea pig) and plugged in the flash drive. Sure enough, the file this time had a real icon, and when I double-clicked it, it launched "successfully" in one of the Windows 8 apps. I say "successfully" because even though it opened, we were still only in a Windows 8 app, but at least it was progress.

After some left-clicking, right-clicking, and general blind bumbling (I hate those apps), I managed to find the print function, which let me print to a pdf file. Now we're talking.

I saved that to patron's flash drive, and moved back to the desk computer (which would be quicker to print from), and was able to print it no problem. The patron was happy, and even said that librarians are her favorite people in the world. I hope she remembers that the next time she's in a library and unfortunately can't get what she wants.

By the way, if this hadn't worked, or if I hadn't had a Windows 8 laptop handy, my fallback would have been to try Zamzar.com or some other online converter - usually those work surprisingly well.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/9/15

   August 15th, 2015 Brian Herzog

off switchModern Reference work includes tech support too.

One afternoon, a patron came in and asked to use a study room. I signed him up for one, and after he got about five steps away from the desk, I got distracted with other things and completely forgot about him.

About twenty minutes later, I was walking in the direction of the study rooms, and notice he was sitting in his room, in the dark, using his laptop (which of course meant his face was spotlighted by the screen). I thought it was odd, but really it's not entirely unusual for someone to have the lights off when they're in a room, so I just chalked it up to "patrons are funny" and kept walking.

But then, as I walked past the windows of his study room, I heard him shout out, "sir! Sir!! SIR!!!"

I opened the door and said something like, "can I help you?" His response was to sit back in his chair, wave his arms around, and say,

I've got no lights!

This is an easy fix - our study rooms have motion sensors that turn the lights on when someone enters a room, but in this case the rolling white board had been pushed in front of it. As soon as I started pushing the white board over, the lights popped on. The patron thanked me and I left.

But my disbelief in this whole situation stems from that fact that it was twenty minutes - twenty minutes - from the time the patron came in to the time I happened to walk by. I wonder how long he would have kept sitting in the dark, instead of coming back to the desk to ask for help. Or, look around the room for the light switch that must be there somewhere.

Patrons are indeed funny.



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Reference Question of the Week – 8/2/15

   August 8th, 2015 Brian Herzog

Hours spelled out in phone numbersPatron interactions like this are one of my favorite parts of my job.

On Wednesday this week, late in the afternoon, the phone rang. It was just a patron calling to ask what time we closed that night, so I told him, and hung up. No problem.

Then, not two minutes later the phone rang again. When I answered it, the patron asked,

Hello, do you recognize my voice?

Of course it was the same patron who just called minutes before. I said I did, and he continued,

Well, I've already forgotten what time the library closes tonight. Can you tell me again. [I tell him 9:00 pm.] Okay thanks. I'll try to remember this time, but don't be surprised if I call back. You know, you should put your closing time in your phone number, because I have that memorized but I can't remember your hours.

It must have stuck with him this time, because he never did call back. However, what a neat idea - our phone number could be 978-930-2100 because we're open 9:30 - 9:00 (and 24 hour time for 9:00 pm is 2100). Of course, we'd need a different phone number for Fridays/Saturdays, and Sundays, so I guess that idea breaks down quickly.

Still though, it's fun when patrons are creative.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/26/15

   August 1st, 2015 Brian Herzog

monkey phonicsI think I've already done a question like this one before, but I don't mind repeating it just because this tactic delights me.

A patron called about an hour before closing on a Friday afternoon. He said,

I want to know if you have a book on the steps used in the phonics method of teaching someone how to read. I'm writing an article about how to teach writing and want to use an analogy involving the steps for teaching reading, but I want to make sure I'm using the phonics steps correctly.

I don't know anything about the phonics method for teaching reading, but the question seemed straightforward enough. I told him it'd take me a bit of time to research it and find a book with the steps, and I took down his email address to send him the answer.

I did a few different "phonics" searches in our catalog, but couldn't find a book in our library that listed the steps. However, other libraries had promising titles - namely Phonics for the new reader : step-by-step and Get back to phonics : a step by step approach : how to improve your reading skills.

Normally I'd call the the libraries that had the books, ask them to check the table of contents for the information, and then either fax or scan and email the relevant pages to me. However, since this was at the end of the day and I was pressed for time, I tried the tactic of using Amazon's Look Inside feature to read the table of contents right from my desk.

And in this case, it paid off. Instead of sending the patron the link and trying to explain how to use Look Inside and hoping he gets it, I did the extra work of:

  • open Look Inside and view as much of the first page as I could
  • hit the Print Screen key to take a screenshot
  • paste the screenshot into Paint
  • crop to just the words I wanted
  • copy/paste that cropped image into Powerpoint
  • repeat for the rest of the relevant sections of the Table of Contents
  • once everything is pasted into Powerpoint, print using CutePDF to create a PDF version of just those sections of the Table of Contents [pdf]

That's definitely a quick and dirty way to accomplish this, and probably not the best way, but it worked for me based on the software we have on our desk computers.

But since I don't know anything about these steps, I thought I'd double-check by finding some other resources too. A quick web search turned up two websites, one that I couldn't verify the expertise of, and then a Word document from the National Right to Read Foundation [doc] (which I would tend to trust).

All three were different, but I hoped between them the patron would get what he needed. I sent all of this to the patron, thinking that the PDF would be the best resource. Within a few minutes he replied,

Thank you, Brian. Very quick work. The Word doc was just what I needed. Appreciate it.

So, go figure. I'm glad it was helpful for his article - that's definitely the important thing.



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Reference Question of the Week – 7/5/15

   July 11th, 2015 Brian Herzog

pinesapThis was actually a reference question I asked myself, but it's sort of summery so maybe relevant to other people - and, hopefully, helpful.

I was outside playing one day a few weeks ago and ended up with pine sap on my favorite pair of shorts. That's the worst because I don't like going shopping, and I thought that sap meant pretty much the end of clothes.

I was sad, so I put them aside in the hopes that the sap would just evaporate naturally. I came across them last week, and was able to determine that sap doesn't naturally evaporate out of shorts.

Since no laundry experts were around to ask, it occurred to me search online for "remove sap from clothes" to see if the internet had any ideas. I figured they did, but also figured it involved vinegar - which seems like the magical cure for almost anything, but is too bad because I can't stand the smell of vinegar.

So, with the optimism appropriate to any new trip on the internet, I started clicking links.

There was no shortage of tips and old school remedies, as you might suspect. The consensus seemed to be rubbing (or soaking) the spot of sap in anything from laundry detergent to cooking oil to WD-40 (surprisingly, vinegar was not mentioned).

Most of the options were either things I didn't have, like nail polish, or didn't actually trust, like peanut butter. But one that kept coming up - hand sanitizer - sounded interesting.

I don't have any at home (because, you know, super-bacteria), but it seems to be everywhere else so it was worth a try. I was especially swayed by this guy's video:

My shorts are cotton, but if it works so magically on his, why not mine, right?

And holy cow, it worked! Mine took three applications - my guess is because it was a big blob that had soaked through the cotton (and I had already washed and dried them) - but it worked. In just a couple minutes, it was as if the sap was never there. I don't know where it went, but it went away.

Besides the magic, it must be the alcohol in the hand sanitizer breaking down the sap, but I couldn't be happier to be able to wear my favorite shorts again stain-free.

Yay for internet research.



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Reference Question of the Week – 6/21/15

   June 27th, 2015 Brian Herzog

there was a little girl coverThis question actually happened in February - I had forgotten about it, but I think it's still interesting:

A patron called in and asked for the large print edition of There Was a Little Girl: The Real Story of My Mother and Me. We didn't have that in our catalog, so I checked Amazon, which said it was being published on March 11th (over a month away at the time).

I told him we'd be happy to order the large print edition for him, but then he asked something surprising:

Patron: I've noticed that different publishers have different size large print, and sometimes it's not that much larger than regular print. If it's not going to be much bigger than regular print, then I don't want to wait a whole moth for it. Can you see how big the type will be in that book?

Uhh... that is something I've never been asked before. I have noticed over the years that some "large print" books definitely have larger type than others, but never thought much about it. And certainly have never considered trying to find out how large the print will be before a book is published.

However, being Amazon, they do have the "Look Inside" feature - unfortunately in this case, a message said, "This view is of the Kindle book. A preview of the print book (Hardcover edition) is currently not available."

Well, since size varies by publisher, I offered to go to our large print room and grab some other books also published by Thorndike Press Large Print, and try to describe to him how large the type was. Or pull those as well as a book he'd read recently and relate the size of the two, but the patron felt it wasn't worth it. He said to put him on hold for the regular print copy, and when it came in if it was too small, he'd call back.

He never did, at least not to me, so hopefully he enjoyed the regular print edition comfortably.

After we hung up, I looked a little further and did find some large print publishing standards listed conveniently on Wikipedia:

The National Association for Visually Handicapped (NAVH) provides the NAVH Seal of Approval to commercial publishers for books that meet their large print standards.[3] (Lighthouse International acquired NAVH in 2010).[4]

The standards[5] call for:

  • Maximum limits on size, thickness, and weight
  • Minimum limits on margins
  • Type size at least 16 point, preferably 18 point
  • Sans serif or modified serif font recommended
  • Adequate letter and word spacing
  • Flexible binding recommended to allow open book to lie flat

It's remarkable that I've worked in libraries for almost 15 years now and don't think I've ever seen these standards. I suppose I always knew there must be some, but never went beyond that. And I know the publishers want a balance between the comfort of low-vision readers and keeping printing costs low, but even 16pt seems a little small to me.

However, I suppose this is the single greatest advantage of ereaders - sure they can hold a lot of books, but being able to adjust the type size depending on your reading conditions is something print book just can't do. Large Print audiobooks, though, are a different story.



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